Archives

Guest Posts, The Body

Mythical Beasts

March 28, 2017
hair

By Beth Cartino

“Don’t you secretly want to be fuckable?”

We were in my small kitchen and I was cutting her bangs when she asked me this.  I had just finished dying her hair to cover the course white wires that were sprouting and multiplying on her scalp. I froze for an instant comb and shears halted in midair and then…

“No,” I said the word with conviction. Her brown eyes peered up at me through her thick dark brown hair, I could feel her assessing my answer trying to decide if it was the truth, and I looked way from her focusing instead on making sure her bangs weren’t crooked.  We were both silent for a while and I moved around to the side and began to cut in long layers to frame her oval face (the perfect face shape according to every fashion magazine ever).  Into the silence and safely unable to make eye contact with me she says, “I always want guys to want me, you know? I’m single and I’m almost fifty.”

I hear the unasked question in the slight tremble that enters her voice and the way it raises in pitch at the end.

What if no one ever wants me again?

What if this is it?

What if I die alone? Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting, Sexual Assault/Rape

The Conversation We’re Not Having With Our Sons

March 26, 2017

By Amy Hatvany

I don’t remember my parents talking to me about sex, other than making it clear that opening my legs to a boy before I got married was a sin. What I do remember is thinking that I was a lesbian because I masturbated—I knew girls who touch other girls were gay, so if I touched myself, didn’t that mean the same thing? I was confused, ill-informed, and scared, so I shoplifted a Penthouse Letters magazine when I was in middle school, desperate to understand my own body and if the raging, hormonal urges that sometimes took me over were normal. But instead of validation, what I found were graphic stories of women who submitted to men’s forceful, probing mouths, fingers, and dicks. These women protested at first—some of them even said no—but soon found themselves swooning, powerless to resist the “pleasure” of violation.

Years later, I would wonder if what I learned about consent from these descriptions—that it was a man’s job to make a woman realize what she really wanted; that her “no” was simply waiting to be turned into a yes—was part of what kept me from telling anyone about the boy who unzipped his jeans and jammed his erection into the back of my throat when we were sitting together in the front seat of his car. I was on the edge of fifteen, and he was older, someone I knew, someone I’d had a crush on, and so I didn’t fight, I didn’t try to stop him. I only endured, waiting for the pain and paralyzing terror of what he was doing to loosen its vice-like grip on my chest. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, writing

Butterfly of the Moment

March 22, 2017
writer

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

After graduate school I drifted into a glamour job as a publicist for a well-known book publisher, where they paid me a pittance to write press releases and book jacket copy. It was fun for a while, until I went to my high school reunion and someone said, “I thought by now I’d be reading about you in the New York Times Book Review.”

“No,” I said, cringing. “I’m the publicist who makes sure other writers books get reviewed there.” I’d been editor in chief of our school yearbook; my poetry had been published in the school literary journal. My classmates remembered me as a writer; I was the one who’d forgotten.

So I signed up for a fiction writing class at the New School in Manhattan with an instructor who’d once written for the New Yorker. I’d never written short stories before. I turned one in; the next week, he returned it with a note: “I have several strong feelings concerning the story’s marketability. Rather than go into them here I ask that you telephone me so that we may discuss those possibilities.”

He wanted my permission to give the story to his agent, Candida Donadio, a name I knew from my work in book publishing. She was legendary, a hard drinking, potty-mouthed, tough old broad who’d been the agent of her generation, representing Thomas Pynchon, Mario Puzo and Phillip Roth. I felt like a fraud. I’d written exactly one short story. But I told the instructor yes.

A week later Candida sold the story to Cosmopolitan magazine for the dazzling sum of $1500. She invited me to a celebratory lunch at the Russian Tea Room. I’d pictured her as a cultured, elegantly dressed older woman; the maitre d’ showed me to a table where a short, heavy-set woman with hair coiled in an unfashionable bun atop her head sat chain smoking.

“Why you’re just a baby,” she rasped. We shook hands. I could barely breathe, let alone eat. I was kneeling at the altar of literature. All through lunch she fed me publishing tidbits. The first book she’d ever sold, she said, had been a novel by Joseph Heller called Catch-18. They changed it because Leon Uris was already publishing a book called Mila-18. “He switched it to ‘Catch-22 because Oct. 22nd is my birthday,” Candida said.

What was I doing there? I was an imposter. This was a fluke. Should I come clean? “You know,” I ventured, “I don’t have a body of work to show you yet. This is my first story.”

She cackled. “You’re full of shit,” she said. A month later she sold my second story to Cosmopolitan.

It’s not supposed to be this easy, I thought. And of course it wasn’t. Over the next few years I wrote several more stories, amassing a collection of encouraging rejection letters from the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Each Christmas I sent a gift box of fruit and cookies to Candida’s office. “You’re a honey for thinking of me, and I send you in return good wishes for the New Year in which I hope to see a novel by L.C.,” she wrote.

I produced that novel. Candida hated it. She returned the manuscript to me with a note so crushingly painful it still makes me shudder. It ended, “I regret so much. And after all the years of pears and cookies. Lordy!!”

Eventually I scraped myself off the floor.

Even if I wasn’t a novelist, even if the most high-powered literary agent on the planet told me I was full of shit, I was still a writer. Isn’t a painter still an artist even when no one buys his canvases?

“It is necessary to write,” Vita Sackville-West said, “if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.”

I still fill the days with words, because I cannot imagine doing anything else. Writing calls me home — to myself.
ketchup+is+my+favorite+vegetable-Front+Cover+090915+reduced
Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir, Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Brain, Child, Brevity, Literary Mama, and The Manifest-Station. For more information, visit her website at http://www.lianekupferbergcarter.com/, follow her on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/LianeKupferbergCarter/ and Twitter at @Lianecarter.

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Anxiety, Guest Posts

Repurposing Anxiety

March 20, 2017
anxiety

By Lola B.

I don’t remember being an anxious kid growing up. But to be honest, I don’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning, so I can’t really say that “remembering” is my thing. I sure as hell am not going to ask my mom to remind me what I was like as a child. That would just be inviting danger. Sort of like asking Kellyanne Conway and Alec Baldwin to come on over to the house for cocktails. It might be highly entertaining at first, but someone will end up on the floor in the fetal position, drooling and mumbling about global warming. No one wants to see that.

Somehow, over time, it seems that I have developed a boatload of anxiety. And, quite frankly, I’m irritated about it! There’s no doubt that I have earned my anxiety stripes in recent months following the arrest and conviction of my husband for drug trafficking. When the FBI calls to chat, that will get your heart racing. When you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills, that gets your attention. When your daughter is terrified in her own home and yet is heartbroken to move out of the house she loved, that just absolutely kicks you in the gut.

But the thing about anxiety is, it gets in the way. Worry hinders joy. It keeps you from fully experiencing all that life has to offer. You’re either too anxious and fearful to participate, or too worried while you’re participating, so you miss the good stuff. The parts where joy lives. Where the exhales happen. The space where your heart sings.

So I took my anxiety to Restoration Hardware to see if maybe I could repurpose it. I could take this old, worn out, tiresome thing and shine it up to reuse in a different way. A way that would acknowledge and honor the fact that life is sometimes scary and hard and messy, but also wondrous and joyful and worth the risk.

As I disassembled my anxious feelings, I could see each piece more clearly.  I could see that in anxious moments, I was fixated on what I was sure would destroy me.  But what if I used that same intensity and took it to the light?  Used the energy in a positive way?  I could repurpose that intensity into being focused. Shaping and directing my path with intention rather than allowing fear to run the show.

I could strive for excellence and not perfection. Chasing perfection is an exhausting, never-ending loop.  Excellence means I gave it a valiant effort.  My best effort – knowing that sometimes my “best” could look a little sketchy if I was hangry.

And for the extra scary stuff, I morphed my anxiety into badassery. Being bold.  Standing my ground.  Speaking my truth – even if my voice shook.

I used my badassery to get brave enough to tell people that I needed a minute. Whether that was a minute to breathe and collect my thoughts before making an important decision, or a minute because they were pissing me off and I was going through a verbal tirade in my head. None of their business. I just needed a damn minute!

I learned how to breathe through the crazy. To plant both feet solidly on the ground, close my eyes, and just breathe.

I may not remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I do remember being six years old and saving my three-year-old sister from drowning. I have worried about her ever since. Maybe that’s where the anxiety started, and then it grew and flourished in the life experiences that shape all of us. But worry does not have to rule us, define us, or limit us. If we repurpose it to work for us, then anxiety gets out of the way and joy slips in through the side door.

Ok, gotta run. I’m headed over to Home Depot to see if they can help me renovate my stress.

When LolaB’s husband was arrested for drug trafficking, writing became an outlet for the craziness that ensued. She is divorced after 20+ years of marriage, and raising two daughters on her own. LolaB writes to shine light in dark places, and to heal herself and her children. She is a writer of hope at www.RRLolaB.com. She can also be followed on FaceBook, Instagram, and posts on Twitter as @RRLolaB.

 

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Addiction, Guest Posts

Angel in the Addict

March 19, 2017
angel

By Jacqueline Evans

I met my first angel in rehab, and she appeared in the form of a heroin addict named Joanie.

She introduced herself to me while I was sitting on the back porch of a brand new women’s sober living facility, searching for my cigarettes in a tattered Jansport backpack filled with dirty clothes. At the time, it was the only possession to my name.

I was 21 and strung out on meth and alcohol and my parents had somehow managed to negotiate with me, the terrorist in their lives, and get me to agree to enter rehab. At 6 feet tall I weighed a little less than 100 pounds. My hair was stringy and falling out, my face was covered in acne, my eyes vacant and lifeless. Addiction appeared to have robbed me of everything, including the ability to love and be loved.

As I rifled through my backpack on that porch, my hand brushed against a familiar plastic baggie. My heart raced, and I looked around to see if anyone was watching as I pulled out an old and previously forgotten bag of weed from the zippered front pocket. I needed relief from the pounding in my head and the fear in my blood, and this was just what I was looking for. I felt the familiar excitement, mixed with something else. A little doubt? Maybe.

I quietly wrestled with my demons while turning the worn plastic baggie over and over in my fingers.

Then a voice came from a figure hunched over at the top of the steps. The sound was coarse and cool, yet still held the softness of a female tone.

“You need to get rid of it or its going to call to you, and you know you won’t be able to stop.”

I turned, startled and surprised that I hadn’t noticed anyone sitting there before. I quickly shoved the weed back into my bag, and casually lit my cigarette.

“Hey.” I said, trying to stay cool even though I was l convinced I had just been busted by a staff member.

I glanced in the direction of the voice, catching a brief sight of its owner. I guessed that she was probably in her mid-fifties, and her face wore the familiar pattern of the many sleepless nights harrowing stories and hardened truths so many of us from the streets can recognize in each other right away.

“Hey back.” She answered quickly. Then she looked me right in the eye.

“You need to get rid of that stuff. If you keep it, it’s going to call to you and then you are going to use it. If you want, we can have a funeral for it in the bathroom and flush it down the toilet. Lets go.”

These words, spoken out loud by an unknown woman and left hanging between us in the still afternoon air, were saturated with the most truth I had heard in a while. They hit me hard. They destroyed all my rationalizations and great ideas about how good it might feel to find quick relief in that plastic bag. I knew I was fucked if I gave in to the drugs one more time.

For reasons I have never been able to explain, I got up and followed this small woman with the hunched shoulders and long greying hair to the tiny bathroom on the first floor of a new house, and flushed the only thing that had ever kept me sane down the toilet. There was no eulogy or flowers, and the finality of it was brutal.

“There,” she said, matter-of-factly, “Its done. Want to go to a meeting with me?”

Before I even had time to mourn the loss of my weed, I again I found myself following my mysterious new roommate to a place I didn’t want to go, simply because with her it felt like there wasn’t any other option. She told me her name was Joanie.

It wasn’t long before Joanie and I went everywhere together, and I moved my belongings into her room in the house and slept in the extra bunk next to hers. I learned that she had been a hope-to-die heroin addict for many years, and like me her odds of survival had been pretty slim. I felt safe with her, and she had a calming effect on me that no one else seemed able to harness. In my unsure world, Joanie became my sanctuary.

I loved going on outings with her, and small everyday activities always seemed more important because of the way Joanie experienced life. If she saw something like fresh flowers displayed at a local farmer’s market, she would demand that we stop to look at and smell every bunch.

“Wooowww,” she would say,  barely above a whisper, as though she didn’t want to shatter the perfection of what she was experiencing with the full volume of her voice. Sometimes it would be followed with, “Aren’t we so lucky?” At the time I didn’t get it. Did I feel “lucky” to be staring at a bunch of flowers at a tiny Farmer’s market in Old Town Torrance? Not really. But watching the little things in life take her breath away was what made hanging out with Joanie so incredible. So I always went with it.

One night we went to a sober dance at an old and run down Alano club and I swear it was the best night of Joanie’s life. She danced with everyone, all night long, with the hugest smile on her face. She appeared to be young again, and I had never seen her happier. When I asked her what was so great about it, she told me she had never gone to dances in high school because she was too busy getting high. This life was her second chance.

“Now I can really dance,” she proclaimed. “Now I am free!”

I began to notice how Joanie embraced everyone without judgement or fear. She would walk into any 12 step meeting in some of the worst areas of Los Angeles and be greeted with a warm hug by the toughest looking addicts in the room. Those that appeared the most menacing were immediately disarmed by her smile, and few were able to resist smiling right back at her. When I was angry at someone (living in a sober house with 14 other women made this almost impossible to avoid), she would always remind me to love them anyway because everyone deserved love, including me. Little by little the walls I had constructed against this idea, walls I didn’t even know existed, began to give way under the strength of Joanie’s love, compassion, and tolerance. Behind these walls is where my whole heart existed.

Joanie took me with her to a large 12 step convention, and at the end of the closing meeting, we stood up and held hands with about 1500 sober alcoholics and drug addicts to say the serenity prayer. The prayer began with its usual, “God, grant me the serenity…” and I felt something rise in my chest along with the sound of everyone’s voice saying the prayer in unison. I opened my eyes to look around the room, and the sight of everyone praying together like that made me shed the most genuine tears I had in a long time. I felt Joanie squeeze my hand, and I looked over to find her looking right at me. Her eyes were shining bright with the knowledge that we were feeling the same thing, and suddenly I got it. Every one of us in that room should have been wiped out by addiction at some point or another. Instead we had survived the impossible and we were really living for the first time ever.

That’s when Joanie’s infectious enthusiasm for life spread right through me and in that moment, all of her love and gratitude and lessons cracked my heart wide open. I finally realized why she had spoken up that day on the porch about the weed. She hadn’t wanted me to miss this. She had wanted me to live.

After 90 days in the program I left and moved in with my dad. Shortly after I moved in with him I began drinking again. I felt I was too young to be sober, and I was determined to drink like a “normal” person. I tried to put my rehab experience behind me, but I began drinking alcoholically almost immediately. Joanie and I spoke on the phone a few times and she expressed concern for my lifestyle, which I dismissed as her being overprotective. Eventually, we lost touch.

One year later I learned that Joanie was found dead in a bush from an overdose.

I was devastated, and that night I got piss drunk and screamed and cried about the unfairness of it all. While I slept the ghost of her beautiful voice played over and over again in my dreams, and even the next day I couldn’t forget it.

“Now I can dance, now I am free!”

I didn’t get many details of her death, but for addicts and an alcoholics like us the story was all too familiar; Somewhere along the road Joanie’s demons had called to her, and she had simply given up doing the work it takes to defeat the urge to answer them.

It was 5 years before I finally found recovery again. Today, at nearly 9 years sober, I have a better understanding of what it means to really live free from alcohol and drugs day by day, craving by craving, amongst massive amounts of temptation and fear. Because of Joanie I also know that it is imperative that I do something every day towards my recovery to quiet the voice of addiction that whispers in the background of my big, beautiful sober life.

I sometimes still get angry and sad about the loss of Joanie, and the way that she left this earth. It seems unfair to me that the beautiful soul who carried me through the darkness with her light had to die such an ugly death. I find a little peace in the idea that maybe some people come into our world for brief periods of time in order to give us the transformative lessons that shape the rest of our lives. I think that Joanie really was an angel, sent here to show those who knew her what life is really all about. There has not been one moment in my own life where I have not felt her with me.

I don’t know what purpose writing about Joanie will serve, aside from a selfish need to get the experience in print, to immortalize someone who I sometimes feel is slipping from my memory like even the most important things often do with the inevitable vaporization of time.

I guess the point is that I knew her in the first place. She gave me something that can’t easily be erased, a quality of life that I never forget to try to pass on to someone else. Because of her I often find myself filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what can only be seen as my second chance at life.

She showed me how to stop and smell all the good things, and how to disarm the bad things with a beautiful smile. She showed me how to live sober. She taught me how to love everything. The point is that I wish you would have known her too.

Knowing her made me so lucky.

Jacqueline Evans is a writer, seeker, and sober observer of life living in Hermosa Beach, CA.

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Guest Posts, The Body

Topography of a Scar

March 15, 2017
biopsy

By Krista Varela Posell

For four years, I’ve had a wound that won’t heal. A lesion is the technical term, according to Google.

It’s a dark spot on my right forearm, smaller than a dime. It could be just a mole. That’s what it looks like anyway.

But every few months, the skin around the spot will get dry and bubble up, almost like a blister. I try not to pick at it, but I can’t help it. Each time I do, I hope that there will finally be a pale white scar underneath so that I can just forget about it and go on with my life. Instead, picking at it just opens up another wound, like a door that leads to another door in some kind of eternal dream. There’s no bleeding, but the new skin underneath is sensitive, a deep rose color, and the spot scabs over. Then eventually the thin scab falls off, but the small dark spot is still there. Moles don’t do that, do they?

I don’t remember exactly when it started. I just remember looking down at my arm one day, perhaps it was in the car or in the shower, and I thought, that spot has been there a while. Weeks? Months maybe?

***

Soon after, I went to a dermatologist. Dr. Google had scared me enough into getting checked out. The doctor told me to stop picking at it and gave me a steroid cream to put on it. Come back if it doesn’t work, he said.

It didn’t work. The small dark spot still lingered, and the skin kept blistering. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting

Foghorns

March 13, 2017
foster

By Emma Margraf

I might have shown more empathy. I might have been contrite. Parents should fall on their swords for the sake of their children but that’s not what I did. I stared at the stained, varnished surface of the table in the courtroom, calmed by the pot candy I’d eaten on the drive to the courthouse that kicked in just as our case was called. Now my long time foster daughter Jane, the plaintiff, and I, the defendant, sat at identical varnished tables.

Jane’s girlfriend’s mother, a woman I hardly knew, was sitting next to Jane and whispering in her ear. My own mother hadn’t liked Bella’s mother since early on. At 19, Bella lived at home, and when she went out of town her mother called Jane to come over to their house anyway because she said she was lonely, and missed Jane. They had ice cream. My mother thought this was weird, but I shrugged it off. I didn’t want to judge.

My father is a sailor, and I grew up on boats. In our parts of the water you spent a lot of time submerged in fog. You can find yourself completely without sight, the fog so thick that you can only see a few feet in front of you. To get where you need to go you rely on GPS systems and foghorns. The foghorn is a required element of boat life; ships sound them on a regular basis to warn other vessels of their presence. Large ships are a huge danger to smaller boats in the fog; but when you hear the sound you know where to avoid going. They are loud, they are startling, but you should always expect them as possible. That was never easy for me. Even in deep fog, I was surprised to hear them. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Mother And Daughter: An (In)Complete History of (Almost) Suicide

March 12, 2017
suicide

CW: This piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation.

By Amy Buchanan

One of my earliest memories is this: Sitting in the passenger seat of an old, beat-up blue Volkswagen, tracing a raindrop with my finger as it slides down the window and swallows up other raindrops along the way. My bare feet don’t yet touch the floor. I’m barely tall enough to see the gray world outside. My pajamas are twisted up, cutting a red line into my neck. My mother’s boyfriend opens the door and ponderously shoves a wastebasket full of my socks into the back seat. He is a bear of a man; I adore him, but he can be scary. This morning he is scary. Just sitting next to him brings anxious tears to my eyes.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“I’m taking you to some people. You’re going to live with them now.” He forces the car in gear, and we begin to drive away.

“Where is my mom?” I cry, a keening sound too big for my small body.

“Who the hell knows. Probably going to the ocean to drown,” he looks at me. “She doesn’t want you anymore. Now shut it.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, No Bullshit Motherhood

This Cross I Bear

March 10, 2017
sunshine

By Leslie Wibberley

I should have seen the signs, long before she fell so far and so hard. Instead, I just kept pushing. “You can do this, sweetie, just focus and try harder.” Seemingly innocuous words, I thought. Encouraging words, right?

Wrong.

I should have known better. After all, I’d grown up with a mother who suffered from clinical depression and had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. With that kind of family history, you would have thought I’d have seen this coming.

Well, I didn’t.

I grew up with a mother who lived in perpetual darkness, but also with a father who epitomized sunshine. For every storm cloud that gathered and dumped its torrents of rain across my mother’s sorrow filled shoulders, there came a gentle breeze filled with warmth, sunshine, and the music of song birds; my dad.

I like to think I take after him. Continue Reading…

Awe & Wonder, Guest Posts, Young Voices

It’s (Not) All The Same To Me: On Gender, Language, and Death

March 8, 2017
gender

By Beatriz  L.  Seelaender

Death  is  a  woman  in  Portuguese.  She  is  still  a  skull  under  a  charcoal  cloak,  holding  a  list  and  a  scythe,  but  she  is  a  woman.  It  is  strange,  isn’t  it,  what  one  can  take  for  granted  as  fact  just  by  plain  language.  That  Death  is  a  He  in  English,  and  wiser  and  less  cruel  and  sharper,  still  somewhat  unsettles  me.  There  is  some  sort  of  slight  wrongness  in  it.  No,  Death  is  not  a  He.  My  Death  is  not  yours.  There  must  have  been  some  kind  of  mix-up.  My  Death  is  a  straight-up  gal.  When  my  time  comes,  she  will  tell  me  I  did  good  in  life,  all  things  considered,  and  hug  me  like  a  grandmother.  Then,  she  will  kindly  strangle  me  into  oblivion-  because  kindness  is  necessary  in  death,  and  it  is  women  that  are  forgiving  and  kind,  and  that  is  why  death  should  be  a  woman.

There  used  to  be  a  comic  book-  there  probably  still  is,  since  it  wasn’t  so  long  ago  that  I  was  a  kid-  featuring  the  adventures  of  Mrs.  Death.  Despite  her  not  being  the  main  character  in  the  comic-  that  honour  had  been  given  to  the  character  who  in  English  translations  is  renamed  Bug-a-boo-,  Mrs.  Death  did  get  a  lot  of  solo  stories.  While  I  am  not  quite  sure  why  a  children’s  comic  would  invest  in  dark  humour,  the  stories  were  personal  favourites  of  mine.  One  of  them  features  Mrs.  Death  losing  her  list  of  errands  (aka  people  she  should  kill  today)  and  killing  completely  random  people  to  make  up  for  it.  There  was  another  where  she  accidentally  offed  the  homonym  of  the  actual  man  she  was  supposed  to  take.  On  top  of  it,  she  had  to  deal  with  a  staggering  amount  of  typos  (we  are  led  to  believe  that  the  big  guys  up  there  do  not  really  care  about  Mrs.  Death,  who  has  to  perform  all  of  their  grunt  work  and  isn’t  payed  enough  for  it).  All  in  all,  they  did  a  good  job  of  having  kids  learn  about  death  as  an  inoffensive  old  lady  waiting  for  retirement.  In  a  lot  of  ways  having  this  image  of  death  is  more  comforting  than  that  of  an  arrogant  shadow  of  a  man  as  it  is  typically  conveyed  in  English  stories.  On  the  other  hand,  perhaps  it  undermines  the  seriousness  of  the  subject.  Oh,  well,  parents  should  not  let  their  kids  learn  about  death  from  comics,  anyhow.

I  can  only  conceive  of  Death  the  man  as  patronizing:  he  takes  pleasure  in  toying  with  people.  His  blood  is  icy  blue  and  he probably  hates  Death  the  woman  for  doing  better  than  him  at  the  slaying  business.  But  neither  one  of  them  can  die,  really;  it  is  their  greatest  tragedy.

It  wasn’t  until  my  teens  that  I  came  across  Death  as  a  He.  Because  articles  are  neutral  in  English  I  had  never  really  thought  about  applying  gender  to  things  in  English.  Although  perhaps  that  is  a  lie-  I  am  not  entirely  sure.  It  is  possible  I  just  kept  on  looking  at  things  gendered  according  to  how  I  knew  them  in  my  native  language.    There  was  reluctance  to  admitting  that  perhaps  things  in  their  fundamental  nature  weren’t  as  blue  and  pink  as  the  world-  but,  then  again,  neither  was  the  world,  and  we  still  see  it  that  way  nonetheless.

While we do have an “it” in Portuguese, it is hardly ever used as subject in sentences. We use he or she for everything, dead or alive; or never alive. If we really have to say “it”, we simply use the verb; the subject is assumed as it. We don’t say that it rained; we simply say “rained”. We don’t say it’s weird; we simply say “is weird”.

The rest of the time we refer to things the way Aesop referred to animals- he, the stapler and she, the copy-maker. We also refer to animals that way, as you probably must have guessed by now. And all those its, then, come alive.

See,  up  until my meeting with Him, Death,  it  had  been  very  simple to me-  a  table  and  a  chair  and  a  bed  and  a  house  were  female-bound.  And  there  were  things  like  school,  History  and  art  that  were  referred  to  as  female,  too.  At  least  death  is  not  alone,  then,  and  they  are  not  alone  in  death;  these  other  words.  Word  is  also  preceded by the feminine article,  in  Portuguese.  Forks  and  mattresses  and  napkins  and  hats  and  the  radio  and  peaches  and  candy  were  all  male-bound  things.

Some  of  us  even  got  confused  at  times;  I  remember  once  at  school  when  a  peak  number  of  students  using  the  wrong  article  for  “lettuce”  inspired  a  gender-bound-articles test,  but  it  didn’t  change  anything.  People  were  surprised,  surely,  that  lettuce  was  a  She-  a  couple  of  weeks  later,  though,  everyone  was  still  using  the  wrong  article  for  lettuce.

(I  don’t  know  why,  though;  lettuce  is  so  clearly  feminine,  being  a  leaf  and  all;  and  leaves  being  feminine,  too)    (Leaves  and  flowers  and  most  fruit)    (Except  for  peaches,  but  we’ve  been  over  this  already)    (Now,  I  wonder  why  in  Brazil  all  seasons  are  male  but  spring)    (It  cannot  be  just  because  of  the  flowers)    (It  would  be  sort  of  misogynistic,  if  it  were)  (In  Germany  all  seasons  are  male-bound,  even  spring)  (But  in  German  nothing  is  at  it  should  be)

I  want  to  try  out  an  experiment:  I  will  give  you  four  words  and  you  tell  me  what  your  immediate  thought  as  to  what  their  ultimate  gender  is;  ready?  Knife,  Life,  Book,  Fox. 

It  has  just  occurred  to  me  that  I  picked  “knife”  as  the  first  word  because  of  a  poem  by  João  Cabral  de  Melo  Neto  titled  “The  School  of  Knives”.  In  Portuguese,  this  word  is  preceded  by  the feminine.  Most  sharp  things  are-  blades  and  daggers  and  scythes,  too.  In  the  poem  de  Melo  Neto  takes  this  a  step  further  and  compares  women  and  knives,  in  a  sort  of  sensual,  femme-fatale  way.  God,  I  hate  this  word;  femme-fatale-  there  is  a  song  by  The  Velvet  Underground  under  this  title,  and  it  is  pretty  catchy;  and  I  hate  myself  for  enjoying  it.  Anyway,  knives  are  not  necessarily  female  until  some  sort  of  personality  and  explanation  as  to  why  it  is  female  is  imposed  to  it.

In  Spanish  knives  are  male-bound.  The  argument  for  knives  as  male  could  be  just  as  compelling  as  that  for  a  femme-fatale  definition;  knives  having  the  potential  to  be  used  for  gratuitous  violence  (traditionally  male)  as  easily  as  they  are  able  to  deliver  beautiful  and  entangling  performances  of  precision  in  clean,  lustful  cuts:  this  last  one  is  epitome  of  the  femme-  fatale  ideal;  to  destroy  and  look  good  doing  it.  There  is  also  something  about  gluttony  and  lust  merging  together  here  in  the  Portuguese  embodiment  of  the  knife,  especially  in  de  Melo  Neto’s  poem.

I  propose  we  look  at  this  not  as  an  instance  of  misogyny,  or  perhaps  as  more  than  an  instance  of  misogyny.  I  know  it  is  very  easy  to  go  the  way  of  saying  we  need  to  stop  gendering  everything-  but  there  are  many  variables  going  into  this  discussion.  For  one,  the  qualifier  of  gender  in  articles  is  not  promoting  gender  stereotypes  directly  or  even  indirectly-  all  of  them  are  entirely  arbitrary.  I  don’t  think  anyone  ever  thought  to  themselves-  knives  are  definitely  ladies,  so  let’s  use  this  article  when  referring  to  them.  The  problem  came  after-  it  came  in  the  form  of  explanations  as  to  why  things  were  the  gender  they  were.  See,  the  way  gender  roles  are  distributed;  one  could  arguably  make  a  point  for  something  as  dull  as  a  desk  either  as  masculine  or  feminine  simply  by  selecting  a  specific  set  of  characteristics  that  matches  the  stereotypical  definition  one  wishes  to  defend.  That  is  obviously  because  like  people,  things  also  have  characteristics  deemed  feminine  and  masculine  inside  them.  All  you  have  to  do  is  choose.

Let’s  talk  about  the  Life  with  a  capital  L.  I  think  most  languages  in  use  of  gendered  articles  (that  I  know  of,  obviously)  see  life  as  female;  the  exception  being  German,  in  which  das  Leben  marks  a  neutral  noun.  Surely  you  would  think  this  is  a  sign  of  female  emancipation-  the  plural  in  German  taking  for  once  the  shape  of  the  female  pronoun  being  a  step  in  the  right  direction  as  well-  but  I  wonder  how  much  of  it  is  actually  a  sign  of  social  progress  and  how  much  is  just,  you  know,  just  something  random  about  the  German  language.

When  you  take  a  closer  look  at  it,  in  fact,  it  is  hard  to  find  direct  correlations  between  the  use  of  gendered  articles  and  intolerance  rates  in  a  society.  Were  that  the  case,  one  would  expect  a  country  such  as  Poland,  speaking  a  language  which  allows  one  to  drop  pronouns  and  exempt  of  articles,  to  be  the  beacon  of  freedom  by  now.  Moreover,  the  Norwegian,  known  for  their  inclusive  social  measures  and  individual  liberties,  speak a language  featuring  article  qualifiers.  I  do  not  intend  to  make  a  study  out  of  this,  and  I  am  sure  there  are  many  more  variables  involved,  but  this  goes  to  show  problems  like  this  can  hardly  ever  be  traced  back  to  one  simple,  obvious  cause.

But  this  is  getting  too  derivative  (you  can  tell  by  the  excessive  use  of  parenthesis)  (not  aesthetically  pleasing)  (are  there  things  unaesthetically  pleasing?)  (Well,  there  are  pleasant  things  that  aren’t  aesthetic  and  there  are  aesthetic  things  that  aren’t  pleasing)  (And  then  there  is  the  anaesthetic,  which  makes  you  numb  to  painful  and  beautiful  things)  (I  hope  not  all  beautiful  things  are  painful)  (But  I  don’t  have  any  answers  now)  (Come  back  later)  (We  are  experiencing  connection  problems)  (Try  turning  your  brain  off  and  on  again).

Oh,  there  you  go.  I  feel  fine,  don’t  you?  Would  you  like  to  return  to  where  we  were  before  the  whole  thing  became  a  mess?

Now,  as  I  was  saying,  the  best  we  can  do  with  gendered  articles  is  look  for  clues  that  could  help  us  fight  the  feminist  crusade,  or  whatever  you  want  to  call  it.  Instead  of  ignoring  or  denying  their  existence,  we  should  take  a  look  at  what  sort  of  symbols  they  promote,  intentionally  or  not.  We  think  about  what  cultural  differences  stand  out  in  a  place  where  death  is  a  woman  and  a  place  where  death  is  a  man-  and  the  different  interpretations  of  death  that  may  come  from  it.  We  ask  people  who  speak  in  neutral  languages  to  gender  things  for  twenty-four  hours,  so  we  can  see  what  role  is  predominant  and,  most  importantly,  what  kind  of  justification  is  used  for  the  answer.  We  get  Intel  on  the  rationalizations  made  in  the  back  of  our  minds,  and  discover  potential  new  ways  to  break  down  gender  roles.

In  self-indulgent  speculation,  I  am  thinking  the  reason  why  Life  is  “female”  in  so  many  languages  is  because  life  is  brought  to  us  by  our  mothers.  Thus  life  we  associate  with  women  and  water  and  fountains  of  water,  because  all  these  things  symbolize  fertility  and  birth,  and  rebirth  as  well.  Goddesses  of  fertility-  Hera  and  Freya  and  Isis  and  Parvati  and  even  the  Virgin  Mary  if  you  look  at  Christianism  as  a  religion  with  multiple  focuses  of  adoration-  are  generally  also  associated  with  symbols  such  as  dawn,  death,  and  abundance,  because  fertility  could  also  mean  a  good  harvest.

While  I  do  get  why  some  goddesses  of  life  are  also  patrons  of  death,  it  is  still  strange  to  look  at  these  concepts  together,  as  dichotomies.  Everyone  likes  the  idea  of  going  full  circle,  but  I’ve  yet  to  see  someone  capable  of  making  one  with  their  hands.  Still,  it’s  a  nice  idea.  Idea;  yet  another  she.  I  guess  it  has  something  to  do  with  the  muses.  The  muses  are  also  inevitably  female,  because  the  artists  are  usually  male.  As  for  you,  female  artists,  there  isn’t  as  high  a  demand  for  male  muses  that  we  feel  compelled  to  change  the  rules.  But  I  guess  men  would  feel  undermined  in  the  role  of  muses,  don’t  you  think?  Well,  you’re  right,  not  all  men.  All  men  who  keep  saying  not  all  men,  though;  those  are  precisely  the  men  I’m  talking  about.

You  see,  there  is  a  deeply  rooted  notion  somewhere  in  there  that  an  artist  must  tame  his  muses.  Even  if  an  idea,  then,  is  a  she,  the  framing  of  ideas  will  definitely  be  male.  The  word  book  is  preceded  by  the  male  article  in  Portuguese;  in  German  it  is  neutral;  it  never  is  a  woman.  These  are  only  far-fetched  conjectures,  half  joke,  half  real;  but  inside  every  false  sentence  there  must  be  a  little  bit  of  truth.  That  of  men  taking  credit  for  women’s  ideas,  after  all;  is  hardly  a  new  trend.

The  discussion  gets  even  more  complicated  once  we  introduce  animals  into  it.  They  are  the  closest  thing  to  non-human  gendering  experienced  by  the  English  language;  just  take  a  look  at  the  Perry  Index  of  Aesop’s  Fables.  Snakes  and  foxes  are  male,  storks  are  female.  What  is  interesting,  however,  is  not  the  gender  imposed-  though  this  time  one  could  question  its  arbitrariness-  but  how  this  translates  into  people’s  mind  sets:

All  of  those  animals  are  female  in  Portuguese.  It  is  even  difficult  for  me  to  conceive  of  an  animal  as  peculiar  as  a  male  fox.  We  don’t  even  have  a  male  alternative  for  it.  Once  we  get  to  snakes,  it’s  even  worse.  I  recently  saw  the  animated  version  of  The  Jungle  Book  with  my  little  cousin,  and  I  was  convinced  they  had  redubbed  the  old  voices,  because  in  my  mind  that  python  was  a  lady  python.  I  can  only  assume  that  as  a  child  I  found  the  idea  of  there  being  a  male  snake  so  outlandish  that  I  blocked  it  completely.

It’s  not  like  I  didn’t  know  there  was  a  male  snake-  I  just  thought  them  unimportant.  They  were  not  allowed  to  talk  for  the  species.  They  were  not  allowed  to  represent  it.  Think  about  what  kids  think  sometimes;  the  thoughts  kids  have  are  a  rare,  clear  perspective  of  a  place  you  have  been  in  for  too  long;  life.

(They  will  take  some  funny  things  for  granted)  (And  question  what  you  have  taken  for  granted  without  noticing)  (When  you  play  with  language  you  feel  like  being  a  child  again)  (Your  brain  is  a  clean  slate  again)  (You  are  innocent  again).

There  are  other  places,  you  know;  outside  of  the  sky;  there  is  even  a  sky  over  the  living  room  ceiling.

If  someone  were  to  paint  clouds  on  my  ceiling  on  a  blue  background;  if  I  were  to  fall  into  a  state  of  hypnosis,  well,  I  wonder  what  I’d  be.  Maybe  I  shouldn’t  wonder.  There’s  way  too  much  randomness  in  this  world  for  us  not  to  aimlessly  wonder,  though.  It’s  what’s  keeping  us  from  crashing  onto  our  false  skies.

Author of the novel “De Volta ao Vazio” (in a rough translation, “Emptiness, Revisited”), Seelaender is a student of Literature at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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Guest Posts, writing

Writing About Us

March 6, 2017
writing

By Kathleen Harris

In my freshman year of high school, I’d written something that my English teacher deemed “exceptional.” I was called to her desk after class, and praised for my creativity. A kind and encouraging letter was sent home to my parents as well, highlighting my potential.

I’d been writing since I sensed the pull of words — somewhere around age 4. Not short stories, of course, but angular, awkward attempts at words — and their accompanying stick-figure illustrations — to highlight my frustrating attempts at communication. In our Queens apartment, my mother would find torn envelope flaps, seventies singer-songwriter album sleeves, and my parents’ own high school yearbooks, all adorned with my pencil-scratch efforts at language.

As a child, I knew that words could be soft and loud. Words hurt, and they healed. They allowed me to escape into books containing bright, colorful pictures, and enabled me to get lost in the mystical lyrics printed on double-fold album covers. I’d take stacks of books to my Raggedy Ann-covered twin bed, hugging them to my small chest and leaping over the sharks I thrilled myself into believing were swarming in the churn of parquet bedroom floor below. I was on a life raft, safe in my room, happily adrift with words. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Relationships, Sex

When It’s Not Love You Want

March 5, 2017
sex

By Kerry Neville

The first time I had sex was with my summer-before-college boyfriend on his gurgly waterbed in his dank, basement bedroom.  His mother winked at us as she left the house, and said, “Be careful, you two.”  She was a dancer, so maybe more open to bodies moving and touching and wrapping around each other than my own Catholic mother who counseled me on the sanctity of my body and warned that when you sleep with someone, you sleep with everyone they slept with before, a forbidding chain of penises-in-vaginas stretching back to the Neolithic Age.  I fell somewhere between Momma as condom dispenser and Momma as abstinence advocate: I was ready for sex but in order to make it happen, I needed to chug Budweisers.  More than one.  So the boy and I sat on the edge of the waterbed which sloshed beneath us like it had gastrointestinal issues, and polished off a few quick cans of beer.

My body was ready.  After all, I’d been studying my father’s old Playboys in the attic since I was eight, taking note of the rounded slopes of butts and boobs, and glossy lips parted mid-sigh. Also, years of self-practice, so just a matter of alignment.  And there was pleasure, sort of.  It wasn’t his first time, so things went where they were supposed to instead of say, misfiring into my armpit.  The problem though, was when we were done and rolled away from each other.  I wiped my eyeliner smudges with the back of my hand, and he shimmied back into his jeans, and I decided to be even braver: “I love you,” I said, with a desperate kind of hope.

He was quiet, and my heart whoosh-thumped in my ears because I knew he wasn’t going to say what I wanted him to say.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I don’t feel that way.”

My little eighteen year old heart dissolved in shame.  I’d assumed mutual feeling inside that mutualish pleasure.  The three beers not only loosened my jeans but my words, too.  Meaning making where there was no meaning other than two bodies reaching their expected conclusions. Continue Reading…

Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Reframing: Making Peace With My Mother

March 3, 2017
mother

By Jill Goldberg

My mother died last month.

Seventeen years ago, after my first son was born, I broke off all contact. At any moment in time during the past seventeen years when I felt the longing for a mother, I reminded myself that I wasn’t actually missing my mother. I wasn’t missing what I once had; I was missing and wanting what I never had. And I knew that even if I’d remained and accepted the endless, degrading, shameful abuse from him, and the lack of affection and protection from her, I would still never have what I wanted. Not only would I never be safe, I would never be able to raise children who respected their mother or understood what a family should be. The cycle of violence had to be broken.

I was angry and hurt and disappointed in my mother, but I wasn’t trying to actively punish her. I just wanted out. Ever since I could remember, I’d been counting down the years until I could leave forever. But still, she was my mother. She had never been healthy, and I did want to know if she was still alive as time passed. I tried to maintain minimal contact with a few relatives who would keep me informed, but gradually I realized it was not going to work. It had to be all or nothing. Either no contact at all with any relatives, or full contact, because they didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, and couldn’t understand, the reasons behind my decision. In order to protect myself, and to protect my growing family, the choice had to be nothing instead of all. Continue Reading…

Book Excerpts, Guest Posts

Not A Place On Any Map

February 27, 2017
leaving

By Alexis Paige

Channelling Harriet the Spy, 1983

I figured Dad’s leaving had something to do with all those times Mom locked herself in the bathroom. Once inside, she would blow like a firecracker, and I would get the spins, the whole house twirling off into darkness. One night not long before he left and while watching The Dukes of Hazzard, Mom sat up as if struck by a thought and then dashed toward the bathroom. Dad rose calmly from his chair in the den and went over to the television and turned up the volume dial. “Go to your room,” he said. “Mom’s going to be okay.” From my room, and with the pillow over my head, I heard only a muffled, underwater soundtrack: Mom hollering, Bo Duke hooting, and Dad begging Mom to open the door. From the crashing sounds, I pictured her like a cartoon dust devil of perfume bottles and bar soap and towels. I could never make out the words that mattered, could never translate the crashes and bangs into a story that made sense.

Years later, I heard a Robert Creeley poem in an undergraduate seminar and read the lines as if in a secret plea to Mom: “Love, if you love me,/ lie next to me./ Be for me, like rain,/ the getting out/ of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-/ lust of intentional indifference./ Be wet/ with a decent happiness.” From those early explosions, I learned only that Mom was fragile and Dad remote on the subject. Eventually, I solved the case of the explosions: they were “episodes,” suicidal threats. Still, I thought if I could give her all my smiles and energy and cheer, that somehow Mom would get happy, that she would be drenched in it. Continue Reading…