The funeral was flowerless. Every early spring bloom had been expropriated by the KGB for their boss. Scarcely forty people dared show up. Charged with counter-revolutionary bourgeois tendencies, tormented and shunned by the Composers Union, his wife and sons held hostage in Siberia, he composed wretched anthems to power plants and worse, Zdravitsa. It was a case of write our der’mo or die. Nevertheless, masterworks of “anti-democratic formalism” continued to pour forth. His meager stipend was cut; he very nearly starved. Given another decade and he might have sluiced out all that filth with a flood of new symphonies, freshets of ballets; but the tyrant outlived him. A stroke felled him and then, only fifty minutes later, with surpassing irony, the other.
I like to imagine all those grief-stricken Muscovites in the grainy newsreels, ten deep on the ugly sidewalks, shedding their Russian tears for Sergei Prokofiev, only pretending to weep for Comrade Stalin. What could the secret police do, even if they were not deceived? They too would have feared for their jobs, their families, their lives. More purges or more liberty—either could spell ruin for them. Besides, some of those cunning thugs must also have loved Romeo and Juliet, been moved by the mighty Fifth Symphony or, at least, had children delighted by Peter and the Wolf. I’m told all Russians revered their high culture in those bleak days, the way only a people who murder their artists can. They say you could accost anybody on the Nevsky Prospekt and demand fifty lines of Pushkin without being once disappointed.
A dispute breaks out. He brought us through the war, cries a babushka. He watched over everything, knew how many shoelaces to make, how many tanks. He was our father, our son, strictand vigilant. Whatever will we do now? A bony man in an old greatcoat retorts: Spare us your vigilant monsters. Listen. He went abroad yet returned. He experimented, composed whatever he wished; he could be by turns acerbic, savage, lyrical. He might have made a good life for himself in Paris, turned into Serge; yet he came back, back to us. And not just for our birches and mushrooms.
Today, we listen rapt to the energetic Third Piano Concerto, marvel at the clever ClassicalSymphony, buy tickets for the latest incarnation of Cinderella. And, as we relish the buoyant Flute Sonata, composed just months before the bloody tide was turned at Stalingrad, we forget what lies on history’s dust heap.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of OurNeighborhood, and a book of essays, Professors at Play. His novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is a short novel, Losses.
I’m with Teddy and Elliot, sitting on the floor amidst a pile of Legos and a stack of books, and I find my eyes wandering up to the shelf. My fingers get a little twitchy. I find a reason to stand up. “Hold on, honey. Mommy just needs to check something.” I slide my finger across my touchscreen, unlocking the phone. The familiar blue banner appears, and I swipe my finger upward, my eyes scanning the Newsfeed. Pictures of other people’s kids, other people’s dinners, other people’s yards covered with snow. Justin Bieber got arrested; Derek Jeter is retiring; there’s an interesting article on parenting in The Atlantic; a good op-ed on writing in the Times. The kids play happily together—they’ve just entered this magic phase of chasing each other giggling in circles with rarely any fighting—while I stand leaning against the kitchen counter, my eyes glancing up and around every few seconds.
“Mommy, what are you looking at?” Teddy asks me.
“Nothing,” I sigh, clicking the phone back to sleep. “I’m all done.”
I have a problem with my phone. More specifically, I have a problem with the Facebook app on my phone. I can’t seem to leave it alone. I made a New Year’s resolution to place my phone on a high shelf when I am at home and not otherwise using it as a phone. I rarely use it as a phone, in fact, and so it should hardly come off that shelf at all.
Things have gotten a bit better in the last couple of months as a result, but not much. I feel guilty about all of this, but not because I’ve been ignoring the kids. I’m a firm believer that kids need to be ignored, so they can learn to entertain themselves. (I read about it in some parenting article that someone once posted on Facebook, that everyone liked and shared and commented on.)
I feel guilty because the phone tricks me into thinking I am alone when I am not, because it takes my mind out of the room in a way that dicing an onion for dinner or folding tiny socks does not. I feel guilty because I enjoy it. The sub-text of course is that I don’t enjoy the time I could be spending with my children, or at least not as much. This is sometimes true, and so I feel guilty for that, too.
Checking Facebook on my phone makes me a terrible mother because it means there’s something I’d rather be doing than building a Lego tower with my children. There’s more, of course. I’m also a terrible mother because I’m teaching my children that this kind of behavior is acceptable. Looking at your phone, I am telling them, is like scratching your elbow or running your fingers through your hair—just a little tic, barely perceptible to those around you. It doesn’t matter at all.
It does matter, of course. My children are too young to recognize how rude I’m being, but that doesn’t make the behavior any better. I teach them to eat with their silverware and wipe their mouths and say please and thank you and so I should also be teaching them not to interrupt live conversations with furtive or not so furtive glances down at their phones.
There we are: two strikes against me. The phone goes back on the shelf and I go back to the Legos with promises to do better, try harder.
Lots of people quit Facebook, or take “vacations,” announcing to their friends and family that they will be “going dark” for a while. Maybe they have the same problems I do: checking at inappropriate times, blocking out their real lives in favor of virtual ones. Though my own Facebook checking is a source of guilt for me, I have no interest in taking a vacation. I’m not sure I could survive it.
I work from home, with the help of a part-time nanny. She leaves in the early afternoon, and then I’m on my own with the kids until my husband gets home from work. My work, as a freelance writer and editor and on-line writing instructor, is done almost entirely via e-mail. There are many days when I don’t leave my house or talk to another adult outside of my own family. On those days, Facebook feels like my only link to the outside world.
It’s a tenuous link, but it has value for me. There’s a practicality to my interactions on the site. I’ve received product recommendations, potty training advice, recipe ideas, and links to articles that have had a real-time effect on my parenting choices. I would know a lot less, or have to spend a lot more time finding the information I needed, were it not for Facebook.
But it’s more than that, too. When I post, for example, an intentionally hilarious comment about my husband and I ending every evening prone on the living room floor, our children using our bodies like playground equipment, what I really mean to say is, “My God, I am tired. Are you all this tired too? Are we all in this together, or am I somehow doing this wrong?” The “likes” and comments may not actually give me an answer, but they do make me feel that I’m not alone. When I post a video of Teddy and Elliot playing musical instruments together while wearing fireman hats, I am not just bragging about how adorable my children are. (I am, of course, a little bit bragging about how adorable my children are.) Beyond that, though, I am looking for witnesses to our lives that are otherwise lived largely behind closed doors. Without Facebook, hardly anyone would ever see my children. Hardly anyone would ever see me.
Four and a half years ago, my brand new husband and I set off from Brooklyn with only what we could fit in the back of our station wagon. We were heading west, to Portland. We’d never been to the city before, and knew only one or two people there, but we’d heard great things and were ready for an adventure. We expected we’d return to the East Coast—to our roots, our families, our friends—after a year or two. The move was to be our last big lark, before we settled down for good.
We didn’t expect to fall in love with the city, but we did, and so we find ourselves still here, with two young children, saving to buy our first house. As a result of our decision to move across the country, we are very much on our own when it comes to raising our kids. Our situation is certainly not unique. Most of our friends—those we’ve known since high school or college and those we’ve met since we moved—live and are raising their kids away from their parents and extended families. Everyone has heard the cliché that raising kids takes a village. My husband and I, and other couples like us, have needed to build a new village.
I suppose it’s not surprising that in our digital age we would turn to the internet to do this. My Facebook friends, many of whom are people I haven’t seen in “real life” since grad school or college or high school or even junior high, are my village. This village includes the friends we’ve made since we arrived in Portland, many of them parents with children very close in age to my own. These friends have helped us when we’ve needed a babysitter, when we moved, when I went into labor one month early and in the middle of the night. They are in many ways like family, and we’re very grateful to have them. But even they we see much more frequently on Facebook than in real life. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the friendships we have would feel as solid as they do were they not fortified by the daily glimpses into each other’s lives afforded to us by Facebook.
Facebook, then, has been a way for me to reach out for community during what would otherwise be an incredibly lonely time in my life: cooped up in my house, alone with my work and my kids. But it’s not without its pitfalls. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing my real life to the edited versions that other mothers present on Facebook, even as I know I am doing the same myself, posting jokes instead of just admitting simply how tired I am, how beat up by motherhood I very often feel.
And of course Facebook is not nearly as private as we would like to think. A friend of mine venting about the trials of dealing with her two-year-old caught the attention of a radio DJ, who tagged her post, made it public, and labeled her a “terrible” mother. She received hundreds of hateful comments in response, and had to threaten a lawsuit before the harassment stopped. She thought she was reaching out to her village; she didn’t realize just how inclusive it was.
Finally, there is the guilt. If I could schedule play dates every afternoon for my kids and sit at the edge of the playground, providing the bare minimum of supervision while chatting with the other mothers, I would not feel guilty. Even if there were no other kids for Teddy and Elliot to play with, if I simply invited another adult over to my house to sit and talk while the children entertained themselves, I would not feel guilty. (I would feel like a genius, actually.) When I check Facebook, though, looking for a similar kind of connection, I feel guilty. It’s a habit I just want to break, a lesson I want to avoid.
I’m not sure what to make of this ambivalence. Something tells me that it means something, though, that if my Facebook village were a real community rather than a projection of what I need it to be, I would not feel so conflicted about my time on the site. Maybe, then, Facebook has merely tricked me into believing that we are not really doing this alone.
Or maybe not. A few weeks ago a snowstorm in Portland virtually shut the city down. My husband, trying to commute home on public transportation, ended up stuck in the airport. He and I both agreed that it would not be a good idea for me to try to come pick him up with two small children in the car, knowing we could get stuck in traffic for hours. Alone with the kids, watching the snow come down in the field behind our apartment, I was at my wit’s end, not with worry—he was safe, I knew, and so were we. Instead I just felt very alone. I posted about his misadventures on Facebook, concealing my feelings behind many exclamation points. Within an hour, a friend of ours in Portland who had seen the post was on his way to pick Jamie up. He was home before bath time.
We put the kids to bed together, just like we always do, Jamie supervising the bath while I tidy the bedroom, choose Elliot’s bedtime story, pick out their clothes for the following day. When the kids are rosy and fragrant and still slightly damp, their pajamas clinging to their skin, their hair combed back, Jamie takes Teddy into the other room for his stories while I carry Elliot over to Teddy’s toddler bed for hers. I hold her on my lap, the board book in front of us both, my phone tucked under my thigh where she won’t see it.
After the book, we nurse. She’s almost ready to wean, I know, and I am mostly relieved; I’m ready to have my body back. But I will miss it, too, the warmth of her head on my arm, her particular habit of clutching at me as she sucks. I hold the back of her head with my left hand; with my right I find my phone. She closes her eyes. The lights are off and our noise machine shushes in the background. I revel in the quiet after another long day, and I open my Facebook app.
Melissa Duclos received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to the online magazine BookTrib, where she writes book reviews and lifestyle articles. Her fiction has appeared in Scéal literary journal. Her first novel, Besotted, is a work of literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is seeking representation. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, two children, and Yorkshire Terrier, Saunders.
Once a year I backpack my ischemic-stroked brain and body into the Grand Canyon. To test. Observe. See what lost physical move I can do again. Metamorphosize. Twelfth trip: like the Earth, I have the partial wisdom of ongoing trial and error. Experience. First morning. Booted, poised at the rim’s crumbling edge. Plant hiking poles. Step down forward. Start reverse.
Vertical fault line: twelve years ago I twisted my neck, dissected the right vertebral artery running through my brainstem. My neurologist: Another millimeter or two and we would not be having this discussion. The artery clotted. Three days later two clots released. Lodged in my cerebellum: center of balance, muscle control, proprioception. Vision stroked into nystagmus. Movement stroked into stillness. Isostasy. Ahead: layers, conglomerate rubble. Layers. Rubble. Primordial Earth. Mighty Colorado River flowing all away.
Re-learn to see. Balance. Walk. My path did not follow that order.
Order went like this: stand, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand. Wobble. Catch. Step. Stop. Rest. Step. Step a minute. Rest. Step, stepped, steeped. Sediments: layers laid down. Layers. More oceans. More sediments. Layered. Then faulted: skewed strata, offset layers. Step down through millennia of tectonics. Rest. Always rest. I began to see the terrain. The work of compression. The work of sudden release. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an earthquake? How do we navigate fracture and rubble?
Plant hiking pole. Step. Plant. Step over, around rocks of the dry tawny Toroweap. Right eye continually beats. Switchback. Vertigo through the layers, rockslides, leaning spires. Cliffed out. Oh yes, the world makes its paces. Switchback. Toroweap thick in the western Canyon: deep seas. Fatiguing. Last switchback. Grateful feet on the Esplanade. Vertigo on the wavey flats. Such is the way I see.
Such is the way I move: joyful stride, glide, sashay through what Spanish and other taking men called wasteland. Good-for-nothing land. Good-for-many-things land. Good: the Hualapai and Havasupai knew better: here rock pictographs look out: mirrors of the vast space. Good: Clarence Dutton saw better: his thoughts akin to I will re-imagine how man sees the Earth. Now I know this Earth through his eyes. Good: Now I re-imagine myself. Here, too, are told tales of hiking guides falling off cliffs.
Rain moves in. Weeping, I traverse eroded, scarped, cliffed, rolling wet Esplanade. Tinaja: rain pooled in the sepia rock. Sandstone overhangs. Salty sea bones. Here will be first night camp. Memory falls. Recalls. ICU days. Blood pressure spike. Spike. Spike. Spike. Sweet taste of nasal oxygen. Sweet, sweet Canyon air.
Rain moves out. Beam of sunlight pours through a split in the clouds. Torches a distant mesa down Canyon. After sunset, wind moves in. Roars across the Esplanade. Rocks trees. Tents. Moves one. Consuelo in it. Rain moves in: more tinaja for return hike out: up to this morning’s rim. Six inches of snow on this morning’s rim (we hear five days later). By definition: creeks and River will be silt laden.
Second morning. Rehab: how do I explain twisted neck-dissected artery-ischemic stroke to knee replacement? How do I explain Inner Canyon? I point a finger. Say I know something about layers. Form warping form. Scarping: the River undermines soft layers. Trickling power of springs. Powerfully, dried blood trickles, too. Years later we hike changed landscapes.
Re-definition: in rehab I felt my way into what I could do. Stiff. Unbalanced. Wobbly. Uncertain: never lost. Felt. Feeling. Worked stone legs into tools. At camp, Will finds a piece of worked stone. Working tool. Rock wheat among rock chaff. Working tools: hips, legs, feet.
Hit the trail ahead. Clattered clatter wobbly walls splitting. Rockslide. We who hike through a fault in the ocean-silted Redwall limestone see different. We who hike past faulted-tumbled blocks of Redwall know the underlying rock is gray. Know the aircraft carrier-sized blocks in Surprise Valley avalanched down. Down. Avalanche: re-routed the Colorado River. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an avalanche? How do calculate blood’s clot and cascade melt? Blood: eighty-three percent water. Strolling, we easily move southeast across the valley. Hottest place in the Canyon. The trail a faint scar across an immensity. Surprise: King Rattlesnake rattles his warning. Slithers and slips through a pass between limestone boulders: No-man’s land.
Vista (one of the infinite): Thunder Springs pours from fracture joints in Muav limestone. Falls, falls, falls. Oasis lined falls and tumbling river: watercress, cottonwoods. Away, away, away from oasis margins: Mormon tea, sage, prickly pear, barrel cacti. Limestone ledge. Below: thundered Thunder River flows into brown Tapeats Creek. Strange confluence: river into creek. Strange the names given things. Beautiful the strange ways we test ourselves.
Down river to creek: cottonwood canyon. Old, old roots. Knarled roots absorbing river waters. Overhead: crumbing rock: boulder-slabbed creek: cold, cold pools to wade: refresh in. Here will be two-night camp: let me offer alms: sprig of grass, drops of sweat, blue heron feather. At night: scorpion. UV blue in headlamp light. Scorpion-eating pallid bat. Cottonwood rustle; this an autumn wind. Rehab continues: summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer.
I do not do foot races. Forced marches. You go with me, we do down days. Third day: rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Let the working muscles and veins remove lactic acid. Let bloody pricks of desert bricklebrush and proffered prickly pear heal. Let memory heal: IV scars in my wrists continue the long, slow fade. : Rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Observe, write. Observe, write.
Night: shadowed side canyon walls open to black sky. Milky Way stretched through Sagittarius. Jupiter bright in the east. Silent satellite in circumpolar orbit blinking. Blinking. In a blink it disappears. Lost among the stars. Absent moon: pack rat scurry through leaf litter. Scurry. Rustle. Scurry. Rustle. Lift my head for no known reason: headlamp beam grazes silent flying great-horned owl.
Fourth morning: hit the trail ahead. Behind: camp robber raven flap flap flap. Swift Tapeats Creek cleared during the night. We cross. Guide rope for safety. Cold water. Pack’s perched high on the shoulders. Noor last—carries the rope with him. Go deep. Deep into the Inner Canyon. Tapeats drops. Drops. Deeper. Down we move through, over slick Hakatai shale. Through the Great Unconformity: a quarter of Earth’s history missing. Missing. Five days in ICU: what did I miss? What memories have I concocted? I know this: ahead, confluence of creek and River. Debris fan rapid.
We follow a contour line. Cliff edge. Every step, focused. Step. Stepped. Steep: a kicked pebble freefalls. Focus: two hundred feet below, cottonwood bole wedged between rock walls twenty feet above creek bottom. Flash flood. Freefall: pay attention to the rubble-covered trail below boots. Freefall: pay attention to what is now. Freefall: pay attention to what comes next:
Angostura: two-definition word: aromatic bitter bark used as flavoring, as a tonic and to reduce fever; a narrow way, tight squeeze, narrowest of ravines, tight stretch of water. My neurologist: your artery has this kink, this constriction. Constriction-finding-a-path: Tapeats Creek digs itself deeper into Earth. Down through the sedimentary layers. Down we flow towards the Colorado River. The River! The River! The River! By definition: flowing things find a path to the vastness.
Switchback. The path is switchbacked. Rock-strewn, gravel-crunch slippery switchback. We descend into primordial Earth. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole. What once was. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Remnants of the clash of continents: oceanic Wyomingland subducting, crashing into and under volcanic Yavapai Arc. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole: forty pounds on the back. Step. Stepped. Steep. Last switchback. Lean, lean, lean on the hiking poles. Rock rising, rock descending. Old, old Earth. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Long before Rodina, Pangea.. They rest far above a splitting forever lodged in thought: River-severed buried two-billion-year old schist and granite grace our handholds. River level: Primordial Earth released. Released. To movement. To flow. To another becoming.
Michael G. Smith is an early-retired chemist. His poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, the Kerf, Nimrod, the New Mexico Poetry Review, the Santa Fe Literary Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, and Superstition Review. He has had writing residencies at Jentel (Banner, WY) and with the Spring Creek Project (Oregon State University) at Shotpouch Cabin and the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. His website is michaelgsmithpoetry.com.
An organ pipe mud dauber is building a nest in the ornamental tin-roofed wren house Cheryl hung by the door. I hear her stridulating at her masonry work, and see her carry a small ball of mud into the bird house, a first for me, even though I’ve casually watched her predecessors for years. Our paths are bound, by simple proximity, to intersect before long. One day she emerges just as I step outside, rockets up, appraises me, hovers motionless at point-blank range. I freeze. She stares me in the eye. I gain a more mature understanding of “in your face.” Iridescent steely blue-black, she—an insect—has goddamn presence. Even though I outweigh her by roughly 343,000 to one, I’m the one who backs down. I inch my hand up to make the Vulcan “live long and prosper” sign and will my body to slide backward several centimeters. Appeased, she resumes her business. I breathe.
My wishes for her prosperity are sincere—anybody who feeds spiders to her young is OK with me. Sad to say, I see her only a couple more times. Though I easily could have missed her first appearance, her tenure seems too short. These wasps are supposed to be quick workers, but I still fear she may not have died in her sleep. Web sources say she abandons the nest when egg-laying is done, but are mute on her subsequent life. Does she die immediately? Live until the first frost, pollinating flowers and sipping nectar? Some weeks later I spot another of her species ravaging a stand of goldenrod. This one’s eating, I think, and she’s probably still laying eggs. My chance observation suggests that my girl, her work uncompleted, met her nemesis in a bird, a car’s windshield, or even a nasty microbe. Come spring, I’ll watch the wren house for her children, and tell them how I met their mother.
Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Has grandchildren. Extraordinarily lucky. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. His work has been published recently in Prime Number Magazine, Camroc Press Review, and Stymie. On Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.
Peace Rose: Just before Germany invaded France, a French horticulturist sent cuttings of his newest rose to friends in Italy, Turkey, Germany, and the U.S. to protect it. It is said that it was sent to the U.S. on the last plane available before the invasion. Because the cultivators couldn’t communicate during the war, each country gave the rose a different name. In France it was called ‘Madame A. Meilland’ in honor of the breeder’s mother, in Italy ‘Gioia,’ in Germany ‘Gloria Dei,’ and in the U.S. ‘Peace.’
“Can’t I have peace at my own table?”
Our mother’s war cry. The very mention of peace sets our teeth on edge, steels us, her adult children, into contention. My father glares at us, grits his teeth and shakes his head in frustration.
“Listen to your mother.”
But it’s always too late. Raised voices escalate to accusations to shouts to crashing plates to slammed doors to hysterical crying to uneasy sleep. The morning brings resentment disguised as remorse. Then five months or even a year later we get together again and let past grievances erupt at the dinner table. It seems that peace has become impossible. Our history, shared but not agreed upon, stands in the way.
World peace is a different matter. It’s something all of us agree to wanting. Mac, when he was twelve, bought a candle at a fair and set it on top of the television next to his marksman trophy from summer camp and a basket of dried flowers. It was shaped like a peace symbol in lurid pink and blue wax. “We won’t light this until the war’s over,” he solemnly announced. For years, we kept our passive vigil. The candle’s colors faded, covered in a layer of dust. We imagined the end of war as an event worth celebrating, commemorating. We had all seen the pictures of V-J Day, of women kissing soldiers, of crowds rejoicing in the streets.
The war, our war, didn’t end in celebration. It simply petered out. Fighting against the war, flouting authority, had been exhilarating. The war’s end couldn’t match the excitement of protest. My family finally did light the candle, though. The lights in the living room were out; the television, for once, was silent. The flame shone behind a translucent wall of wax. We ate dinner by the flickering lavender light, and watched as the peace symbol collapsed, melting into a shapeless heap. Afterwards, Mac, Elizabeth, and I played distractedly with the hot drippings, molding them into fantasy creatures, spreading the wax in thin sheets of color over our hands and arms. “Stop that,” my mother scolded. But we were too engrossed in the candle’s warm oozing to pay attention.
“No one is ever going to criticize me in this house again,” my mother announced after Grandmother died. Grandmother’s house would become her house, her haven. Still, we continued, unconsciously, to follow Grandmother’s rituals and habits, as if she were somehow embodied in the house, as if the walls and books and rugs and furniture bid us dress for dinner and dine at seven sharp with candles on the table. At Christmas, the family had always recited together the story of shepherds huddled on the hill dazzled by an angel’s glad tidings of a great joy, the verse that ends with the famous Christmas sentiment: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” When we finished Grandmother would light the Christmas candle and ask for a wish for the good of the house.
“What do you wish for?” Mac once asked me. “I never know. I always wish that the house won’t burn down.” He laughed, “Me too.” Then Elizabeth piped in, her little voice somber, “I wished that the house will always stay in the family.”
The Christmas after Grandmother died, we rushed to prepare dinner and wrap presents and decorate the pine bough over the fireplace, then met in the library, beginning our ceremony breathless and uncomposed. We finished our verse too quickly and looked at each other, awkward for a moment, waiting for Grandmother to appear, to take her part. Father handed the matches to Mother who lit the candle and invoked the wish. Then, to my surprise, she turned to me and asked me to fill the rest of Grandmother’s role, to read the closing passage from John.
I opened the book and read the familiar words: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
Author’s Note: On a street where I once lived an unknown neighbor grew roses in his front yard. In winter, they all looked alike, thorny brown branches without blossoms. I wouldn’t even have noticed them if it weren’t for the hand-lettered placards that gave each rose its name.
“Eclipse. Peace. King’s Ransom. Arlene Francis.”
Those were the names of the front row of roses. Every time I walked past I would read that list, until those roses’ names linked like a poem in my mind. And then, reciting that accidental poem each time I walked by, those names started sparking memories. So I walked, read, recited, and remembered.
And then I wrote.
This vignette is one of four inspired by the names of those roses.
Ann de Forest’s short stories have appeared in The Journal, Hotel Amerika, Timber Creek Review, PIF—and the debut issue of Cleaver. Fascinated by lists and other found text, she’s written a story inspired by the pictures in the margins in the dictionary and a family memoir suggested by the names of roses (excerpted here). Her first published poem, an erasure poem “blacked-out” from a newspaper obituary of Margaret Thatcher, is forthcoming in The Found Poetry Review.
IN THE ABSENCE OF CULINARY MENTORS by Kaori Fujimoto
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, every evening at five my mother donned her white apron and set about preparing dinner. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling and over the sink illuminated the whole kitchen, which was dismally dark during the daytime, and they attracted little geckos that flattened themselves on the outside of the widows. I would hear a clack-clack of the kitchen knife on the wooden cutting board and then, in twenty or thirty minutes, my heart would sink as I detected the usual smells of fish or vegetables seasoned with soy sauce, sugar, and sake—conventional Japanese dishes I never found appetizing. She also made Western dishes, like a beef stew, potato gratin, and spaghetti Napolitana, because my father loved these rich foods and so did I; I felt exhilarated whenever the aroma of gravy or white sauce wafted into the living room. Sometimes I hovered behind Mom to help, but she would nudge me out of the kitchen and do everything herself. She didn’t have the patience to teach me how to peel potatoes or cut up onions when she could finish the task in a minute or two. By the time I entered junior high school, I had completely lost interest in helping her in the kitchen.
On one rare occasion—I think I was in high school—Mom called me into her culinary territory. On the countertop were the cutting board and a white plastic bowl brimming with entangled raw seaweed.
“Watch this,” she said, and pulled a long strip out of the glistening black-green mass, placed it on the cutting board, and tore off with a kitchen knife the string edging the algae. Then she said, “You’d better know how to do this so you won’t embarrass yourself when cooking for your future husband’s family.”
She kept slashing the seaweed for a soup she seasoned with soy sauce. Standing by her side, I imagined my future self as the wife of my mom’s imaginary son-in-law. I saw only a murky picture that felt as dreary as our poorly lit home kitchen, questions whirling in my head: Am I supposed to slice seaweed, along with anything else that doesn’t interest me, because I have to?
For the first time I became clear about what I didn’t want to do with my life. I certainly wouldn’t cook food I didn’t find delectable just to please in-laws, let alone devote all my time to housework as Mom had done for my dad’s family, her dedication taken for granted. Before I was born, she had nursed her bed-ridden parents-in-law, taking care of all household chores, while also raising my older siblings. Every now and then she would grumble about how tough her married life had been, but she maintained that she was proud of having gritted her teeth against the desire to divorce because, coming from a single-parent household herself, she was determined not to have her children grow up in a divorced family.
Trying as it must have been, this way of life was her choice. And, after all the rough years, she and my dad became a pretty good couple. So, that evening, in front of the algae-covered cutting board, she tried to teach me a tiny part of what a good wife should know, perhaps hoping I would begin to prepare for the future that she believed I too would have. How futile the lesson seemed, after all those years of keeping me out of the kitchen. At that moment I determined not to learn cooking from Mom, and that I would, in the future, cook whatever I wanted in my own kitchen.
My grandmother was born in 1912 to wealthy merchant parents who made her learn dressmaking as a household skill, and that skill later became her livelihood after her two divorces. My mother emphasized how difficult it had been growing up without her, though I’m more inclined to imagine the difficulties an independent divorcee must have faced at that time in Japan. That, of course, didn’t occur to me when I was a little girl.
Grandma’s tiny one-story house was only a fifteen-minute walk from our home. Whenever my mom opened the small wooden door, Grandma—who wore kimonos as her regular clothes—would teeter out of the living room, her back stooped, her wispy gray hair pulled back in a bun. She smiled when she saw me, creases and wrinkles gathering around her eyes. During the summer, the TV was always on, playing the National High School Baseball Tournament. She would serve us iced coffee with lots of milk, and then sit on the tatami mat, watching the game and listening to my mother at the same time, while I drifted out onto the small veranda to read a book. Grandma, worried that I might be bored, would sometimes tell me to come into the room only to be told by my mom that I was all right, that I liked to be alone. I would keep reading, sipping the milk flavored with a little coffee and diluted by melting ice.
Much later, I realized that both baseball and iced coffee were quite unusual for a woman of her generation. As was the fact that she ran her fingers over lettered names on home appliances, like TOSHIBA, to teach me how to read the Roman alphabet. So I wasn’t too surprised to also learn from my uncle that Grandma in her younger days had played hanafuda, a type of gambling using Japanese playing cards.
When I was in kindergarten, my mother was hospitalized for a minor surgery, and so my father left me in the care of Grandma. Since I was only six, in my innocence I assumed Grandma could make all foods that Mom made for our family, including non-Japanese dishes. But when I asked her to make me an egg sandwich, she served me two thick slices of toast with a thin omelette and strawberry jam spread between them, instead of thin slivers of crustless bread stuffed with crushed boiled eggs and mayonnaise. Grandma had never laid eyes on the egg sandwich that I believed was universal.
Undaunted, I still had the nerve to ask her to cook spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner, my childhood favorite, and didn’t back off when she mumbled, “I don’t know how to make such a Western dish.”
I think she asked me how the food looked, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to cook up the reddish orange sauce with ground meat that she made for me, which looked totally different from my mom’s tomato-colored sauce that would dress a chunk of ground meat nestled in tangled spaghetti. As I timidly took a bite of the pasta soaked in the thin orange sauce, however, a pleasant sweet-and-sour flavor spread through my mouth. The taste of well-seasoned ground meat, onions, and shiitake mushroom rolled across my tongue, prompting me to devour the whole plate and ask for another serving.
To invent the reddish sauce I presumably described for her, Grandma must have used ketchup instead of canned tomatoes or tomato sauce. To make the ketchup look more like sauce, she likely added water and starch along with soy sauce, sugar, sake, and rice vinegar. The product of Grandma’s foray into Western cooking had such an addictive effect that, until she passed away when I was fourteen, I would beg her to cook the spaghetti and meat sauce every time I visited her.
A few years after her funeral, at which I cried my heart out, I made that high school promise to myself to keep traditional food out of my own kitchen someday. When I finally began to cook for myself, I hadn’t thought about her meat sauce in years, but I stocked soy sauce, sake, and rice vinegar on my seasoning shelves. I use these traditional Japanese flavorings to invent my own stews, sauces, and salad dressings, hoping to create by accident a taste as fantastic as Grandma’s eclectic concoction, though I never attempted to revive the fruit of her culinary adventure, preferring instead to keep that taste as a fond memory.
My mom has never talked about the food that her mother made during the few years they lived together before she married my dad in her late twenties. She only said that she had learned all the basics of cooking from television after marriage. I’ve never asked her if she learned any recipes from Grandma, assuming she had not. And I’ve never asked because, although I know she couldn’t entirely forgive her mother for refusing to stay married once she’d had children, I also know she still grieves.
I haven’t asked my mother for any recipes either, because conventional Japanese dishes still don’t appeal to me, and because I switched to a nearly-meat-free diet after I left my parents’ home almost twenty years ago. At first, whenever she came over and I served her Thai curry with tofu or enchiladas filled with sliced onions and green peppers, she would say I’d better learn how to cook standard Japanese dishes, like fish broiled with salt or pork stewed in soy sauce and sugar. Now, having seen me preserve my autonomy all these years, she no longer says anything about what I cook. When she visits, she asks me to have sushi—her favorite food in the world—delivered for dinner, or she volunteers to eat anything I have in my fridge. So I phone the sushi restaurant, or microwave risotto and stewed vegetables in Ziploc containers. I fail to tell her again and again that I wouldn’t mind her using my kitchen, and that, while she is here, I’m willing to eat anything she cooked for our family when she kept me out of her kitchen.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Tokyo, Kaori Fujimoto studied creative writing at colleges in Georgia and Hawaii. She was a fellow of the 2012 Paris American Academy Creative Writing Workshop. Her essay has appeared on the Brevity blog, and another of her essays is forthcoming in Talking Writing. She currently works as a freelance translator in Tokyo.
we thought we were men. We were all married for a year and a half or so. Our wives played cello or bass and read two books a year. We left our doctoral programs and played competitive video games. We spent most of our time looking at Wikipedia and watching anime. Sometimes we’d wander down Broadway at five thirty in the morning. Those were the days, I think, when we were still wondering sometimes about the informational content of the Brownian motion of the water molecules in the steam from the vent on the east corner of Twenty-Third Street―how many ones and zeros? Water there, water not. Writhing water writing Ulysses, are you searching for lost time? How many slices of pi? Three or one or four or one and five? How many monkeys have you written, typewriter Hamlets? Who will read the steam, scoop it up whole, save it in a jar? That library of clouds, filled with all the books we’d never write.
Sated with despair, we’d peer into the window-fronts where mannequins modeled lingerie. Don’t you remember? They were wearing vinyl corsets shiny as deathwatch beetles. They were headless armless legless. Torsos like eleven year old girls. Or else they were just arms, just legs scuttling over our retinas in garter belts, in crotchless fishnets, in purple lace fingerless gloves. We’d sit alone in bars and smoke and eat and strike up conversations with serial killers who were reading new translations of Beowulf. They’d invite us over to their apartments to watch documentaries about Henry Darger or Joseph Cornell and then maybe some blood play for beginners or light domination, but we had trains to catch back then and anyway we really wanted to fuck a co-worker or maybe a Starbucks barista who was much too young or much too blonde or much too smart or some combination thereof: chimeras of sexual unsuitability. Remember how our hearts were melting like lead, my dear Bellerophons, my fellow tinsel soldiers. On smoke breaks we’d light the co-worker or barista’s Parliaments, mutter something about postsecularism, thrust our left hands into our coat pockets. Remember how loose our rings became in winter? How easily they slid on, slid off?
But we were forty to fifty pounds overweight. We’d fuck our wives, them on top, straining, looking like they were trying to reach something with their teeth, something dangling just out of reach, just beyond the tips of their tongues, and we’d feel close to nothing, far from everything. You were there. Do you need me to say this? We’d picture black waves rippling over our bellies, we’d imagine the tits of the strippers who dry humped us at our various bachelor parties, we’d smell the ghosts of baby powder and cigarettes and hair-metal sweat: guns and anthrax poison rose, deaf row chili leopard skid, pour wet sugar on your slippery prom pie cherry kid, sweet, sweet, sweet child of wine under the bridge—How soft your skin is, the strippers whispered, as they licked our earlobes. Do you want another song, baby.
Afterwards we’d eat salt bagels the size of pizzas smothered with smoked fish shredded with sour cream and cream cheese and scallions. Sturgeons glided behind our eyelids, silent and whiskered, hungry for a hundred million years. Their ganoid scales, their Caspian eyes. Salt and still as fading inland seas.
We’d scrape out the insides of the ribcages of rotisserie chickens and chew the bones for flavor. We smoked and we smoked. We told everybody we’d already quit. We eyed tall brunettes on New Jersey Transit cars. We wished our wives stronger chins, we wished them cheekbones, we wished them cruel eyes. We sat on benches and sipped venti chai lattes and scribbled furious sad things in twenty dollar notebooks. We’ve lost all our notebooks. We ghost wrote English papers for community college students, had frantic AIM sessions where our clients said their professors were suspicious, what did we mean “Fortinbras is Hamlet’s specular double,” HELP? We fact-checked children’s books, we relied on the internet, we smiled when we didn’t feel like smiling, we tried to buy drugs from kids we met at raves. We’d arrange meetings in bodegas on Fourteenth street and they’d hand us pills that never worked and nothing ever seemed to work. At night we’d listen to the girls downstairs fuck, we’d breathe in the incense filtering upstairs, we took Neurontin, we took Vicodin, we smoked pot till we fucked our wives and called them goddess, goddess, panting, and she pushed me off, she pushed you off, they pushed us off, a Weltgeist of disgust on their faces, a universal parliament of disappointed women, a choir of broken safety pin voices, go jerk off on your own fucking time asshole, and so we got up, all of us, paisley still swirling in our nostrils and green green vines curling through our ears; we got up and wiped off our cocks and sat in the bathroom and held our heads between our hands. We were twenty-five or twenty-six and there were fruitfly corpses stuck to our ceilings there were needles in our carpets there were sharp things in our skin and all we wanted was something to break but what?
Those smear days drear days blear days fever daze grey maze hack plays clichés clichés clichés excised revised closed eyes. Lies and lies and lies. Nothing I am telling you is true. Everything was uglier than I could write it. You remember. Correct me if I’m wrong. Back then we believed that we were made for something different, something special, something better.
Sam Cha recently completed his MFA in poetry at UMass Boston, where he was the 2011 and 2012 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize. He’s a poetry editor for Radius. His work (poems, essays, fiction, translations) can be found at Amethyst Arsenic, anderbo, apt, ASIA, Banipal, The Bakery, decomP, Gravel, Memorious, Paper Scissors, Printer’s Devil Review, and shufPoetry. Also, in two anthologies: Knocking at the Door: Poems About Approaching the Other, and The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing. He lives and writes in Cambridge, MA.
Homes awash in moonlight, in streetlight, the whole neighborhood hunched and hiding, watching the sky. All of the children are adrift, huddled in bushes, running under branches well past their usual bedtimes. It is a strange phenomenon, but one that goes unquestioned. In the morning, the grown-ups confess that they thought they saw a UFO, a strange streak that grew then slipped away too quickly for logic. For the next night, for the rest of the weekend, a vigil, lawn chairs clustered, poised to catch a second glimpse. The pleasures of these evenings were many—playing late in the dark yard, the low rumble of the men’s voices mooring us close enough for safety, even television allowed when it got late enough for pajamas and later still when their eyes would spot something moving—usually a plane—before they would laugh and finally retire, carrying us to bed.
But what a delight it must have been, a mystery in their blur of days, an unknown possibility swelling into the cracks of what they had long believed, duty slipping its course for a brief time. Our parents could not prove what they had or had not seen, could not break open the night to see what exists beyond the stars—but the way they searched! It let them taste a wonder they had lost, that worship of maybe that a child knows best. Time fell away—chores and jobs and deadlines, all they knew of living—something for a moment escaped. It didn’t last long, this infatuation—they had appointments to keep with the fickle, close-minded world. They had shovels and rakes and brooms to wield, deals to make, specs to learn, children (who leaned on their broad, muscled shoulders) to feed. Sometimes, in the dark, they still stand at the window, sending silent messages to the stars. Image credit: DragonRal on Flickr
Donna Vorreyer is a Chicago-area writer who spends her days teaching middle school, trying to convince teenagers that words matter. Her work has appeared in many journals including Rhino, Linebreak, Cider Press Review, Stirring, Sweet, wicked alice, and Weave. Her fifth chapbook, We Build Houses of Our Bodies, is forthcoming this year from Dancing Girl Press; in addition, her first full-length poetry collection, AHouse of Many Windows, was recently released by Sundress Publications. She also serves as a poetry editor for Mixed Fruit magazine. Visit her online at www.donnavorreyer.com
Put your feet in my old sneakers for a minute. They’re nine years old and smell like a pubescent locker room, so hold your nose and just do it.
Now, let me take you back to my middle-school gym class.
Every day in “physical education,” as the euphemism goes, you are allotted five minutes to do the following: change into your uniform, lock up your stuff, tie up your hair, and sit down criss-cross applesauce in your assigned seat on the gym floor. This is all easier said than done.
First, see, you have to remember to shove your gym uniform and your Asics into the bottom of your backpack that morning. (Your backpack is purple, and monogrammed, and you’ve had it since the fourth grade. It’s embarrassing.) Then you have to remember your combination lock and—crucially—your combination. Then you have to navigate the crowds into the gossipy girls locker room, the haven of wiry track stars and sinewy-thighed volleyball players, and undertake the harrowing task of getting naked in public.
Strategically, you face the lockers, hunch your shoulders, and start removing your layers. White cardigan, American Eagle polo shirt, tank top, ribbon belt, stretchy flare jeans, imitation Birkenstocks. Bra and underwear stay on, thank God, so it isn’t really the nude scene you make it out to be. But when you think about your soft tummy and your bigger-than-normal boobs and the pink spots of acne on your back, this isn’t very reassuring.
Finally, though, you are dressed, laces tied, stuff locked up with the combination lock you remembered to bring. (Nice!) Now you go to your assigned seat. (This, I should say, is not actually a “seat” but rather a precise, unmarked location along hypothetical lines of latitude and longitude running the length of the gymnasium floor. Basically, your seat is invisible.) Anyway, the crowd organizes itself thusly, usually with the help of a visual reference or two. This year, yours is a particular stain about three-quarters of the way down and four inches to the right of the home-team foul line.
Once you’ve found your seat, it’s on to attendance, and then the hard part: dividing into teams to play the Sport of the Day. Here’s how it goes down.
Each team has to contain a specific number of players: exactly eleven players for floor hockey, for example, or nine for volleyball. Our gym teacher, a large, terrifying man with a voice of doom—we’ll call him Mr. K.—announces the team size and then sets the buzzer on the scoreboard. Once the countdown clock begins, you have thirty seconds to asssemble your team and sit down together in a straight line beginning at the edge of the basketball court. If you have not managed to find a team by the time the buzzer goes off, you are summoned to the front of the gym to be humiliated while parallel rows of heartless classmates look on. Then you’re randomly assigned to a team that most likely rejected you fifteen seconds earlier.
If you don’t understand the perils of this process, you don’t understand middle school. Or, at least, you’ve never been a shy, socially awkward nerd who also sucked at sports. Middle school is literally the worst place in the world for kids like that. If you are that kid, a lightning round of how-many-friends-do-you-have followed by ritual hazing of the losers is the absolute worst. See, you have one friend in that class, maybe two, which isn’t even enough for a cozy game of four-square. Suddenly, with the shrill blast of an electronic torture device, you and said friends find yourself swallowed up by a flash mob of identically clad adolescent beasts. Your friends, who might be nominally okay at the sport in question or maybe have a contact or two higher up in the social hierarchy, quickly disappear into the arms of other groups. Betrayal.
That’s okay. Shake it off. Keep wandering through the crowds as the seconds tick down. Timidly approach a cluster of acquaintances, girls who always wanted you to be part of their group in math class. The same principle should apply here, you figure.
The same principle does not apply here. These girls, with their gym shorts rolled up five times and the bottoms of their baggy t-shirts tied in knots at their waists, are not the same girls who beg for your help with trigonometry. In this cavernous room they are indoor-soccer superstars, floor-hockey phenoms. You make their team one too many, and you are apologetically—always apologetically—asked to leave.
Time is running out now, and your heart starts beating harder in your chest. Your teeth begin to chatter. You have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and you will do anything, anything at all, to not be called out in front of everyone. (It’s the archetypal “last one picked in gym class” scenario, I suppose, but with less formality and more back-room bargaining.) You approach every team still standing, hoping for an open spot. You insert yourself silently into various groups and stand there until somebody notices you, a technique which is neither time-effective nor persuasive. The buzzer sounds, and everyone scrambles onto the floor in team formation. Everyone except you, and the handful of other stragglers with whom you now go to great lengths to avoid eye contact.
“You!” Mr. K. barks at the straggler collective. “Up here!” Up you go, cheeks blood red, the chosen ones watching without interest as the rest of you are paraded onstage. After much unnecessary beratement, you are directed to Team 3, several members of which sigh audibly as their chances of athletic glory rapidy diminish. And part of you wishes you could apologize, because it’s true—you are truly awful at basketball, and volleyball, and indoor soccer, and floor hockey.
But the other part of you is angry. Angry at Mr. K., first of all, for picking on the already picked-on and totally enjoying it. You did some calculations the other day, and you found that if you split up 100-something kids into teams of nine or eleven or thirteen, you’re probably going to get a remainder. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just, you know, long division. So when Mr. K. drags a couple of kids to the front of the gym, he’s not punishing them for being lazy or for not following directions, but for being a mathematical inevitability—for being the remainders in your middle-school social scene. And that’s a dick move.
But more than that, even, you’re angry at your classmates. Everyone’s arguing and taking sides and making game plans and rolling their eyes at the shy girl with the undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and you just want to stand up there and yell, “My god! This isn’t the Olympics, people. This isn’t the Hunger Games. It’s. Just. Fucking. Gym class.”
You don’t, of course, because that’s not your style, and because you won’t acquire that sailor’s mouth for at least half a decade. Also because The Hunger Games hasn’t been written yet. But as you sit in the bleachers, teeth still chattering, awaiting the athletic trials still to come, you think about the day when you will finally be able to look back at this nightmare and laugh about it. The day when you can finally say to every school year, every gym class, every mean teacher that’s ever hurt you: let’s never do this again.
Seriously, though. Let’s never do this again.
Hannah White is a senior history major at the University of Pennsylvania, where she works as a program assistant and archivist at the Kelly Writers House. She has interned at the University of Pennsylvania Press and at WriterHouse, a writing community in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sensible Nonsense Project, Gadfly Online, Word Riot, and The Birch Journal.
It was lunchtime on the Miracle Mile—a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles that’s not quite downtown and not quite the West Side. My mother, who always hated the hot, walked beside me in her crisp linen dress. Beneath the linen, her stockings and slip made a fft fft shifting sound, keeping time to the clickof her slingback pumps. Heat waves bent the air. The streets were empty—streets that had civilized what was once ice, then tar pits, then desert. All had made way for the city of angels.
Beside my mother, I was office appropriate in a banana yellow cotton skirt and top combo. I was eleven and it was 1973, when all the clothes were Laffy Taffy colors.
From elementary school through high school, I spent my summers working with my mother, who was a secretary in a lawyer’s office. Lunchtime was the highlight of my day. On that particular day, at my request, we were headed past the office towers and the gas station on the corner to the lunch truck for gorditas. I anticipated the greasy scent of the truck and the weight of the silver-wrapped sandwich I would carry back to my mother’s office.
The lawyer she worked for was a former FBI Special Agent who had investigated the Black Dahlia murder. The Dahlia was a beautiful, dark-haired young woman famously mutilated and left in a field during the 1940s. My mother and I had watched a made-for-TV-movie about this woman, whose looseness was said to have contributed to her death. Even thirty years later, a woman on her own, divorced like my mother, risked speculation—blame for whatever unhappy ending might befall her.
“They assume you’re cheap,” my mother would say, wrinkling her nose at the word “cheap.” It was one of the worst ways she herself could judge you. Dyed hair, hoop earrings, white shoes, gum chewing, smoking on the street all marked you as loose in my mother’s eyes. Even though she was not yet thirty, she did not participate in the swinging ’70s. My mother wanted always to be above reproach—to prove that she was better than the way we sounded on paper—apartment-dwelling single mother, divorced twice, no college.
After working at the FBI, the lawyer started practicing probate law. He wrote wills for little old ladies whose pack-rat houses belied their squirreled-away wealth. One of the first jobs I ever had was to go through a small wooden file box filled with thumbed-over index cards and remove all the client cards marked DECEASED. In my mind, “Dahlia” and “deceased” mingled with a macabre thrill.
The lawyer took long vacations—five or six weeks at a stretch during which he and his wife ate their way across Europe. When he was gone my mother ran the show. The truth was, even when he was in town, his clients relied on her more than him—a source of pride and bitterness for my mother, who earned a secretary’s salary. So convinced was I that she deserved her own name on the door, I lied to friends. Though queasy with the thought that I would be found out, I always said she was a lawyer.
But from late June to September, I didn’t worry about keeping up appearances with school friends. I rarely saw them and that was fine with me. During those hot months, after our long day’s work, my mother and I had Coke floats for dinner, spooning vanilla ice cream and foam from real Coke glasses. We ate them in our nightgowns while watching old movies. We played Scrabble until two in the morning even though we knew we would be tired the next day.
During West Side Story I would dance around our apartment wearing my mother’s hand-me-down peignoir singing, “I feel pretty.” And in those moments, I believed that my freckles and red hair, which didn’t ring the “pretty” bell, would one day add up to my mother’s porcelain skin and brunette beauty.
After our late nights, we would drag ourselves into the office like hungover roommates. We’d skip breakfast. By lunchtime I was ready to eat.
On the lookout for the gorditas truck, I was squinting into the next block when I saw them. Three boys about my age, on the brink of being teenagers. They were walking backward, facing our way, saying something to a woman as she proceeded down the sidewalk. We gained on the scene but they didn’t seem to notice us. Unable to pass them, we moved along behind. Witnesses.
I couldn’t see the woman’s face but she seemed old to me. The skin on her arms loose and flabby in a faded tank top above a short floral skirt. She wore high heels but no stockings. Her hair was the color of ashes, dirty with the sun beating down on it. A zip-up sweatshirt hung over one shoulder and she scooted along in her high heels like a little girl playing dress up.
The boys were taunting her. Puckering up, they made kissing noises, jostling and knocking against each other as they laughed and played at something that would be more menacing as they got older. Their shiny black hair and skinny white t-shirts put me in mind of 1950s New York. I imagined them playing stickball and hanging out on stoops like in the old movies my mother and I watched. I wondered if these boys, who probably lived in the low, squat houses and apartments just a few blocks from the high-rise office buildings, had laughed at this woman before. I wondered if she had a name among the neighborhood kids like “the Dragon Lady” who sat at the House of Pies counter near where my mother and I lived.
The boys didn’t touch the woman but they moved in front of her, blocking her way. She tried to get around them. Once. Twice. Three times. Then I heard her low whine as it boiled to a growl. She jutted her head at them the way a goose honks violently at a predator. My mother and I were finally gaining speed, about to move past them when the woman picked up the hem of her skirt—delicately as if to curtsy.
I was right alongside her when I saw her bare bottom beneath the skirt. My mother and I kept walking but the woman’s tormentors stopped. As I passed them, I saw the look on one boy’s shocked face. Turning, I saw what he saw—the woman’s dark pubic hair beneath her lifted skirt—a grownup eyeful he had not bargained on. The woman dropped her skirt and moved on, free of them at last.
“Why did she do that?” I said in a loud whisper to my mother. Despite the intimacy of my life with my mother, I had never seen a naked woman before. I had never seen what I was becoming. With my newly forming breasts and hips, my impulse was to protect myself. Especially the part of me that made me feel vulnerable to boys and men.
“She’s not well, baby,” my mother said, eyeing me as she kept up her brisk walking. We stepped into the street to cross at the next corner. Instinctively she reached for my hand even though I was way too old for this. I took her hand as I looked over my shoulder and saw the woman cutting through the gas station and moving on her way. With the lift of her skirt, she’d called their bluff, stopped them in their tracks. She might have been crazy but even then I knew I’d witnessed something powerful.
A few years later, when I was about 17, I thought back to that woman. My mother and I were exiting a subway car. By then, my fully developed body seemed always to announce my arrival before I was ready to be noticed. As we left the car, pressing along with the crowd, a man behind me cupped his hand between my legs. Shamed by his grab, my cheeks red, I heard my mother berate herself. “I should’ve made you wear a slip,” she said. To my mother, a slip—that thin membrane between propriety and cheap—could mean the difference in how men treated you. To my mother, a slip could save you from ending up in a field like the Black Dahlia.
But as I was beginning to make my own way in the world, I wondered. Maybe what really saved you was the courage to growl, honk, and lift your skirt.
The essays of Andrea Jarrell have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Narrative, Memoir, Literary Mama, The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor among other publications. “On the Miracle Mile” is part of an essay collection she’s working on—a memoir in stories. After growing up in Los Angeles, she lived in Austin, Santa Fe, New York City, a small town on the coast of Maine, Paris and now suburban Washington, D.C. Place factors into her memoir in significant ways. She is a graduate of the Bennington College MFA program and a recipient of a Martin Dibner Writing Fellowship.
I kind of really love bees. While most kids were taught, through hilarious example by terrified adults, the various dance-like moves that help one evade these fuzzy little stingers, I learned to watch them buzz on by as they made their eponymous line toward a flower or fellow worker. I liked to watch them nestle into our rosebush to get at nectar and pollen. I liked it when they’d land on my shoe as I sprawled on my back to cloud gaze or read or while away my summertime days. I felt, I don’t know, like it was a little blessing. Bees be with you. And also with you.
It might be an invention of mine, but I seem to remember there being way more bees around in those days. You could hardly walk from your door to the door of your best friend without crossing paths with a few. I remember one day when a neighbor kid named Eric told us that he had once eaten a dead bee. The fact that he was comparatively already a very adult-sounding eleven years old, we couldn’t help but take him at his word. It tasted, he said, like all the other dead things in his (what I now understand to have been fabricated) catalog of gastronomical bad choices. It tasted “like pizza.” What was this, but one more reason to love bees? They tasted, when dead, like the staple of my diet. I was maybe downright in love.
Do you remember a few years ago when scientists started buzzing about the sudden vanishing of bees? There were dark theories about cell phones interfering with their innate navigation equipment. There was fear that without their busy little bodies to pollinate flowers, the plant world would suffer enormously. And once, at a beer tent in college, a friend told me in a hushed and horrified voice that Einstein had once speculated just how long humanity could limp onward without bees.
“How long?” I asked, also duly horrified.
“Five years,” he said scientifically, and finished the Michelob Golden Light that cost him three tokens.
In the split second of shared silence, before the band started rocking and rolling again or some reeling friend crashed into us, I think we played out the gravity of a beeless world. The conclusion was never said aloud, but we both knew it to be true: we need bees.
I’m happy to say that bees are still with us, though maybe they’re just better at population control than we are (I have a theory on bees as stewards that I’ll get to in a just a minute). You know when a bee is within a mile radius of you sometimes by the telltale boogie-woogie that some less entomologically inclined folks are prone to busting out. It is unmistakable, and unfakeable in the way all instinctive responses to the world are. My own grandmother had a very specific sound she would make in the event of a bee sighting—sort of a hybrid of yodeling, gobbling, and shuddering with one’s vocal chords, if there is distinction between any them, and I think there is. There is a famous story in my family of an outdoor wedding reception that was gate crashed by a veritable community of hornets. I’ll admit hornets are definitely more cantankerous than their honeycombing cousins, and they probably react more antagonistically to sudden movements and shrill yodel-gobbling, and as they convened for the mother of all buffet lunches, allegedly covering entire dinner plates in small war parties, I only suspect that fire was exchanged from both sides, and casualties were somewhere in the dozens. Hornet Old Timers probably still gather groups of their great-great-grand-pupae and engross them with the horrors of the lunch outing that had gone so grievously wrong. A few can probably point to the blank spaces where several legs used to be, or to a wing that had tasted the edge of someone’s folded napkin which, had they learned their letters, the hornets would have known to say CONGATS DANNY AND SONJA. And the young ones probably shudder, preparing to have that night the kind of horrible dreams little hornets hate.
But hornets are hornets and bees are bees, and I openly admit my bias. It goes so far as admiration, really. We could do worse than to try to be a little beelike.
Bees love the earth with a rare breed of stewardship. And they’re not in it for the hipness of caring, or the fashion and posturing. Bees transcend trends.
They have parrot tongues that have learned, over time, the speech of flowers, and when one takes the time to talk to others in their own words, great secrets are revealed; it is among the rarest joys of friendship. They understand that their greatness comes from each other—they share a vision, and a dream dreamed together yields a people with fearsome and unshakable unity.
They are not without their art, either. They are architects and I wager they are gifted, though sometimes bashful, singers. But a celebration thrown by honeybees is the envy of all other creatures, and they have been known to dance and sing with the healthiest sort of violence there is.
When summer wanes and winter waxes, they secure their doors and windows and settle in for a period of quietude, of reflection, of food and storytelling. They remember their fallen friends by name, and sometimes pass those names on to the little ones in the nursery, just learning to hum. I imagine them loving their children—and in that, they are immortal. They pass along lore and knowledge and all the things they have collected in their innumerable summers. They are natural teachers, you see, because they are also students of everything they encounter.
They are kind, they are generous, they are patient. But they also have a little fight in them, and if cornered, you will taste venom. But take heart—they are slow to anger, and strike as a last line of defense because sometimes, that sting is fatal in several significant and invisible ways. Though honeybees are not, by their nature, killers.
You probably know what I’m talking about, really. Among the swarms of people on the street, on the bus, in your office, around your supper table, there are probably honeybees. Aren’t they just the best?
I sometimes will flatter myself by looking for the bee in me. Sometimes, I do see little snippets—a stripe here or there—but then I’m never sure. The life of a bee, secret or otherwise, is about the most appealing one this imagination can summon. I can see it now.
Somewhere it’s Thanksgiving. Only I’m not alone. Instead, I’m someplace between a small town and the woods—not so far away that a trip for bread and milk is a chore, but just far away enough that the stars are not strangled by city lights at night, and they can be seen with magnificence.
Somewhere, in that house, there are people crowded in a kitchen. As the so-called king of this little castle, the power and responsibility of preparing the turkey falls to me.
Somewhere, in that house, there are kids being rambunctious. Siblings and cousins have endured about all a human can endure of delicious smells, and their only recourse to imploding with hunger is to explode the cushions of the couch into a fort.
Somewhere, probably very near me, is my counterpart, by lovebird, my wife. The combined efforts of our families to fill the walls to capacity with noise and with joy is insurmountable. We smile, we kiss, we choreograph an elaborate dance between stovetop, oven, and conversation. We’ve done this before, I think. We’re still getting the kinks out, but we’re not bad.
Somewhere, in this honeybee life, my dreams are understated but rich; I’m just another worker in the hive, and I’m satisfied. Simplicity is my nectar. I am drawn to it madly. The arrogance that is required to chase ambitions isn’t there, because there is not room for it around the table or in bed.
Somewhere, I have committed to a life. I am sometimes unsure but I am unafraid, because whenever I feel the sting of fear or doubt, there is a calm voice and loving hand to quiet it, to pull it free, and to kiss the little wound it left.
Somewhere, that makes it all better.
Somewhere, I’m not alone. Not ever. Because bees stick together.
I’m a believer in other worlds, other universes, even, where possibilities play themselves out. When I was maybe eight years old, my Dad tried to explain the theory through a simple but dramatic example. He picked up a blue Bic pen from the table and rested it on its tip.
“This pen can fall in how many possible degrees?”
“Three hundred sixty, right?”
“Right,” I assured him.
“Until it falls, every one of those degrees already exist as the final outcome of where the pen landed. And only when I let the pen fall,” and he did, “do we know in which outcome we are actually living.”
“Oh,” I said, to assure him that I understood, which was a lie.
“But in another universe, we’re living in the one where it fell another way. And they might be having this same talk right now.”
True to form with all these discussions, I felt the immensity of the idea, feeling the truth of it but not the scope. Not really. How could I, little eight year-old me, think that in another universe, I was not chubby, or I was not obsessed with Legos, or, most incredible and unfathomable of all, I was not even alive. Twenty years down the timeline, I am still at that table, in a way, trying to work out the implications of a pen that fell a different way.
In my devoted study of comic books, I eventually encountered the convention of the “multiverse.” Though each major publisher has its own slant on it, the basic suggestion is that on Earth 1 or Earth 616, things are pretty much as we know them, because that’s our Earth. But somewhere, somewhere else, there is an Earth 96, and on that Earth, things panned out a little differently. It was a way to sort through problems with bloated continuity. The strange adventures during the Golden Age? Oh, that was all on Earth 2, so pay them no heed, and read onward, unmolested by contradictions and quandaries. That was the idea. It helped me, with its primary color visual aids, to more fully realize the possibilities of a You or a Me or a Dr. Fate or Zatanna happening Somewhere that is not Here.
A former girlfriend of mine is fond of spouting out the attractive phrase coined by Gottfried Leibniz: we live in the best of all possible worlds. I like that phrase, and I like that idea, but I confess there are some days I don’t wholly believe it. And maybe there isn’t a Best among all those Possible Worlds. I mean, maybe, in that same somewhere in which I’m sweater-clad and carving up a holiday bird, maybe some cured disease went uncured. Maybe some act of love or revolution or revelation never occurred. Maybe Hitler won the war. Maybe, in that somewhere, I’m actually not all that happy.
I can’t help but dream about the place now and then. Though it pains me, sometimes, to think about all the things I did not or could not or would not commit myself to in this world, but there’s nothing to be done about it, aside from choosing to commit now to something, to somewhere—to try to better the chances of this really being maybe the best of all possible somewheres.
I guess what I’m saying is, it might not be too late to start living like the honeybee I dream of. But am I a honeybee? Can I devote myself laboriously, industriously, remorselessly to making the world a little sweeter for someone else? Can I be that bee? The sting of uncertainty is sharp, its poison terrible, but I carry a fearsome anti-venom, always in my pocket. I carry hope.
Andrew Browers is a freelance writer, theatre artist, and storyteller. Born in Cloquet, Minnesota, he holds a BFA from Bemidji State University, where he learned how to write, perform, fall in love, and keep warm amid life-threatening winters. He is the founding Artistic Director of the Ghost Light Theatre Company, dreams of writing comic books, and will often pump his fists to rock and roll. He currently lives in Minneapolis.
The world was churning itself clean. The poisons in the rivers were becoming poisons in the seas. The poisons in the seas were basically harmless, diluted. Rain was moving in cycles, making laps between the ground and the sky. Runoff was still an issue, would always be an issue, sure, but the world was mostly one big compost pile, turning heaps of garbage into highly oxygenated soil. Nothing was unnatural. Beavers make dams and humans make cities. Everyone was close by.
In America, minimum wage was $7.25 and a gallon of gas cost $3.34. There was something wrong with our soup but we were taking care of it.
Molly threw a party and invited everyone she knew. Seventeen people came. She smashed up ice in the kitchen sink and asked her husband if everyone was having a nice time. Then she cried and wiped her eyes with her freezing-wet fingers.
The Supreme Court was deciding if gay marriage was okay, was alright, was kosher. Everyone was turning their Twitter icons pink and red. No one could remember why this was an issue in the first place. Due process, someone said, whatever that meant.
When I was eighteen I drove to Sarah’s house in the middle of the night and told her I loved her. We talked in her entryway. The ceilings were tall. She didn’t love me back. Not even close. Later I drove to a church parking lot and smoked on the roof of my car. I looked straight up out into outer space. I was feeling centered. The rest of my life would be mediocre and forgettable, but in fifty years I would remember all this in perfect detail.
I’m nobody’s favorite Friday night, I thought to myself, and think to myself still.
What’s happening to this country’s sense of family values? My mother asked. What’s next?
What’s next indeed.
The couple decided to remove every undesirable thing from their lives. They would no longer fold their socks. They would keep their socks in a wicker basket. They would search through the basket when they needed a pair of socks. No more folding socks, they decided. They were done folding socks.
So things went on. So things continued.
If you got this message on Twitter — LOL! Look at these pics of you! — somebody had been hacked. If you clicked the link, you’d be hacked too. And on and on for no apparent reason, with no apparent point, to no apparent end. Some researchers estimated 90% of email traveling through the wires was SPAM.
Renata Adler, Speedboat:There doesn’t seem to be a spirit of the times. Is that still true, I wonder?
The SOC 3312 professor wrote ZEITGEIST on the chalkboard and turned to face his students. Had everyone heard this word? Did everyone know what this word meant? In the whole university, this was the only classroom that still used a chalkboard. It was an oversight but nobody noticed.
It was a time of nonchalance. A time of boredom. A time of repetitive motion. A time of expectation. A time of entitlement. A time of crushing, incomprehensible debt. A time of disappointment. A time of brevity. A time of leisure. A time of unprofitable art. But trust me, it’s best not to think too much about it. If you think too much about it, it might fall apart. And then what? And then a time of perseverance, I guess.
Have you ever waited around for someone to die? She asked. A better question would have been: Is this your first time?
North Korea’s nuclear missiles were aimed at the White House but no one really cared. We could shoot a missile out of the sky. We could see everything at once. We were, for all practical purposes, omnipresent. Hyperbolically: omniscient. Still, we asked them to please aim their missiles somewhere else.
I didn’t eat in interesting places. I didn’t eat in bars that gave away pint glasses on Monday nights. I didn’t eat in restaurants that served the best chicken and waffles in Dallas. I ate at McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Raising Canes. I microwaved microwavable taquitos. I went where I felt I belonged. What more could you ask of someone? What more was there?
When she spoke to her patients, she talked about them in the third person, as if she were narrating their lives. Oh he hates it when she brings him his pills but he knows he needs them if he’s ever going to get any better.
While it rained, I listened to my wiper blades turn their tiny rotary motors, back and forth, high-pitched and mechanical, the sound of a robot blinking. I was, I realized, surrounded by robots. The future had come and no one had said anything.
It was a time of unprecedented belief. It was a time of evangelical faith. It was almost impossible to know how to be brave.
On Wednesday nights we ate at Waffle House. We ordered piles of hash browns and covered them in lattice-patterned ketchup. The lights were a buzzing yellow and the tables were wet. We stayed for hours, building pyramids of half and half cups. At some point we must have stopped going but I can’t remember the decision being made.
When a person died, they went into the ground and became part of the compost pile, part of the heap, part of the unending 10th-grade-science-textbook circle of life. All the arrows pointed to the right. Clockwise. Reincarnation probably wasn’t true, but we might come back as some sort of foliage.
Sometimes our phones buzzed and we didn’t know why. Were they keeping things from us? It wasn’t always clear who was in charge. When we wanted to assert our authority as consumers, we’d say, Can I please speak with a manager?
An ice floe broke away from Alaska and took 400 people with it. Off they drifted into the Arctic. They called for help on their cell phones and boats came to pick them up. They walked single file up the gangways. The article didn’t mention global warming, but I kept thinking, Global warming. We were at odds with nature and technology: war on all sides. Imagine if the boats hadn’t come, if 400 people had floated off to Russia.
The police accidentally left a man in solitary confinement for two and a half years. His toenails curled under his toes. He’d been arrested for drunk driving. The state paid him $15million and apologized, but it was too late, he’d lost his mind.
At the office they handed out red foam Frisbees and blue rubber balls. An hour later an email went out reminding everyone they were professionals, we were professionals, this was an office. Given the option to become animals, people became animals. Even bears behave in confinement. The number of jokes made about blue balls was an office best and would never be beaten.
Fear made us dull. In break rooms, we talked about our weekends.
More and more I walked around with my hands in my pockets and my hood pulled over my head. I was all bundled up. It was hard enough to feel part of anything let alone like you belonged. Nearly impossible for me. I was well-intentioned but underwhelming.
That night the whole world smelled like fireworks. She was getting drunk on Shiner and the band was so loud she could see the bass notes in her pint glass. Her BMI was on the low side of average. She asked her friend if this was a honky tonk, and her friend said no, this wasn’t a honky tonk, this was a bar. She drove home tipsy, but, as usual, everything was fine. Her life was what they called charmed. In 60 years, nothing would ever go wrong.
6 years after I told Sarah I loved her, she married a Canadian and unfollowed me on twitter.
Everything we were putting into the earth would one day come back out again. It all moved to the right, clockwise. We would send a few things into space, but those things didn’t really count. It was impossible to create anything new, and it was impossible to do any real damage. We were all, all of us, part of the natural world. We stood at chest-high counters and drummed our fingers against the marble. Can we please talk to the manager? We said, setting everything back in its place, solving every problem.
Michael Nagel is a writer and editor. He and his wife live in Dallas, Texas.
“Were you looking for ghosts?” The police officer inspected the three of us—twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-three years old. There was no way we could tell him the truth.
Earlier that afternoon we’d passed my hardcover copy of Weird Pennsylvania back and forth over takeout Thai food on the floor of our apartment, which was getting emptier as each newly graduated roommate moved her belongings out. Between forkfuls of pad see-ew, I pointed out that we weren’t far from one of the book’s allegedly haunted places. Under the right conditions, Irwin Road, in Pittsburgh’s North Park neighborhood, was said to be permeated by a blue mist and any combination of witches, evil dwarves, hanging ghosts, deer-human hybrids, and lonely dogs. Up until then, we’d had no post-lunch plans. We didn’t have post-college plans either, but this would at least occupy us for an evening.
Twelve hours later our mode of transportation, a black Toyota Corolla, was askew off the side of a dirt road. The dirt road led directly to the main road. All we would have had to do was put the car in reverse and back up in a straight line. This was attempted, but did not go as planned, and we were covered in mud and weeds after trying to push the car out of the ditch it had settled in.
As the fractured sunlight became brighter through the trees, the dilapidated house from which we were unsuccessfully retreating began to look dirty, small, and vulnerable—a far cry from the shrouded creaky hideaway we were headed toward an hour earlier.
The three of us dragged ourselves back up to the highway, or whatever a busy road outside of Pittsburgh is called. As we sat there, high on exhaustion and waning adrenaline, we noticed the lack of people who slowed down, much less stopped, to inquire as to why three girls would be sitting on the side of a suburban road at 6:30 a.m.
Then someone did stop—someone in a white car with lights on top. The police officer mentioned that an abandoned vehicle had been reported down that path right there, and did we know anything about it? Yes, we said; it’s ours, we said, and AAA is on their way.
“Looking for anything?” the cop asked, like it was a Steven Spielberg movie and we were another band of dirty-faced kids in search of treasure.
“No,” we answered too quickly.
“Some people come down here because they think it’s haunted,” he said. His sheepish face told us that he was embarrassed to know information like that and even more ashamed to have to pass it on.
As he drove down the path to investigate, we realized that we had graduated from college a month prior, and a cop had just rightfully suspected us of looking for ghosts. This was before we knew that we would spend the rest of our summer, and year, and twenties, doing just that— chasing what makes us feel scared and alive. The possibility that these spectral and ephemeral things exist is enough to keep us piling into cars at midnight, driving out to where the moon is brightest, and waiting.
Lydia Pudzianowski was born and raised right where Pennsylvania juts into New Jersey. She migrated to earn a BA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was managing editor of The Original Magazine. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, where she served as managing editor of issues 142 and 143 of TriQuarterly. She wants to continue her journey west for the sake of tradition but sees no reason to leave Chicago. This is her first publication in a journal she doesn’t edit.
For the last two years, I worked as a Staff Assistant for the Career Services office at Cedarville University. My job was to review résumés. A student comes in for a peer review, feeling little confidence in her ability to write a résumé and none in the merit of her past job experiences of baby-sitting, lawn-mowing, and cafeteria work. When she leaves, though, together we have crafted a pristine portrait of her, dressed her in words and white space perfectly suited to win her the job of her choice. She simply needed reassurance, and who could not be reassured by watching all the best things about oneself slowly fill a single piece of paper?
In “Strangers,” a song by the British rock band White Lies, lead singer Harry McVeigh recalls a lonely one-night stand. “I pressed my ear to your chest,” he begins, “and heard something personal. A whisper that knew my name.” McVeigh seems disturbed by this sudden, unexpected intimacy. “Is this how your heart treats all strangers, with love and affection? Then I feel cold and empty.” Most of the people who visited me at Career Services were strangers. We dug around their past, going through drawers, looking under the bed for anything that might make the résumé better. “No stone unturned,” as McVeigh sings in the pre-chorus. I asked them where they have worked, what they like to do, how involved they were in high school, what job they aim to attain with this particular résumé. I asked them to pinpoint the essence of who they are, and to capture that on the page and show it to me. By the time they left, I knew more about them than I do about many of my friends. McVeigh’s voice in the chorus rings out in my mind as they walk out: “Strangers don’t hide.”
Isn’t my own résumé all about hiding, though? At its best, it is a metonymy for me. It stands up and fills in for me, pleading my perfectly polished case to the hiring manager, begging for the job I don’t deserve. At its worst, it’s a carefully constructed lie. One of the things I harp on when editing résumés is the need for consistency: make sure the locations are all in line and right justified, italicize the name of each job position, either put a period after every description or do not include any. Neither is correct—only be consistent. My own résumé follows all the rules I give the students who come visit me in my role as “résumé expert.” It’s beautifully aligned, symmetrical, with just the right amount of white space. It is a model of consistency.
But my real life is much messier. Nothing stays in the straight lines I so easily force on myself in the confines of the résumé. There is my résumé self and there is my real self, but too often only I know the difference. Afraid of being a stranger, I craft a résumé self in my everyday life: consistently aiming to prove to my family and friends that I’m cut out for the job, hiding the way my limbs, like the girl’s limbs in the song, “treat all strangers with love and affection.” My objective in this essay is to tell you, the reader, why I need the résumé self, why I pretend that consistency is a virtue, to ultimately dig down and find the essence of who I am. It might not fit on one, nicely formatted page, but stay with me. After all, strangers don’t hide.
My ability to write and edit a résumé self comes from my family. We are a stack of beautifully sculpted texts on cream-colored, watermarked printing paper, bound together in a leather portfolio—this shows our unity, our closeness, and our general excellence as a family. But look behind the lines and see the things the résumé selves hide, the cracks they smooth over, the pain and suffering they disown: my mom’s brother who died of AIDS around the time I was born, the three babies lost to miscarriage, the house constantly filled with the dissonant sounds of arguments punctuated with slamming doors, the crushing debt brought on by the economy’s downturn and the expense of private education, the ever-growing distance between me and the rest of the family.
As a child, I learned that one’s character is what one does when no one is looking. We use the résumé selves when everyone is looking. Alone with ourselves, we tear the papers down and try to get a look at each other’s true nature. Then we get in the car, smile centered and in bold on the page of our face, close the doors, and with the résumé selves firmly in place, speed off to church. I’m not trying to make my family sound evil or sinister; we are just fractured in a normal way. Beneath the résumé selves is not only disagreement and anger, but love as well. Even this love, however, is misrepresented in our public images. At home, I throw acorns at my younger brother and try desperately to beat him in video games. My mom, unable to let go of her protective instincts, still expects Sarah, at age twenty-nine, to listen and obey everything she says. Courtney and Emily fight over fashion and which men on TV are more attractive. But when other people come around, we just sit up and stand in portrait formation, another form of the résumé self.
My family also informed me of the evils of compromise. My dad tells me that compromise only means one has no principles and no longer believes in anything. I do not share this belief, but it’s hard to shake your upbringing, no matter how much you wish to. My family seems static in the face of my own terrifying uncertainty. We’ve lived in the same house for almost two decades now. Our days together pass by with little variation. Even our disagreements are predictable and cover consistent topics. Our lives are rigidly oriented around the dinner table, used for the community experiences of breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as various card games, usually pinochle. My family’s beliefs—religious, political, financial, cultural—are starkly uniform—aside from my own, of course. There’s the way we were taught and that’s all. That’s the truth.
I think that’s part of the reason why, when I was thirteen years old and afflicted with debilitating depression and anxiety over my identity, the future, the existence of an afterlife, the terrifying concept of eternity, the banal nature of life, I could not bring it up with my parents. I paced around outside their room at odd hours of the morning, heart pounding as I tried to convince myself to turn the door handle and wake them up, looking for answers and comfort. I slid down the wall and cried for a while. Eventually, overcome by fatigue and fear, I got up and ran quickly back to bed, awake in the dark and haunted by my own thoughts.
I used to condemn my family for hiding behind their résumé selves, especially from the most serious issues of life. But eventually I realized I was the worst offender. I do my best not to tell them anything intensely personal about me, especially things I know they would dislike. I hide the real behind the résumé, which proves I’m not a stranger, I guess. But the big questions of life, of love, of art, of humanity, slip between the lines.
One of my mother’s repeated lines of advice for me as I prepared to go off to college was the simple didactic phrase: “don’t touch girls.” This was not a joke. She pulled me aside and told me this with a stern face to emphasize the message’s importance. As I understood it, this was not simply an unwarranted yet normal parental attempt to safeguard a son from the dangers of sexual activity, but it was a literal command: Do not touch girls at all. Not even a friendly hug.
While well-intentioned, this advice, especially since it was given after I had already kissed a girl, had already experienced the feel of a girl’s skin under her clothes, fostered a guilt complex in me. I had already seen a girl naked and a girl had seen me too. More things I cannot tell my family.
The music video for “Strangers” is compiled of what appear to be webcam recordings of people engaged in various, often rather abnormal, online sexual encounters. A woman dressed as a unicorn prances around. A man slowly undresses, then redresses himself in women’s clothing. People dress up as orca whales or wear bunny suits. These moments are all cut together and crescendo, becoming more bizarre and urgent as the song builds towards the end. Amidst the craziness, though, sits one rather beautiful Asian woman. She takes off her shirt and it is implied that she begins to touch herself.
My confession, my destruction of the résumé self, the self whose family and friends would not suspect to find me a stranger, is that I would fit right in that music video. I have been that Asian woman before. This is something I have told to one, maybe two people before now. But I’m taking White Lies’ lyrics to heart. If my friends are true, if my family is strong, then they will find the real me even when I cannot. McVeigh is right again as he ends the chorus: “there’s nothing stranger than to love someone.”
You, as my reader, may find such an admission strange in an essay about consistency. Depending on your own point of view, your own upbringing and beliefs, you might find this particularly strain of guilt tragically silly. Or perhaps you will identify with it and understand how it fits in with an attempt to divine whether a real me exists under the résumé self or whether I’ve become a total fake, whether I’ve airbrushed myself even to myself.
As I told you from the beginning, though, this essay intends to force the real me out of hiding and whether you find it to be foolish or not, the real me struggles with guilt and regret over past sexual experiences, as much as the résumé self hates to admit those even exist. The résumé self is the one with all the friends, many of whom are girls, who know me as a feminist and a defender of woman’s subjectivity. How do I reconcile this with what I know of myself that they do not, that I am also a man who fits as one of the sad souls in the “Strangers” video?
Those sad souls ultimately are not being judged for their proclivities, but rather being viewed with sympathy as people desperate for a connection, finding it the only way they can. The crazy thing about the résumé self, whether in regards to sex or being scared to admit my fears to my parents at age thirteen, is that I’m proud of it. I feel pretty skilled when I pull off the résumé self and the real self extremely well, all in the same day. I take pride in the fact that no one knows more about me than I want them to. But I miss the point. The people in “Strangers,” both the song and the video, are lonely. They turn to strangers because they don’t have anyone else. But I do. Why do I put all my desire on people I barely know, on strangers, allow myself to be naked, emotionally or physically, with them, but stay clothed and guarded around my friends and family? I shouldn’t, but I feel like I’m continually applying to keep the position.
The reference section is the part of the résumé where you list the people who can back up all the grandiose claims you just made about yourself. It is supposed to prove that you have not just fabricated a résumé self, but that you are actually as competent, capable, and professional as the crisp piece of paper suggests. I’ve just spent a whole essay telling you how I hide from everyone, though, so who could I recommend that will tell you the truth about myself?
At the end of the song, McVeigh imagines the woman he slept with now in the shower, “gripping the gaps in the tile, just holding on tight.” The connection they had has abruptly ended. Strangers may not hide, but—just like the students who came to see me at Career Services, where I helped them find the truth about themselves and record it on a page—they don’t stick around long either.
In the end, the résumé self is not a total lie. I am most of the things the résumé self says I am, but not all the time. But no one is the same all the time. Our bodies change, our hair grows and is cut back, our cells constantly replace each other, our character develops, our beliefs change. None of this makes us any less of a person. The résumé self is mostly a defense mechanism. Just like at age thirteen, I’m still afraid to break the barrier—whether it’s opening a door to my parents’ room, tearing apart an expertly crafted piece of paper, or baring myself emotionally to people who actually know me—and really trust someone else with a piece of myself.
The résumé self will likely never totally disappear, but I can learn to use it, learn to deserve the jobs I’m granted as a son, a brother, a friend, and maybe eventually, even as a lover, a husband, and a father. And if so, that will be an impressive résumé indeed.
John Michael Mumme
John Michael Mumme is a 2013 graduate from Cedarville University where he earned degrees in English and Technical and Professional Communication (TPC). He loves reading, writing, and the Dallas Cowboys. He considers himself an amateur film critic, and you can read his reviews here. By next August, he hopes to be enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing with a concentration on fiction. This is his first published piece.
My brother and I followed Dad to the double garage. We were about to get new bicycles – our first. Five years earlier in Basel, Switzerland, I’d loved whizzing through the neighborhood on my push-scooter. Before that I cherished my small red tricycle. While we lived in Davos, up in the Alps, our focus had shifted to sledding and skiing, and during our short stay in Cape Town we lived in the suburb of Parow where hardly anybody rode a bicycle. Here in Empangeni, Zululand it was an entirely different matter. All our school friends had bikes, and now – after waiting many months – we were about to get our own for Christmas.
Dad opened the side door to the garage. “All yours! New and ready to go.” Excitement turned to disappointment as our hearts sank at the sight of two massive metal framed balloon tire bicycles with coaster brakes, and no gears. I instantly saw all my friends with their spiffy sports bikes laughing at me. In Zululand balloon tire bikes were the bicycles of choice for rural Africans, because they were low-priced, sturdy and absorbed the bumps on the gravel roads so well. I presumed my father, who loathed the apartheid system, was teaching us not to think we deserved or needed anything better or fancier than the Africans. We were too young to think in political terms. He just didn’t ‘get it.’ We kept mum and tried to mount these Clydesdales of bikes, but the heavy horses were far too bulky for us. I was ten and couldn’t even reach the pedals. Even Dad recognized we’d have to return them.
The following week the three of us went to the local bicycle store and bought two Raleigh Sports 3-speed bicycles; blue for George, green for me. We were happy; they looked exactly like those of our friends, except they didn’t have drop handlebars. I’d fix that soon enough. The bike became my constant companion and gave me the freedom to roam. I rode it to school, the pool, friends, piano lessons, the tennis courts, rugby practices, shopping; I raced down dirt roads, along footpaths and game tracks, through sugar cane fields, everywhere.
On weekends and in the vacations my friends and I undertook longer bike tours inland, or to other towns and villages; but mostly we rode along the coast, either south to Mtenzini Beach, or north to Richard’s Bay. These were typically day trips, but sometimes we camped out. We’d set out before sunrise with a few rand in our pockets, taking breaks at various rivers, climbing up to the tops of bridges to spot crocodiles and other wild game. The highlight was to have a burger and a brown cow (coke and ice cream) on our arrival, after which we hit the beach. Of the many trips I took on my first bike, the last was the most memorable.
An uncommonly violent storm had raged throughout the night. Bernard and I almost canceled our bike tour to Richard’s Bay. We got up at 4 a.m. and the wind still lashed around the house. But we stuck to our plan when we saw stars piercing through the scattering clouds. Off we pedaled into the dark of dawn, our teardrop headlights bobbing in front of us. The ditches and gullies rushed with water, and some of the low lying roads were flooded – an unusual sight in Zululand.
Riding out of Empangeni we noticed an even more unusual sight. Dead frogs lay strewn across all the roads. Hundreds, small and large! A few twitched. We tried to avoid the frogs, but there were too many of them and heavy gushes of wind made maneuvering difficult. While frantically zigzagging I skidded and crashed. The chain came off, both mudguards were bent, and my shirt was ripped. Apart from scratching my palms and elbows I was unhurt. Bernard laughed, pointing to some dead frogs stuck to my jeans. I brushed them off with disgust, adjusted the mudguards, and put the chain back on. After that I ruthlessly rode through the slushy carpet of frogs – mile after mile of glistening little bumps of flesh.
It had literally rained frogs. They were not only on the road, but lay scattered all across the veld and sugarcane fields, thousands of shiny corpses lit up by the morning sun. To make matters worse I got a flat tire, caused most likely when I came a-cropper. Though usually well prepared I’d forgotten my tire patch kit. Bernard had his, but the tube of glue was empty.
We stood around wondering what to do when an elderly Zulu drove by on his balloon tire bike. The bike had two large mirrors with red and green plastic frames that stuck out like curious fisheyes, and four bicycle bells, ranging in size from a yo-yo to a grapefruit. He noticed our plight, and without a word stopped to help. He turned my bike upside down, removed the tube, found the hole, took a piece of string, tied it tightly around the damaged area, reinstalled the tube, and pumped up the tire. We watched, fascinated, grateful. Once done, he smiled, saluted, and rode off, ringing his bells.
Around Richard’s Bay there were no frogs, the wind had ceased, and it had turned into a warm, clear day. We enjoyed our traditional burger and brown cow on the stoep of a funky café, after which we freewheeled down to the bay, dumped our bikes in the shade of a banana tree, went swimming, and tanned in the sun. When we returned a couple of hours later to ride back home our bikes were gone. We looked all over the sand dunes, but they were nowhere. Stolen! Back at the café, Bernard called his dad, and we waited for him to pick us up. I never felt the same close connection to any of the bikes I owned after that, nor experienced another frog rain.
Eric G. Müller is a musician, teacher and writer living in upstate New York. He has written two novels, Rites of Rock (Adonis Press, 2005) and Meet Me at the Met (Plain View Press, 2010), as well as a collection of poetry, Coffee on the Piano for You (Adonis Press, 2008). Articles, short stories and poetry have appeared in many journals and magazines. His website is www.ericgmuller.com.
It depends how you define writer’s block, whether or not I am experiencing it at this very moment. At sunset yesterday, as I swam my laps, I thought through this essay and decided exactly how I would start, develop, and finish it in one sitting this morning. But now it is afternoon, and the wholeness of what I’d conceived is spotty and tattered. It’s raining outside, with a rumble of thunder. I’m sure that the pool is closed.
Yesterday, tracing the line at the bottom of the pool, my body inscribing it with the rhythm of strokes, kicks, and breaths, I thought that I would start out by telling that it’s been almost a year since my mother died, and that in that year, I have not written a single poem. I have had plenty to write about—the shock of her illness, the busy, sad, loving full-heartedness of accompanying her through her last weeks and days with my siblings, my grief at her last breath, the casket-choosing, the obituary, the funeral, the shiva, the move to Cambridge for the year with my husband, the trips to China and Russia, the returns home to work on emptying the house we all grew up in, the reciting of the Kaddish Friday evenings, Shabbes mornings and afternoons, Sunday and Monday mornings, and sometimes Thursdays, too, the learning to accept. I am a poet, and I could not write a poem. I guess you could say that this is a kind of writer’s block.
It’s not that I didn’t think up poems to write. They came to me, and I said them to myself before I fell asleep, when I woke with a jolt at 4:30 AM, when I swam, and when I read or took notes for a new project or revised my scholarly book. Sometimes I wrote in a journal, in the dimness of pre-dawn, without turning on the light. I haven’t yet read over what I wrote then. I don’t know if anything I put in my journal will become a poem someday. In order for that to happen, I will have to decipher what I scrawled in the dark, find something interesting, copy it out and then type it into the computer, all the while, reading and rereading it, changing, cutting, adding words and sentences until whatever it is begins to find a shape, a direction, a form. But I cannot read this journal yet.
Instead of writing poems, I have done other things that feel something like writing poems. I’ve taken many photographs with my cell phone camera and my very good little Canon. But I’ve printed out, posted, or emailed only a very few. These exotic or familiar landscapes, seascapes, cloudscapes, sightseeing wonders, portraits, candid shots of unwitting strangers or my own grown daughter and son, still-life snaps of furniture and rooms I will soon have to relinquish, are like the journal I’ve kept—private, unedited, and unseen. I painted four canvases in an adult ed. art class. I’ve written hundreds of email letters to friends and family—filled with observations, thoughts, memories, jokes, complaints, admonitions, sorrows, delights, and empathy for their lives, their losses, too. All this activity has engaged my eye, ear, and imagination. But none of it is the actual writing of poems.
At the start of graduate school years ago, a terrible writer’s block stopped me in my tracks. It took me hours to force out the words for each sentence in the essays that were overdue for my courses on Austen, Pound, Milton, Bellow, Chaucer. Teaching a freshman English class, though, I encountered a book that saved my life as a writer: Peter Elbow’s wise, practical directives in Writing without Teachers. As I recall it (and practice and teach it today), Elbow tells his readers to separate the editorial voice from the creative voice, in order to give the latter a chance. He urges the writer to write freely and without censorship or inhibition in a method he calls freewriting. Take a piece of paper and a pen. Start with a word, a phrase, or an image. Write for ten minutes without stopping. If you pause or draw a blank, repeat the last word you wrote until something else emerges from your pen. After ten minutes, stop. Read over what you’ve written. Find something there that you like. Start with that sentence or phrase and do another freewrite. Repeating this method, and then adding more structured sessions of editing and rewriting, you can get a good start on a critical essay, a short story, a poem, even a dissertation.
Two other things I learned in those years may help me start writing poems again. First, Malka Heifetz Tussman, a great Yiddish poet who took me on as her “pupil” and became a beloved friend and mentor, told me once that when a poem needed me, it would find me and tell me how to write it. Although poems have found me this year, they have not yet told me how to write them. I am not sure how long I should wait.
Second, I studied Yiddish with Malka (and also at YIVO’s intensive summer language program) in order to learn how to translate Yiddish poetry for my doctoral thesis, and discovered that the act of translation itself is a good tool for pushing through a writer’s block. Translating a poem or a story, you write into your language a work that another writer has completed in his or hers. The subject and form have long since been decided. Your job is to read, understand, and then work out how to say again what that first writer has expressed. In the process, you engage in the most intimate conversation about writing with a writer from another culture and time. No longer alone, you break through what is blocking you. You write.
Kathryn Hellerstein is associate professor of Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include translations of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, In New York: A Selection, and Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky, and an anthology—Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. Forthcoming from Stanford University Press are her monograph, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish 1586-1987, and Women Yiddish Poets: An Anthology. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Poetry, Tikkun, Bridges, Kerem, Gastronomica, The Drunken Boat, and in anthologies—Without a Single Answer, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, Reading Ruth, and Common Wealth: Poets on Pennsylvania.
Walking home from the theatre starting at 11:40 at night, I’d be 20 minutes out when I passed the hillsides and into the canyon with the single four-lane connecting the suburbs, through the open land and sky that opens up over the far-off desert over San Diego county.
Singular cars drive past, a Thursday night away from downtown. Along the incountry where the railroads laid their track a hundred years ago, freight trains still run at night through here, often a dozen cars or more running empty back to terminals in LA or farther north, in approximate echoes of the freeways traced to get the commuters to the industrial center built where the water could be piped in from the bay. Inland and away.
Slow walking at night, with no buses (they’re 55 minutes apart at this time of night). To go home and only have the smell of rye and sweat, perhaps the shape of my father still on the futon couch, the TV off and a highball glass with the ice melted and his dress shirt in a ball.
Night sky horizon lined with iceplant along the hillside, I would walk off the side of the road through the dirt path where a sidewalk may one day be laid and down out of sight, ten feet below the road level. I face the far-off hills across the expanse where another road half a mile off travels slowly up towards La Jolla on the other side, marked by the occasional headlights from night trucks. And I would open my shirt and unbutton my pants, lay half naked in the iceplant open to the cold air slowly cooling and facing up at the large night. The smell of chlorophyll beneath me as I lower carefully into the low-soft greenery flattened below my knees and heels.
For ten minutes a car might come by up above, invisible and anonymous and down at the bottom of the gorge along the ancient creek a floating headlight on a freight train would weave like a low-flying UFO back and forth, weaving through the bottom of the gorge. Alone and naked in the dark I would watch it gain noise and presence hundreds of yards below and snake through the flat canyon bottom, rolling quietly and mechanically through the empty landscape, under the blind sky below my invisible body up there in the dark, in the black, on the way home, in the ivy, 20 minutes out from the Balboa intersection. Killing all the time the night holds.
The sense of place, that sense of the sun, the sense of my body and how this all interacted in a mathematical equation that was part chemistry, philosophy and mathematics first boiled and reduced at the beach. Two summers of bonfires and waves crashing harmlessly on the long strip of white beaches of upper Clairemont and Ocean Beach. Sand and bikinis and wading into the warm water and beating against the current that brought in gallons of water in ribbons and seaweed and pressure and friction as we frolicked waistdeep in soaked cutoffs and underwear and discarded shirts, the girls wearing bras or tanktops to hold some semblance of chasteness, not quite convincing.
These early formulas of sexual awakening and interactions with the female of the species outside the confines of walls or watchful parents are inflected by soda in wet bottles stuck in the sand and a single joint shared among six people, and the mysteries of nature are defined by fumblings in the fading sunlight over the sound of waves with our bathing suits running up our thighs. Sex is not the hairy groins of our youth or the throbbing porn cock. Sex is the explicit and exquisite texture of sand on her nipples, my licking around and then spitting out the salt, giggling, being pushed away. And pulled aside behind the large logs near the concrete breakwater a half hour later, for a little more. Closer but never complete, near but wait later we have all summer all the time in the world.
The most fun I had was a week of time, in the canyons behind our house, the carved gashes in the landscape between the desert and the beach region of San Diego county, where the silt filled in the bay a thousand years ago and the settlers built to take advantage of the wind and the access. Houses and small buildings lined the crests, looking over, the strip malls a block in serving each little neighborhood. Behind the large school ard the grassy hill was smooth and steep, leading down to the brush and chaparral broken into hard dirt and the creek that hid rocks slick with algae, salamanders and funny-shaped insects, rope swings and abandoned shopping carts and single car tires, jack knives and old Playboy magazines stashed in the crotches of trees.
Me and my brother found a refrigerator box down there one summer day, not a weekend or a weekday necessarily, no school and no schedule, discarded by some inconsiderate neighbor or pulled behind a bike until it flew off and down caught by the wind. It measured six by twelve, the largest single expanse of pressed cardboard we’d ever seen and when pulled up to the top of the hill behind the empty schoolyard and ridden down with two handfuls of the upper flap it slid like a stingray over the dry green grass in a fast wave of ecstasy the 60, 70, 80 feet down to the dirt path fading along the bottom.
The cardboard carpet was a magic appliance, a ski ride down the waterfall of grass and gravity, faster, longer easier than nodding off to sleep. It slid like a jet rough enough to be dangerous and smooth enough to have us not care. We pulled the board up and down 100 times in a row, 200 times, separate and together, from morning to when it got dark and came home exhausted, laughing, ravenous, bruised and ready to do it again tomorrow.
And for three days we rode the hill on the refrigerator box, all day and slowly wearing down the flaps, then the corners, the bottom side and then we folded it around to wear out the inside. Once two older kids walked up from the canyon and we stopped so they wouldn’t take our magic cardboard away. When it got dark we stashed it below the manzanita trees by the creek, up on the other side where it was out of sight and hard to get to.
And the third day, that day I remember, a Saturday, the board was gone. We looked around up and down the ravine hoping it had just been pulled a few hundred yards away by someone who didn’t know the fun of taking it up the hill but it was nowhere. And my brother and I tried to make due sliding on our stocking feet and a smaller box we found but no sheet compared to that refrigerator ride and never was a large enough piece of cardboard to duplicate it and it was the funnest goddam thing I think I ever did and nothing since, not wading in the waist-high waves at La Jolla, not drinking brandy in the cafes of Paris, not the licking or the fucking, not laying in the iceplant nude, or the mechanical movement through the canyons, filled me with such existential peace of being one with the canyon universe, in my world of nature flying free down the hill, sunlit wind, the smell of dried grass and pressed chlorophyll, on my jeans at the knees and along my hips, stained beyond repair. We went home and my mom wondered, for a moment, but her words faded in a haze of Miltown and the smell from her bedroom that reminded me of an aquarium gone to seed.
My second job was at a Jack in the Box, a typical fast-food gig most people had right out of high school or just before they were kicked out of the house and had to start dealing with gas money and replacing those shoes that were suddenly worn, unfashionable or the wrong size. The first one was a couple years before, delivering papers on a bicycle which was thankless and harder than any adult ever realized or remembered and no one got rich or fell in love. No wonder they preyed upon 14 year olds who never did it more than one season before finding better ways to kill their summer.
My shift was the graveyard, from eleven at night to six, dead of night and after dinner and before the breakfast cycles but firmly covering the bar crowd, the late at nights, the concertgoers dumped onto Midway a couple miles up and the homeless before such a thing existed in amounts large enough to notice and then to take entirely for granted.
I was at Store 13, Clairemont Mesa Blvd. along the Pacific Highway running above the beach along the inside of Mission Bay, a quiet stretch late at night surrounded by residential, built for the war. Open 24 hours but we were lucky – we weren’t near downtown or the bases or any college campus. The railroad tracks ran along the highway as well, a remnant of the settling of San Diego late in the last century and typical of a harbor town, something I wouldn’t come to realize until I was out near Kearny Mesa and walked through the canyons and lay naked in the iceplant seeing the train’s glowing eye snake through the bottom of the gorge heading from points far east, always from or to agricultural lands.
Train traffic was infrequent along the coast and only at night did long runs of freight cars seem to roll along the tracks through the area, unhindered by traffic or citizen. The lazy wooden gates with red flashing lights bobbed down at the intersections marking their passing slowly with a metallic racket that mixed the vibrating of asphalt and heavy iron like a hammer and nails wrapped in a beach towel slinkying down an endless staircase. About once a week a long train of cars would slow to a crawl across the boulevard in the dark past the grass partition and before the sidewalk and volleyball field that fronted the beach beyond. Going as slow as possible but not stopping, two engineers jumped the engine and ran across the road and into the restaurant to place an order – five of this, five of that, sodas, a couple coffees and fries and anxiously looked at the rolling train across on the tracks while we cooked it up.
There were no other customers in the store at two or three a.m. when they came by and we’d ask them where they were headed.
“Up to Sacto.”
“You’re hurrying up, can you?”
“The train isn’t stopping,” Dan, my co-worker, would point out.
“Not allowed to stop. They have the sensors.”
And they laughed with us. The train was 20 or 30 cars long, a mismatched collection of cattle cars, logging plankers with open racks, yellow and rust-colored box cars with a panoply of graffiti freckling the sides that marked the wide course of travel and provenance. Lights on hotels from across the bay reflected in the still waters past the grass. The moon was behind us, not directly visible.
“What’s on the train? Cattle?”
“Nothing. We’re rolling empty. ”
“The cars are delivered to different terminals,” the redhead explained. “They split them up. Each one gets a different load.”
We cooked an extra burger or two and gave them a whole bag filled with fries, plenty of time. “What if you don’t make it back on?”
“We’ll catch it. It’s only traveling five miles an hour.” Indeed we handed them the bags and the two workers ran back across the street to mount the train on one of the freight cars near the end. I didn’t know how they got the food to the front engine where their buddies were presumably waiting.
I got off work before the trains from the other direction early in the morning came by, this time headed south. I didn’t think about the trains again until the theatre job, another late night thing that allowed me to get out of the house during the endless midnights, filling my head with dreams from Hollywood, the dark air of the future, the chugging of progress. And teasing me with the quiet abyss of time and domesticity that stretched open into the night that in my young teenage years ached to escape, exposing my body to the cold and the trains that traveled through the landscape to parts unknown at the wrong speed, too slow to catch, too far away to follow.
Roger Leatherwood worked on the lower rungs of Hollywood for almost 20 years before returning to UCLA for his MFA and to print fiction, where at least the stories he could tell were his own. His feature “Usher” won numerous awards on the film festival circuit, and his writing has or will appear in Skive Magazine, Crack The Spine, Oulipo Pornobongo, Nefarious Ballerina, European Trash Cinema and others. His novella Times Two, a long-form memoir about the different birth stories of his two daughters, is available from Amazon. Visit his website here.
DUCKPIN BOWLING WITH CAITLIN AND BUFFALO BILL
by Timothy Kenny
Buffalo Bill’s defunct who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat Jesus he was a handsome man and what i want to know is how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death — E.E. Cummings
Caitlin scoots first into our local bowling emporium (small town/duckpin only), where we are met by the same musty/mildew odor that has always greeted us, despite a new birthday-view rug that rolls colored confetti and pointed hats and noise-making horns across the floor. The old indoor-outdoor carpeting has fled, leaving dead air to hang in its place, a week-old washcloth on a sink.
We grab shoes. Caitlin slides on the polished lanes, a “watersmooth-silver stallion,” which kick-starts Buffalo Bill inside my head. The bowling guy — a high school kid, really — drops the bumpers into the gutters and we’re off: first her, then me, then she, then me, back and forth, we’re counting pins, writing down numbers, carrying ones over into the next column. A half hour later it’s the tenth frame and the final score is Caitlin 73, me 72, a dad’s duckpin-bowling miracle.
We go to pay. The gray-haired lady behind the desk who earlier handed out smooth-bottomed shoes that Velcro for convenience right off the bat tells me about the senior league that meets Monday and Thursday mornings.
“You’re a good bowler,” she says. “I was watching you.”
Watching me? Good bowler? What is she saying?
“We have bowlers of all ages. Some are pretty good.” A beat. “OK, not that good but ok, you know?”
She brightens: “Some of our bowlers are in their eighties.”
I provide my impression of a smile. We flee.
An hour is slow-motion death for a person who’s six. It’s odd. People who are six have logged 52,560 hours of life, which sounds like a lot until it’s measured against my 578,160 hours, perhaps four of which have been spent duckpin bowling.
I memorized “Buffalo Bill’s defunct” in college to impress girls. It’s short. I love Bill Cody. He salted Europe with the romance of the American cowboy and was indeed a top hand himself. I love e.e. cummings more. Never mind that. “What I want to know is” not why I am silently reciting “Buffalo Bill’s defunct” but how can I stop seven?
Caitlin asks: “Why is six afraid of seven?” I don’t know, I say. I never know. It ruins everything to know.
“Because seven ate nine.” Followed immediately by, “Get it?” I always say no, asking instead: “What do you mean?”
She tells the joke again. I pause, appearing thoughtful. “Oooooo, Nowwww I get it.” She laughs, grateful for my stupidity.
In two months we’re done with six; seven looms large, another step closer to the unending march of numbers that double up the digits. The joke should be, “Why is sixty-seven afraid of seven?”
The answer is: “Because seven is three from ten, when the slope gets slippery.” I know it’s not funny. Painful things are not always funny.
No one ever said about me, “Jesus, he was a handsome man,” but I traveled and had company expense money before gravity rear-ended me. Thankfully, good luck intervened.
“Daddy,” says Caitlin, “look,” pointing: “Air hockey.” She motions me low and whispers in my ear, “I love air hockey.”
We shoo away a gaggle of little kids who are fooling around at the air hockey table but don’t have any money. Caitlin drops in four quarters. They make a satisfying ca-chunk; not as serious as the thump of balls dropped into the business end of a tavern pool table, not like breaking “onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlike that,” but then what is? Bill was a seriously good marksman.
We air hockey.
From the Midwest like I am the only thing in bowling was regular big balls, the kind with three holes drilled in, sometimes two. It was easier than these duckpin midgets.
Two weeks ago my daughter scored her “worst Sunday ever.” It started at this same bowling alley, which should be named “Memory Lanes.” Get it? That’s why we’re back. It was previously filled with tournament bowlers who lurched from lane to lane, keeping score the right way, ringing up loud strikes that threw the fat-ass little pins into the back of the alley like a crack-back block. We could not bowl, though half the lanes were empty.
Caitlin wondered why my answer made no sense.
I suggested shooting pool; she brightened. But no, renovations to the pool hall; no can do. Her face yo-yo’d. The air hockey machine ate quarters gleefully – a banker selling a balloon-payment house loan to a janitor – but refused to cough up the sliding disc or poof the pillow of air that turns a slow plastic table into air hockey.
Soured, we retreated to across the pulsating birthday floor to the nameless machine that drops a metal claw into a pile of plush animals for seventy-five cents. It did what these machines are intended to do: randomly dropped its yawning claw, closed it around thin air, wound itself to the top of the plastic case and dangled, spent and empty.
We drove to Starbucks. Caitlin ate a morning bun and brightened. Not much later soccer practice was cancelled. Thus born: her “worst Sunday ever.”
I am no “blueeyed boy” – hazel rather – from cummings’ undeniable imagination, but really, and this is the important part: Does Caitlin understand – and I say no, it’s way too early for her to get it – that I’ve finally stopped worrying. I have come to an understanding with “Mister Death.” I know he lurks. If I turn my head sharply I catch him in the distance, out of the corner of my eye: shadow-dwelling, shape-shifting sumbitch. Lurking.
Maybe he’s a duckpin bowler.
Timothy Kenny is a former newspaper foreign editor, non-profit foundation executive, and college journalism professor. He reported widely from Central and Eastern Europe, including Croatia and Bosnia during the early stages of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, and has taught journalism as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bucharest. He lived in Kosovo for a year and worked more recently in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Kenny’s narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Gettysburg Review, Irish Pages, The Kenyon Review Online, the Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere.
Pulling into the parking lot of The Riveredge, a banquet hall in Reading, Pennsylvania, a wave of glee rushed over me. I scanned the rows of SUVs and minivans for the now-familiar “I ♥ my Persian” bumper stickers and “Show Cats on Board” placards suctioned to rear windows. And, of course, there were many variations on those popular stick figure family decals: Stick-Dad with a baseball cap, a Stick-Mom with one long curly-cue for hair and a coffee mug in hand, and no fewer than three Stick-Kitties. Sometimes a Stick-Kid or two. Sometimes just Stick-Lady (Stick-Cat-Lady?) with any number of Stick-Cats. The license plates covered the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Ontario.
We made our way into the lobby, and I presented two cans of Fancy Feast to the woman at the registration table. “Oh, donations!” she said as she placed our cans in a crate heaped with tins of Friskies and Royal Canin. “So, you each get a dollar off admission.” I handed her a ten dollar bill and, when asked, told her we were already on the mailing list. We’d gotten the post card announcement a few weeks earlier.
This was our third cat show.
The previous show had also been here at the Riveredge, about an hour and a half drive from our home in Philadelphia. Our first show had been closer, just over the Delaware River at an armory in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Both Aaron, my boyfriend, and I had not expected this to become anywhere close to a recurring weekend outing. He had suggested the first show, about a year earlier, as what I assumed to be a sort of Hail Mary pass attempt in response to my wails of, “Why don’t we ever doooooo anythinnnng?” which increase in frequency every winter, when Philly is too cold to be comfortable and too warm to be majestic.
I think we were first drawn to the cat show out of that smug, even bratty sense of irony which seems more and more prevalent these days. Sure, we’re cat owners. Sure, our friends were jealous when they saw our posts to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram chronicling the day’s events. We were doing it for the story (as evidenced here). As we entered the show hall and wandered through the “benching area,” rows of deluxe-sized, individually decorated cat carriers – adorned with fabric, ribbons, feathers, and sparkles with themes of anything from America to Mardi Gras to the Green Bay Packers – there was no doubt that we had come to look at the freaks. And their cats.
It only took a moment of gawking for me to feel guilty. Aaron, meanwhile, was snapping photos, often pretending to take an one of me, or of a cat, while really trying to capture a mulletted, NASCAR shirt and fanny pack-wearing man in jean shorts and tube socks hustling a cat with bold tiger stripes, which I would soon learn was known as a Toyger (as in, “toy tiger”), to a judging ring. “That dude is awesome. Move to the left,” Aaron told me, shifting the lens of his phone away from me as the man stowed his cat in one of the holding cages behind the judge’s table.
“It’s not a big deal. My dad probably has that shirt,” I said. I’d grown up in a small town in New Hampshire that had both a dragway and a speedway. There is something about the largely working class crowd at these shows that reminds me of home: the curling iron-induced hairstyles, the drop ceilinged banquet hall, the raffled off gift baskets of Yankee Candles, Milano cookies, and Robusto Ragu.
“But your dad doesn’t have that cat,” Aaron said. “Look at that thing!” We took a few steps closer and stood behind the two rows of chairs that were set up to view this ring’s judging. Slowly, the holding cages were filling up with other Toygers, just as the ring next to us was filling up with their mini-leopard counterparts, the Bengals. As the holding cages, which were each marked with a blue (male) or pink (female) number card for each participant, filled, the cats’ owners settled in the chairs to await the judge.
Even after three shows, I can’t quite say how cat judging works. There are a lot of ribbons. The show hall has a number of these U-shaped “rings” around the perimeter, and each has a separate judge presiding all day. Individual shows run concurrently based on category – first, specific breeds (i.e. Persian, Sphynx, Ragdoll, Bobtail, Exotic, Maine Coon, and many, many more), then more general categories like short-haired alters (“alter” meaning spayed or neutered) and long-haired kittens, and, eventually, the coveted Best in Show.
Cats have the opportunity to advance if they score well in their breed, but the great thing I’ve learned about cat shows is that every cat is a winner. The judge gave his preliminary examination of each of the Toygers, taking the cat out of the cage, first stretching the cat out (“Look at the long, tubular body on this boy. Very nice.”), then placing it on the judging table, a plexiglass-covered and frequently disinfected platform with two twine-wrapped cylinders on either end. At my first show, I waited with nervous excitement each time a cat was placed on the platform, assuming that before long, someone would get spooked and leap into the sea of onlookers, many of whom were clad in animal prints. It’s never happened and based on my own cat’s surly-verging-on-violent nature, I can only imagine how much pre-show handling it must take to prime a cat for this spotlight.
The judge held the Toyger’s face and felt his cheeks, neck and ears. “He’s got a nice strong jawline and a good ear-set, spaced good and wide.” The judge then picked up a long wand with strands of tinsel and ran it up the platform’s side post. The cat immediately pounced, his front paws capturing the glimmering foil. The audience rumbled with laughter. “Playful boy!” the judge chuckled. “Excellent shoulder definition, too.”
Some cats were unfazed by the judge’s attempts to get them to extend to the posts, and a few even hissed when the judge approached their cage. “Okay, you won’t come out today,” the judge would say, stepping back.
But still, each cat was given a place, and it was always in the affirmative. After all of the ring’s contenders had been brought out, the judge would pace by the cages, take some notes, and arrange his placing tags, which would go first on each cat’s holding cage, and then on its carrier in the benching area, often attached to a large ribbon. “We’ll start with number 287, a sweet Toyger girl with a great personality, a stunning coat, and wonderfully wide-set eyes. My tenth best Toyger today,” the judge said, clipping a tag to 287’s cage. Later, the tag would be exchanged for a “10th Best Cat” ribbon. No quiet exit for being the worst. A prize for being 10th best.
“Yaaaay,” the onlookers said, not quite cheering, but enthusiastic enough as they clapped. They always said, “Yay” as the places were called, tenth through first.
There would always be a pause when it was down to the last two cats in a category. The judge took them each out, not for his own benefit, but for that of the rest of us. And probably for the sake of suspense as well. At this point, I glanced around to figure out who the two competing owners were, but had no luck. There was no clutching a co-owner’s arm or crossed fingers . It felt like everyone was waiting to hear what the judge had to say about each cat. “See how this boy’s eyes have a perfect almond shape, plus they’re this beautifully vibrant green,” he said as heads, including Aaron’s, nodded. Next cat. “This girl here has such a delicate yet solid body, and her muzzle is just textbook Toyger. She’s my best today.”
This “Yaaaay” had more pep. As the spectators in the know crowded the winner’s owner, an older woman in a purple blouse and silver tiger brooch, I caught the judge nuzzle the winning Toyger as he turned to place her back in the cage. Over the rest of the afternoon, I learned that this was his tendency. He didn’t nuzzle every cat, but about a third of his ring’s competitors would get a little affection on the way back to the cage. It was about more than structural integrity for this guy.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was less focused on the cats and how they placed, and more on the judges and how they got there. What did it take to become a cat show judge? Later in the afternoon, when Judge Chris from Toledo, Ohio urged each cat’s owner to tell his or her favorite Cat Show Story as she went through her judging. It became clear to me then that Chris and the other judges were either former participants in the show circuit, or who still competed, but in other regions. Many of them had known each other for decades. Most of the “best show” stories involved a high rank, often a first place ribbon, which came after years of showing and usually multiple cats.
“Hi, everybody, I’m Pam. But most of you’ve known me forever.” The woman now speaking was wearing a sweatshirt with Siamese cats bedazzled across the chest in rhinestones. A “Cat Mom” button was pinned by her neckline and her thick, curly blonde hair was pulled back with a scrunchie. “You all know Tom too,” she said, as she gestured toward the back of the crowd of spectators. A man with a “Cat Dad” button pinned to his polo shirt gave a little wave. “When Tom and I first started dating, cat shows were just starting to become ‘my thing,’ and Tom made it very clear that it was not going to be his.” The crowd chuckled. “But, eventually I got him to come to one show to volunteer, and the rest is history. He’s more into it than I am now. Opening our Holly Hill Cattery was his idea! So, this isn’t really one memory, but I have so many favorites, twenty years later, much poorer, and also happier.”
Pam wiped her eyes as Judge Chris handed her Cat #71, a small female with a smushed face which I knew by now placed her in the Exotic category. Pam walked with her 2nd Best Cat back to Tom, who kissed them both on the head, then wrapped them in his arms. At the judge’s podium, Chris fanned her face with her judge’s score card, her eyes glistening. For a moment, I thought mine might too. I was still there for the story, but it was a different one than I’d expected.
Jaime-Lee Josselyn and Primo
Jamie-Lee Josselyn is the Associate Director of Recruitment at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, where she also teaches nonfiction writing. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from Bennington College, where she was the nonfiction editor of The Bennington Review. She lives in the Italian Market neighborhood of Philadelphia with her boyfriend, her two cats, and her dog.
BEATING PLOUGHSHARES INTO iPODS
by Anya Lichtenstein
As a Conserva-dox Jew by upbringing and agnostic by nature, I don’t know whether I believe in the afterlife. Sometimes I’m certain that we are all just worm food. Other days I can feel my grandparents looking down on me from heaven while I’m opening a grad school acceptance letter or trying on dresses at Bloomingdales (my maternal grandmother believed above all in the god of retail).
In my hunt for a compelling afterlife scenario, I found that several cultures have done a thorough job figuring out where to send their dead and how. The ancient Norse believed the soul could wind up in a number of places: Helgafjell, the “holy mountain,” where the dead go on with their lives pretty much as usual; Hel, which is not as dreary or painful as its fiery Christian homophone; and Valhalla, which is essentially a Gold’s Gym, a predominantly male realm where fallen warriors pump iron in preparation for the last great battle, Ragnarök. Much like the Egyptians and their pyramids, the Norse sent the dead off on a 1,400 ºC funeral pyre with practical instruments. The packing list often included weapons and the dead person’s slaves, sacrificed for the journey.
The Ashanti of Ghana believe in Asamando, an underworld that resembles an Ashanti village on earth, only without famine or drought. The dead still have to farm and tend animals, though, so the Ashanti equipped their dead with farming tools. They also dance at the burial in order to enhance the survivors’ connection the next life.
Medieval Christians thought that both body andsoul contained the essence of the human being after death, which explains why they preserved the severed body parts of saints in intricately carved boxes.
The Jewish afterlife as presented to me at synagogue, Jewish day school, and sleep-away camp is far less straightforward. The term for the afterlife is olam ha’bah, which literally means the world to come. I learned about gan eden, the garden of eden (a version of heaven), and gehenom, which any Judaic studies teacher will tell you “is NOT hell,” but is really pretty much hell. At seven years old, my friends and I must have already internalized some concept of life after death. We used to sing, “Lashon ha’rah, lamed hey, go to gehenom the easy way,” which translates roughly to, “Gossip is the easy way to eternal damnation.” Unlike the ancient Norse and medieval Christians, though, Jewish tradition places the human essence fully in the soul, which severs from the body in death to begin its afterlife journey. You can’t take your slave with you to olam ha’bah. There is nothing remotely corporeal or material about gan eden or gehenom.
Seeking a more glamorous transport to the next life than Judaism’s strictly no-frills, wooden coffin, I stumbled across the latest trend in afterlife accoutrements: the CataCombo Sound System. Fredrik Hjelmquist, a Swedish music equipment store owner, has designed a surround-sound coffin with a 4G connection and electronic display system. The family of the occupant can craft a tailor-made playlist for their loved one, perpetuating the shout-out, “This one’s for you, baby,” for eternity, or at least until they die, too.
If this description hasn’t piqued your interest, the latest television advertisement for the CataCombo might. In the opening shot, a pinup blonde in a black shift and white elbow-length gloves stares intently at the high-tech vessel and runs her hands over its glossy black exterior. A deep male voice asks, “Do you believe that music is a universal, supernatural phenomenon?” and touts such amenities as “God-like comfort” and a “divine” eight-inch sub-woofer to ensure “life after death entertainment.” The whole thing is reminiscent of a Lexus commercial. I guess it’s only appropriate—if this coffin’s your ride to the underworld, you’d want it to be pimped out.
What does this $38,000 coffin say about the Swedes? Turns out, not much. There has been little interest in the product domestically. The birthplace of the Volvo is too practical for such consumer-driven frivolity. Or, perhaps—considering Volvo’s trademark of the phrase, “Drive Safely”—the Swedes are more concerned with preventing death than facing it. Most interest in the coffin comes from Canada and the US, from inquiring minds like mine, albeit with far deeper pockets. So what does this phenomenon say about us?
It is already passé to sigh, shake heads, and gripe that there is no escape from the plugged-in world. Every iPhone-carrying, headphone-donning twenty-year-old will tell you to f*** off if you do. Now that the final frontier of technological adopters—35 to 80 year-old women—are carrying iPhones too, few demographic groups are still complaining about hegemonic technology. And everybody likes some kind of music, be it classical or dubstep, live or in mp3 format. I like to think that I could listen to Beyonce until Judgment Day. Music is a “universal, supernatural phenomenon,” the CataCombo commercial proclaims. It’s a fact of life; why shouldn’t it be a fact of death?
What really trips me up about the CataCombo is the practical details. I want know what happens if you get a lemon. I don’t like to think of the lengths (and depths) a handyman would have to go to replace a faulty sub-woofer. Or what would happen if a particular track didn’t stop skipping? Does the deceased’s final resting place then become her own cacophonic torture chamber? If I’m going to spend eternity in a human boombox, I need a divine guarantee of battery life.
Then I think of the Ashanti and the Norse. For the Norse, grave goods were an investment in a very real future, insurance for safe passage into the next world. For the Valhalla-bound, insurance meant their sharpest sword. The Ashanti were similarly practical, but they also understood that dance and music were a powerful means to connect to those beyond the grave. What if, of all the possessions in this famine-riddled, war-ridden world, we chose music, not hoes and swords, to take with us into the next?
The Catacombo, then, might be a way to unplug not from technology, but rather from harsher practicalities. If we start thinking more musically about the next life, what might the repercussions be for this one? If it turns out there is an olam ha’bah and I bypass gehenom for gan eden, I hope Beyonce is there, too.
Anya Lichtenstein recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania,where she received the Rittenberg Prize for Best Undergraduate Student in English. Anya is the former chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Players Board of Governors, and recently performed the role of Kate Monster in Penn’s Quadramics Theatre Company’s production of Avenue Q.
The other day, I took my antsy four-year-old, Saskia, to the Y for Tumble and Play. The gym, outfitted with toddler-friendly stations—a gently sloping soft ramp here, another odd-shaped cushion-slash-mat there, a low, wide balance beam, and some hula hoops on the floor offered cute smalls the chance to toddle or crawl or run about. Their adults hovered or chased or basically ignored, depending. Saskia is on the cusp of outgrowing Tumble and Play. And at 48, maybe I have outgrown Tumble and Play, too.
These weren’t my peeps. In the noisy room, I felt very quiet. I stood there and remembered when I’d been one of them, a thirtysomething parent to smalls. I lived in that tot-centric world with playground—and the other parent chaperones—as primary destination. Like them, I routinely over-packed a diaper bag (before I got to the third child and began to shove a diaper in my purse). “And then, there was poop everywhere,” I heard one mom say, that last word hit hard and slow for emphasis. Like them, the blown-out diaper constituted major drama. So did the vomiting far from the toilet. “I know every one of Bob’s friends,” I heard someone else confide. Bob the Builder, of course: my toddlers’ ardor for trains or fairies became mine, too. I simultaneously worried about pretty much everything and felt protected, cocooned in a bubble of toddler babble and goldfish crackers. The world could, if I let it, simply drift out there.
As if these parents were in an old home movie that I could almost see myself in I remembered how often I felt lost. There was so much I didn’t know about how to care for my kids. What existed in seemingly equal measures were love and exhaustion and the mind numbing boredom of following those stocky legs and square feet around. They were the best children in the entire world and I would do absolutely anything for them. In fact, I had done much more than I’d ever imagined before they were born. When the first one didn’t bring in the milk, I pumped eight times a day for months, even though it meant I never slept more than three or four hours at a stretch until he was practically walking. I was so tired I felt logic splintering into pieces. The smallest disappointment brought me to tears. I cried every single day and with each day my ardor for my baby grew. It made no sense at all.
I did not toss the toddler’s fruit in a bowl; instead, I arranged a colorful medley on the plate. Whatever my little guys wanted to have, I wanted to give. With all my might, I wished that my efforts and good intentions would be enough. I wanted to be assured that if I stayed on the path begun with picture books—read at least 20 minutes a day to your child and literacy would happen—and fed them unsweetened yogurts and kissed boo-boos and endured tantrums I’d know where to go next, and what to do when we got there.
All that had changed. They grew. While I still love my children to pieces, it’s different. The eldest two, both teenagers, have moved beyond cute. The nine year-old, too, he’s adorable with his marble ramps and scooter rides and penchant for shoveling the driveway when it snows, but not always. These days I want them to clear their plates and tell me when they need a ride more than ten minutes before they need a ride. More than annoyances, I feel concerned about all that energy I expended to make everything perfect. It seems I’ve provided an uncomfortable juxtaposition to the imperfect world. What else could I have known to do? I was so deep in. Their smallness was all there was, their dependence, their preciousness. Tests and teams and using the bathroom independently or using the bathroom at all—let alone whatever you worried about when they sprouted facial hair or breasts—seemed impossibly far in the future. Naptime loomed menacingly enough.
As I stood amongst those younger parents, I almost wished to be preoccupied by small-kid concerns again. These days, the fabric of my parenting feels very creased and worn, palpably frayed. I do not feel wise or capable with teenage concerns. Much as I struggle to get the smallest one to sleep, the real hardship is to wake the eldest for school. Recorded your-child-was-tardy calls come nightly. I’m deep in now, too. I’m lost. The stakes—blackheads, homework, extracurricular activities, girlfriend, and tardiness—feel so high. I know they felt high when the concerns were diapers and nighttime wakeups and the ability to finesse the flip of the winter jacket over their heads. To nag a high school student about homework is as mind numbing as it was to follow a toddler around and around, if the toddler was cuter and light enough to pick up.
Those younger parents in clusters around the gym didn’t know about my two boys who stand taller than I do or my demon nine year-old skier. I didn’t wear a badge that announced myself as longtime mom rather than an old mom with one newer child. For a little while I wondered whether I appeared to be a last-gasp mom. Those mothers sometimes land in the younger people’s territory with babies and look like refugees, astounded by the crumbs and afraid to let their treasured child risk a fall.
I doubt I appear to be a stranger in a strange land, though, because I tend not to hover over my gal or stop her from much at all. In fact, I don’t always exactly pay attention to her. I often realize I’ve failed to remember the mechanics of early childhood. On a short plane trip this past winter I escorted my daughter to the bathroom four times. It dawned on me that when you travel with a small child, you should put an extra set of clothing and a plastic bag in your carry-on. I’d forgotten.
On the way home, I dutifully tucked the back-up clothing into the backpack. Then, I accompanied her on five trips to the bathroom in two-and-a-half hours, because the tiny bathroom, the loud flush and the vibrations while we walked made for such adventure and fun. I love when we are together and I can follow her lead, because I don’t always follow her lead; more often, in whatever way, we care for her around the others’ needs.
Her giant personality has taken root without such encompassing attentions. Through her I am reminded that much as I want to, I can’t do everything for my children; I can’t make their lives wonderful. I have to trust that my work—to love them up, to hold them accountable, to support them in how hard that is, to love them up some more—is what I have to give and that it is enough. Deep in as I am, I see glimmers of this. They care about the world around them and know how to cook. They are generally kind and sometimes clean. Surrounded by younger parents and their younger families came the reminder of how incredibly grateful I am for my older children and for this youngest and for myself, too—the oldest parent in the room.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine, and Salon. She keeps a personal blog, Standing in the Shadows, at the site of the news publication the Valley Advocate, and a tumblr, Refractions. She is a sometimes contributor to Momfilter. Follow her on twitter– @standshadows.
My parents never owned their own video camera—in the 1990s, it was the sort of luxury item (like a snow blower) that could be borrowed from a relative or neighbor when needed. With my Uncle Joe’s bulky camcorder hoisted on his shoulder, my dad would record birthdays, vacations, and Christmases. The camera was a heavy machine, much too big for John and me to ever play with; it was obsolete even by 1990, when handheld camcorders became the tool of choice for doting parents. Nevertheless, my dad ignored his bad back on those special occasions and accumulated hours of footage of us running through the sprinklers in our backyard and ripping wrapping paper off presents. The impulse to document stopped around 1997—by that time, I was 8 years old and John was 11. Maybe we weren’t cute enough to immortalize on moving film anymore. More likely, life just got too busy—who could remember to borrow a camera in the endless cycle of dance recitals, baseball games, First Holy Communions, and trips to the beach?
About the time that my dad stopped recording our major life events, I started watching our home videos. Back then, when I was eight or nine, the videos showed me what my life had been like in the time before my first memories. I would sit pretzel-style on our crimson carpet, gaze up at the wood-paneled television, and realize that my cousin Kim used to try to open all my birthday presents when I was a toddler. Mostly, I thought the videos were funny: the short-shorts Uncle Tom wore in 1990 were funny; the way Uncle David always said, “The Jets are Number 1!” to the camera was funny. John would watch the videos with me and point out what a weird little sister I used to be. His favorite example: on Christmas morning, 1992, when I am three, Dad tries to wake me up to get me to open presents. I refuse and hide my face in my Beauty and the Beast pillow, crying: “Stop, stop, stop, stop! Let me get some rest, you!”
When I think of my childhood now, I can recall that Christmas in detail because I have relived it again and again. I know I got a Playskool dollhouse that year—it was pink and white, and it came with a mommy, a daddy, a brother and a baby girl, just like in our real house. But, I can’t really remember for certain what life had been like for me when I was three years old. Did I nap everyday? What did Mom and I do together when we had the house to ourselves every afternoon? Dad never videotaped the regular days—the Sunday morning French toast breakfasts (no crusts for me), the nightly father-son pitching practice in the backyard. I know these things happened, but I can’t see them clearly.
A few Christmases ago, I transferred some of our home videos to DVD., I transferred some of our home videos to DVD. No one has a working VCR these days, and I hadn’t been able to watch the old tapes for at least five years. Now, at 23, when I watch the tapes on my laptop, I notice more. I hear my mom’s strong New York accent—something that never hit my ear as out-of-the-ordinary as a child; something I don’t hear when I think of her voice now. I catch the softness, sweetness of her tone when she talks to John or me or our cousins. I see the quick glances between my mom and dad—they didn’t need to talk to each other to communicate a message. I see my nanny’s curved spine, my dad’s walk. And I notice just how much I used to cling to my mom. Even I got older—4, 5, 6—I didn’t stop sitting in her lap or reaching up my arms at her, asking to be picked up.
I notice these things because I had forgotten about them. Or, maybe not forgotten—maybe the memories were all there, buried underneath; maybe I just needed to hear the voices again to recalibrate my inner movie—the one that plays when I’m alone or when I can’t sleep.
strong>My favorite home video is the one of my first birthday. August 4, 1990: a bright, hot day. Mom dressed me in a frilly white jumper with neon pink trim. My cousins are all wearing bathing suits, battling with Super Soakers on our back lawn. My Uncle Joe videotaped that day, so my dad makes some rare appearances at the edges of the frame. He gets ready to cut the Carvel ice cream cake, saying, “Watch your fingers!” to my cousins, whose hands are all in the icing. He grills the burgers and hot dogs; he talks to his brothers-in-law about the Yankees. Dad has on a short-sleeved button-down shirt, khaki shorts, and striped tube socks—the sort of thing he always wore at home in the summer. He’s wearing something on a black cord around his neck—maybe it’s his NYPD badge in a leather case, maybe he was on call for work that day. Was he stressed out about the office on my first birthday—about the reports he hadn’t tapped out on his automatic typewriter? Maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe it’s just the cord for his clunky Nikon film camera.
My mom gives her baby girl the most attention. She carries me around the backyard on her hip, showing me off to my aunts and uncles. At 12 months, I couldn’t walk by myself yet, but I could toddle around if mom held my hands. When it’s time for presents, my mom reads each card out loud and carefully tears the wrapping paper from each present, making sure everyone knows who gave what gift. She holds up each set of Osh Kosh overalls, each stuffed animal, each picture book, while I balance on my Great Aunt Lena’s thighs and play with a Mylar balloon. Mom had permed hair that year, and she’s wearing what looks like denim culottes.
My parents barely interact at all on film. There were easily three dozen people at that party; I hardly recognize most of them because I haven’t seen them in over a decade. My mom’s cousins came with their kids; neighbors and friends brought me gifts. Dad tries to talk to each of his in-laws; Mom is busy filling water balloons and making sure there’s enough iced tea. I can’t hear them talking to each other at all over the din of screaming kids and adults making endless small talk. I could watch this video and decide that my parents had a distanced relationship in 1990—that they were cool and pragmatic in their conversations.
But videotape, like still-film, lies by omission. I may perceive more when I watch this video now, but I can’t see what’s not there—like the whispers my mom and dad might have shared in the kitchen, away from the camera. All my memories of my parents tell me that they were never affectionate in public. That was private. They were very composed.
My videos are immutable. I can change the tape, but I can’t create new frames—I can’t see what might have happened, what could have been. Where the tapes stop, the fuzzy memories flood. They are imperfect: snippets of conversations, the glance of my dad’s smile, my mom’s soft hair. I can’t fast forward, but when I close my eyes, I can pause.
Kristen Martin is currently living in Italy, where she is a Fulbright Research Fellow studying food culture and the Italian discourse surrounding gastronomy. In the fall of 2013, she will begin an MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and is originally from Long Island. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in VICE magazine, Philadelphia magazine, Obit-mag.com, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and Filament.
Shorthand we just called it “Bluebird,” but technically the role was Princess Florina. Hers is the tale of a maiden who wanted to learn to fly, and about the prince, disguised as the blue bird who taught her. For the celebration of Aurora’s wedding in the third act of Sleeping Beauty, the Bluebird story, compressed, became entertainment for both onstage wedding guests and audience members. Bluebird was a common choice to teach young dancers advanced enough learn some repertoire. Reminded of many famous dancers who made their soloist debuts as Princess Florina, when given the role in a showcase, I thought of it as a sign of things to come.
My costume, royal blue with feathers on the platter tutu as well as a feathered headpiece, did make me feel a bit like a delicate bird. Wanting to stroke the feathers with my fingers, I learned restraint by not mussing my costume, resisting the urge to pet and caress. In a platter tutu, I felt like a real dancer. Platter tutus signified a rite of passage, at least for me, and still, when I see young dancers in platter tutus, I feel a little nostalgia for my royal blue beginnings. As a very young girl I’d had a Barbie doll that came in a platter tutu and with crown permanently attached to her head, which I adored until I realized Barbie dolls are made so that they have no turnout, and ballet is based on turning out by rotating from the hips. Barbie’s leg only swung back to front. Barbie could never have been a dancer, not for real, but in my tutu, I thought perhaps I was a dancer.
The bodice of my costume had a long series of hooks, and when one of the backstage dressers helped clasp them, it made me think of what it must have been like to wear a corset. Made with stiff boning, the bodice restricted my middle, binding me in and making it hard to breathe. And yet I liked that about it, believing because it was unforgiving it made my dancing somehow better, pain and beauty intertwined into a mythically-enhanced concoction.
Costuming aside, Florina challenged me in other ways. Although I excelled at petit allegro in my technique classes, which was needed for the part, Princess Florina was not the kind of role I’d expected to get. Lighthearted, a quality I would not use to describe either my technique or my personality, the motivation behind the steps was that of flight, learning to fly. Florina, the little flora, a tiny and fresh and lovely princess. In my naive early days of performing, I felt challenged to be the role I was given—weather a mouse or a party girl in The Nutcracker, or simply a part of the Waltz of the Hours, I didn’t just want to dance my roles. I want to become them. Because I didn’t see myself as a Princess Florina, I found it tough to be her. My other early roles were icy, winter-infused parts, Snowflake and Winter Fairy, and I cultivated the persona. Florina challenged my very sense of self, and I struggled.
Choreography can be a map, and the steps in the Florina variation helped me—as if tripping forward in bourrées and flittering échappés, light and nearly flickering piqué fouetté, the bourrées again. What message could I find hidden in the architecture of the steps themselves? What you do became who you were to become. For me, a princess, regal, mimicking a bird, airy with flight. The steps aimed to reconcile the two in my body, if it was up to the task.
The full tale of Florina, not entirely depicted as part of the celebration of Aurora’s wedding, goes something like this. A king has a daughter in a first marriage—Florina—who, during her father’s second marriage gets locked in a tower by her stepmother, who had an ugly daughter she wanted married off. Fearing Florina would capture the hearts of suitors, off went Florina, standard fare for this kind of story. Pretty girls are always getting locked up for the mere offense of being attractive. A prince, enamored with Florina and disguised as Bluebird, comes to her window in her tower prison. Of course, Florina can’t tell he’s a prince.
Can we ever tell who are the princes?
The Bluebird visits Florina in captivity, bringing her presents, and she, growing fond of him, caresses his wings and feathers. The queen, Florina’s stepmother, finds out about the Bluebird visits, and closes the window to Florina’s chamber, keeping Bluebird out, but Florina sings out for him.
In the Sleeping Beauty version, the choreography imitates Florina’s call to Bluebird. The ending pose of the variation, on one knee, hand behind the ear, the dancer poses indicating the call and response. The trick was making it look effortless, piqué arabesque, and then the gentle kneel, soft swish of arms to the listening pose. Delicate, I struggled with the pose in rehearsal. My arms beckoned, “Get here, bird,” instead of the gentle “Where are you? Please come to me.”
My coach, a former soloist with the Hamburg Ballet, kept correcting me with an incantation of “Soft, soft, soft. Don’t plunk down.”
In order to free Florina, Bluebird teaches her to fly, so they can travel aloft, destined for those places where fairy tale characters live happily ever after. To say I thought about this learning the pas de deux, the variation, or the coda for Florina would be a lie. But the effect was there, embedded in the steps. What I didn’t know or understand was sometimes gifted to me in the dance itself.
The coda, the flight: my partner danced, arms replicating flight, and I entered in the upstage corner as he rotated through multiple pirouettes. Light piqué turns from the corner, single, double, single double. Chaînés in canon, first him, then me, graceful instruction. It wasn’t unlike actual birds, which alight on a perch, hop or take flight, only to perch again. Each step chosen interpreted the weightless, skittering movements of actual birds, but with the elegance intrinsic to ballet. Harder to accomplish, too, since they also were bound and confined by the demands of ballet technique. Still only a teenager and apprentice dancer, performing pieces from the ballets felt complicated in a way I couldn’t quite explain at the time. The birds did what they did naturally; for me, Florina’s movements contained within a joie de vivre I found alien. Who trapped in a tower would be so happy? Could the idea of flight insight such sense of joy? Still, I took on Florina for what it was, and loved the role simply because it was difficult.
Later, I would understand the obstacles of Princess Florina in a different way. Lightheartedness seemed so elusive, and even now, I’m not sure exactly. To be lighthearted means to cast away cares and worries, and I have never been and still do not shed these easily.
In my royal and feathered tutu, the light around me took on a bluish tinge, and I became something other than myself. It’s the release that created the performance high. Unlike any other feeling I have known, it was as if for that moment I slipped underneath someone else’s skin. There, I could be fresh and lovely, the likeness of Florina.
Words will never capture performance adequately. Of the sensations I most remember there was the heat of the stage’s lights on my skin, compared to the cool dampness of the backstage. Also, the look and feel of my costumes, which have always stayed more vivid in my memories and imagination than any pirouette or jump or extension of my leg. What I did was gone the moment I did it. Performing disappears as it happens, a vapor, a curl of smoke, a waking dream. And even if I emerged out of this blue-hazed memory more like Florina trapped in her tower than Florina in flight, I had ahead of me the task of trying to commit memory to words, a fairy tale itself, daring to dream again of my own past.
Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, WV, splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. She is an American Ballet Theatre certified teacher and earned her MFA in Creative Writing at West Virginia University. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Renée was the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.
A conversation between a writer wife and her artist husband, in a quest to understand
Important Subject: A chicken
BK: You spend hours in your garage studio (among the ghosts of a skinny car, in the shadow of night visitors, within walls yellowed by old fuels) fiddling with electronic pencils and twinned screens, and you come up with … a chicken? Why a chicken? How did your chicken begin?
WS: It began with a sphere about the size of a golf ball. I’m sure electrons are involved but what is really being manipulated are vertices. This chicken was really a way to test 3D printing technology (color and all). No lofty idea—just that as someone who works with 3D “art,” I wasn’t going to leave that stone unturned.
BK: And I thought I had married into lofty. Didn’t you promise me lofty? Okay, then. You began to pull and poke at this thing, began to manipulate these vertices. The computer can’t resist you. There isn’t any tactile feel to this material, no smell, nothing that gets your hands dirty. Do you still consider this art? Because, at the very least, I married into art. Didn’t I?
WS: That part feels more like a craft than an art to me. I am usually making images that will exist in two-dimensional space (printed or on a computer screen). What I like about the process is the flexibility of constructing something in virtual space and then “walking” in or around the object to determine which view will work best for my purposes. I don’t have to capture the decisive moment right away. I can capture the whole moment and then decide later.
BK: I married a craftsman? Now you tell me? You married a writer, by the way. And she’s never changed her professional tune. In any case: You painted your chicken, you hollowed it out—all virtually, of course. What, precisely, were you hoping for as you worked? How did you know you were done? I know it wasn’t when I called you for dinner, because you showed up late. Repeatedly.
WS: It was done when I felt it made a big enough contribution to the cultivation of the human spirit.
BK: As you do. Every day. What does this new art replace, in terms of traditional, tactile craft?
WS: You can now turn very intricate and complex geometry into a precise physical object, something that would be very difficult to do by hand. You can, for example, make an object based on a mathematical equation (like a gyroid). With this process there are fewer limits on producing what you can imagine.
BK: You make me afraid, very afraid. I have had encounters with your imagination.
BK: Then answer this: What can never be replaced in terms of traditional, tactile craft?
WS: Nothing can replace the story that hands leave on an object.
BK: Such a nice sentiment. You make me fall in love all over again. (With you, in case you were wondering.) How does this 3D stuff compare to the actual pottery work you have begun to do—in a real studio, with real people, real dust, real kilns?
WS: They are completely separate things for me. When I work with 3D software I need to have a clear path to where I’m going with it. I need to know what I’m trying to make in order to figure out how to do it. With pottery I’m still part of my own audience; I don’t really know what it will be or how it will turn out, even though there is a certain amount of preconception in pottery. Things like gravity, the properties of the material, tools, dexterity etc. all play equal parts along with the brain.
BK: How does this change what is possible for artists? Because you are, also, still an artist. Right?
WS: I think it opens up another door for those who are in the business of making things. 3D printing has been around for a while but it has recently become more available and affordable to everyone. I’ve seen 3D printed jewelry in galleries and there are also people studying how to use similar technology in large-scale products (such as architectural components). The use of 3D software in general is just another tool in the shed. Creative types will always find ways of putting it to good use—either as a way of making images and/or physical objects.
William Sulit, a photographer and an award-winning illustrator, received his master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. Today he is the design partner in the boutique marketing communications firm, Fusion Communications. His photography and illustrations have appeared in Ghosts in the Garden (authored by Beth Kephart) and Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business (authored by Beth Kephart and Matthew Emmens) and will be featured in the forthcoming Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, a novel of 1871 Philadelphia written by Beth Kephart (Temple University Press/New City Community Press).
Beth Kephart, an award-winning writer of fifteen books, is the strategic writing partner in Fusion Communications. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, writes essays and reviews for a number of national publications, and blogs daily atwww.beth-kephart.blogspot.com. Her most recent novel, Small Damages, was named the year’s most lyrical young adult novel by The Atlantic Wire.
I stayed up ’til 1:00 AM a few weeks ago, and where was the party? At my desk, with everything but the keyboard covered in postage stamps. Polish stamps, Poczta Polska, all issued between 1928 and 1969. Musty old stamps honoring tanks and trade union congresses, marking six-year plans and newspaper tricentennials and the 1000-year anniversary of the country itself. Clumps of stamps memorializing uprisings in Silesia, the recovery of territories, and planes, lots of planes, carrying mail or flying over cities. New steelworks, new electric plants, well-muscled and barefoot coal miners, studious children, Curie and Kopernik and korfball, Chopin and Paderewski, Stalin and Hitler, zoo animals and butterflies. Not one stamp memorialized or honored or even acknowledged Catholicism.
I found them all in the basement of a house my stepson bought in a short sale. The stamps had moldered away for 30 unweatherproofed years, and in carting them home before the junk haulers came, my plan was to stumble upon a rarity, sell it on eBay, and become rich. Or at least get the driveway resurfaced. A toe—no, a toenail—dipped into the world of Philately indicated that my mound of Perf Lt Cancel Hinged Non-Overprint Singles were unlikely to yield much, if anything at all.In fact, not a stamp sold. The only expenditure was time I spent Googling, amassing fragments of world history and a working knowledge of who had hosted the Olympics over that 41-year span.
After fruitless relistings and price cuts, I’ve given up dreams of fortune, but the stamps (now carefully separated by theme into plastic sandwich bags) still clutter my office. I’m having trouble parting with them, just as the glimpses they gave into their collector’s life, long gone, and a world even longer gone, have lodged inextinguishable embers into my brain.
Lise Funderburg‘s latest book, Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, is a contemplation of life, death, and barbecue, and it was chosen by Drexel University for its 2012 Freshman Writing Program Summer Read. Lise’s work has been published in The New York Times, TIME, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, MORE, Chattahoochee Review, Oprah Magazine, and Prevention. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, and the Paris American Academy.
“Here’s what you do,” a friend said to my husband, eyeing the dreck on our front porch, residuals from a previous sale: the single chair, incomplete set of plates, fancy dolls our daughters never played with, battered sleigh they had outgrown. “You go to the bank. You get $200.00 cash. You pay someone a hundred bucks to haul this shit away. You give your wife the other $100.00 and tell her it was a huge success. Nobody wants stuff you don’t want.”
How I wish my husband had done it, though I’d insisted on the sale.
When we’d moved to the suburbs twenty years before, we’d paid for a vacation by selling “antiques” we’d spent years collecting in Germantown. These things filled our imagined future, but didn’t fit in our new house. Nor did the wedding crystal I’d been carrying from the basement when I accidentally let go. I’d heard that delicate world—ring holders and sherry glasses—shatter, and put the box out at the curb without even looking inside.
We’ve emptied four houses now—my childhood home and my husband’s, our first apartment and my in-laws’ last—and are weary of clutter’s delusions: that there will be another day for the dot matrix printer, the blouses that need ironing, the hand tools rusting in the shed. When something comes in, something must go. Still, we want our stuff to count.
My parents let me hold a yard sale once, the summer I was twelve. As I disposed of beloved stuffed animals and my prized rainbow collection of Revlon eye shadow, I didn’t understand why they didn’t intervene. Now I do.
To be that young again, to want for nothing, to let life pass lightly through your hands. What remains is fossil, an impression, the taphonomy of ruin.
I said it would be nice (look how simple I made it: nice) not to be marooned in the blue-black of night with my thoughts, I said the corrugated squares of the downstairs quilt accuse me, I said the sofa pillows are gape-jawed, I said there are fine red hairs in the Pier 1 rug that will dislodge and drown in my lungs, I said I can’t breathe, I said, Please.
It wasn’t hard.
But you were asleep by then, west to my east, uncorrupted by the plain and the soft of my imagination, the occasional and wire whipped and cruel: you couldn’t be touched; you wouldn’t stir; you. I broke and I climbed out and I climbed through and I climbed down into the blue black red threads and sat until a fat clack cracked the hollow between the walls and I knew that it was the long-nailed scrabble of a squirrel or the procrastination of the fox or the wolf that is my thoughts.
As someone who has always felt the urge to take pictures of myself, I don’t have a ready answer.
For the longest time I felt shame for this urge to see myself through my lens. Blame it on the Christian ethos of original sin that shaped my early life, but this habit of posing for my own camera felt like an exercise in vanity. Up until the Instagram era, I rarely, if ever, shared my self-portraits with others.
There is one self-portrait from 2001 that I printed and gave to a friend, but the image is out of focus, blurred and impressionistic like a Monet, and you’d never know I was sitting in the windowsill of the Rodin Museum in Paris basking in the June afternoon light. It’s the perfect non-self-portrait.
Since then, I have come to understand that my human experience is shaped by mental illness: depression. Understanding and accepting this diagnosis was the first hurdle, and required me to eschew more palatable labels like “over sensitive,” “the creative temperament,” and that Dr. Phil standby “just feeling sorry for yourself.”
The most acute moments of depression sail on the wings of despair like an albatross pumping her ancient wings. The wind makes you squint and you wonder if the ride will ever end. In my experience, the most painful symptom is the inability to enjoy basic social interactions. In my late 20’s and early 30’s, how often did I stand around at parties faking my mood while the back of my brain recalled happier times when I used to enjoy talking to friends, meeting new folks around town, taking joy in the shifting night landscape of a city or a friend’s company?
My hiatus in taking self-portraits, from 2007-2011, coincides with a dark chapter in my emotional life that’s at odds with what I was accomplishing on the surface. By November of 2011, I had a burgeoning small business, professional faculty over my creative skills, a body in excellent physical shape, and a mental landscape that threatened to fracture at any moment. All that I had was built on the intense manic spells I suffered through, and all that I had achieved seemed to teeter in the strong winds of my illness.
Around this time, in December of 2011, I downloaded Instagram. I thought it was just another app that offered filters for your iPhone photos. My second Instagram was a self-portrait as I walked to a party. Within an hour an old boyfriend that I was fond of left a comment. I felt connected: connected to another and connected to myself in a way I had not felt in a very long time, and in a way that was less public (at the time) than Facebook. In those early days of Instagram, it felt like a club for the sensitive, over-observant nerds.
I threw myself into Instagramming, relishing how a filter would transform an image, how textures and colors and light were celebrated or muted with the tap of a finger. And in the midst of this exploration I included plenty of self-portraits and it seems in some way that this app helped me to see myself in a way that kept my depression at arm’s length.
Through Instagram, I came to understand that my urge to take self-portraits was akin to cutting. That is to say, through the years I turned to self-portraits much in the way sufferers of depression use cutting. I took self-portraits to feel alive, to disassociate from the pain and confusion in my brain, to see myself in this moment now, alive, pulsing with life, beautiful and vibrant, exquisitely calibrated for my own perfection.
By late August of 2012, Instagram was my lifeline to a thriving creative life. The pictures speak for themselves. There I am traipsing through the empty dunes of Provincetown’s famous salt marshes. I could barely believe what I was capable of expressing to the world, and then, plop! my phone tipped over on its tripod into the Atlantic and I had just enough time to send my last few pictures to a friend’s gmail before the phone shut down forever.
For about 2 days I was lost to myself. And then I realized what was next: to shoot in this spirit with my professional camera. Instagram had prepared me to take this pursuit seriously, to listen to my most primal instinct to create, and what followed was an extraordinary period of personal exploration painstakingly documented for myself, and perhaps for the larger conversation I desired to be a part of.
Self-portrait in the salt marsh, Cape Cod, September 2012
Self-portrait in the salt marsh, Cape Cod, September 2012
Listening to Glenn Gould’s albums of Bach’s keyboard music, you will hear a noise in the background: the sound of someone humming. As a child I gravitated toward the Gould recording on the shelf that held my parents’ collection of LPs, everything ranging from the Bee Gees to Schumann, covers worn on the edges. Carefully placing it on the turntable, I dropped the needle on the vinyl, and then dropped myself to the floor where I would press my ear into the soft brown cover of the large speakers that were half my height, hold my breath, and listen as Gould’s voice periodically accompanied the Preludes and Fugues.
Interpreting music is a creative process conducted through the medium of the body. It is a strange, mysterious sensation to intellectually conceive the idea of a sound, generate it through the mechanics of muscles and bones, hear it played back through metal and wood, and respond emotionally to the actualized audio of the imagination. Sometimes, when all the factors cohere, a current, a kind of irresistible force, materializes; the humors align, synergy electrifies corporeal property. Humming can be the invisible thread, binding and weaving—but it is not restricted to the audible variety. A “hum” can manifest silently, present deep within the physical core where a resonance is struck, and internal tissues deep within react. In these moments, the ancient question of mind and body renders obsolete. In the truest sense of the word, the sensation is wonderful: astonishing, and mysterious.
Adulthood bestows many privileges, but its responsibilities can also work to rob the days of small wonders. When we were children the whole world was the Magic Kingdom with no entrance fee. Presently, sitting at the piano, getting lost in the sounds, I gain re-entry to more innocent days. I’m back on the floor, mesmerized by the simple act of humming.
Kathryn J. Allwine Bacasmot
Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist, harpsichordist, musicologist, critic, and freelance writer. She received her Masters in Musicology at New England Conservatory with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla.