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The Hard Stuff

Guest Posts, Kindness, The Hard Stuff

When You See Her, Be Kind

February 17, 2017
real

By Kimberly Valzania

I know what makes her tick. I know how she is, and better yet, who she is. And I know all her secrets and what she did to keep them. How she locked them away in a box for years, and kept the key just beyond her own reach.

We’ve always been close. Pushing her out the door each day takes all the strength I have. But resisting her familiar charms helps me gather and sort out my true self instead, the only self I was meant to be.

In letting her go, I let go of her burdensome habits. No more quiet tip-toe up the stairs, shutting the bathroom door, knees to the floor.

Still, when I feel her panic creeping, a few smaller habits return. Sometimes, her leg shakes and she twirls her hair, pulling a long piece around her cheek and into her mouth, turning it on her tongue, creating a wet and pointy tip. Her fingers get in there too. Her nails, stubby nubs. Always something in her mouth. Her mouth remains the vessel that bears her rolling waves of worry and cope.

Before…before now, I always knew when she was empty, void. And when she was full, stuffed. Empty, hungry. Full, packed. And, as it was, I always knew the very moment the fullness was just too much. When she wanted, more than anything else, the blessed emptiness back. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, parenting, The Hard Stuff

To Tell A Happy Story

December 30, 2016

By Steve Edwards

Early on there were nights I thought my son might die, and I thought it might be better for us all if he did. If on those nights his crying ebbed and his breathing stilled, I would lie in bed waiting, listening, the way you lie and wait and listen if you suspect an intruder in the home. I imagined Rebecca at the funeral, out of her mind with grief, and how in the days that followed sorrow would be all we knew, until one day—years later, perhaps—we would have made our peace with what had been taken from us. I kept this to myself and it skewered me because I loved my son like nothing else.

Had he been born with some physical problem? Some incurable disease? No. Aside from mild jaundice and a hemangioma, the doctors pronounced him perfectly fit and we brought him home to begin the life we had been imagining for so long. The life of a happy, healthy, and loving family.

The trouble started that first week when Rebecca’s milk didn’t come in. We bought the special nursing pillow, the pumps and bottles. We went to a lactation consultant. Maybe our son wasn’t sucking right, getting a good seal. Or maybe Rebecca needed to pump more often. Or maybe, the consultant finally suggested, Rebecca was suffering post-partum depression and wasn’t trying hard enough. Not ten days before, Rebecca had had a completely natural childbirth—not so much as an aspirin crossed her lips during labor or delivery—and it wasn’t painful, she assured me, but joyful, full of love. And even that first night in the hospital, when our son couldn’t stop crying and we didn’t have a pacifier: I stood by his crib and let him suck the tip of my thumb for over an hour because somewhere in our copious preparations we had read that this might comfort an infant. My wife and I are people who try our hearts out. But you can’t try to make milk come in. It comes or it doesn’t.

When our son began experiencing colic-like symptoms—“inconsolable crying, distress, irritability, sleeplessness”—our pediatrician told us we had gotten unlucky but that it would pass. We tried to laugh it off. We smiled through our tiredness and the well-meaning comments and teases from family, friends, elderly checkers at the grocery store: about how hard it is, how it would get better with time. We looked forward to when he would surprise us by sleeping the night.

As the first wearying, wondrous days of his life turned into weeks and months, an edge crept into his voice. He started screaming. He screamed every day, screamed, at such a high pitch and volume that if he screamed as I held him on my shoulder after a feeding, my ears would ring for hours. He was a shrill, writhing knot of muscle. Still too young to lift himself up on his arms, he somehow found the strength to buck his entire body away from us. We laid him on the changing table, on a blanket on the floor, on a couch cushion, on a chair, and we turned on ceiling fans, radio static, music soft and loud, and always—his face puckered and red, his tiny hands curled into fists—he wailed. Often without shedding tears. During the first snowstorm of his life, I rushed him outside thinking the dizzying zigzag of snowflakes might calm him down. It didn’t work. Nothing worked. In our exhaustion and fear, Rebecca and I argued bitterly until we lost even the words to say why we were mad or what was happening to us. Or to him. Or what we should do now. We were attached parents—devoted, gentle—and we never once touched our son in a way that wasn’t loving. But as three months turned to six, nine, and twelve, an instinctual, insuppressible rage sometimes welled up in me, and I slammed doors, kicked over chairs. On bad nights it took everything I had not to bend down and scream shut up into his little face. Not to fling him across the room.

At the doctor’s office we put on a brave front and did not complain. Down deep, of course, we were incredibly scared. After having dragged ourselves in multiple times for vaccinations and well-checks that provided no remedy or respite, we debated: Should we go again? Will they be able to tell us anything this time? Are we going too often? Finally, we brought in a cellphone video of his screaming, evidence that to us clearly meant something was wrong. Nonsense, our pediatrician said. He’s going through a “screechy” phase. Stretching out his vocal chords. The footage of his full-body convulsions on our changing table at home didn’t alarm her in the least. She prescribed an antacid and said we could try to make him “a little happier.” He was still steadily gaining weight after all. And after doling out a few final pieces of advice, she quickly excused herself.

On our way home that day, Rebecca wept in the car and said she felt like an abuser. We could not save him.

For our own survival, we fell into shifts. Since Rebecca took care of so much during the day (feedings, laundry, dishes, bills, her own work as an editor) while I taught my writing classes at the University of Nebraska, I picked up the slack at night. When his crying started at one, two, three in the morning, I rose and went to him. I changed his diaper. I tightened his swaddle blankets. I rubbed his little back. If he had spit out his pacifier, I put it back in his mouth. I held him in my arms and sang in a whisper. And always my mind went down the ever-growing checklist of what could be wrong. Was he hungry? Thirsty? Was he too cold? Too hot? Did we need a white-noise machine to imitate the sound inside the womb? Did we need to let him cry it out? Was he napping too much during the day? Was he overstimulated? Was he just fussy? Spoiled? Trying to manipulate us? In those moments in the darkness, alone with my son, I blamed myself for never having an answer that helped him.

Other men pulled off fatherhood with such grace and humor, and with multiple kids: the difference, I thought, had to have been me. Our son’s crying was a problem because I wasn’t patient enough. Because I wasn’t man enough. The thought that he might die, that it might be better for us all if he died: I saw it as a personal flaw, and the night shifts were my penance. Sometimes he slept for an hour or two between crying jags. Other times it was only ten minutes. Rebecca would roll over, drowsily ask if I needed help. But if the two of us got involved, half-asleep and tense, it could lead to a fight, and that was the last thing we needed. I would tell her I was already up, that everything was fine, that she should rest. To keep myself awake I shouted into my pillow, punched myself in the thigh. Whatever it took. Again and again, over weeks and months that slowly turned into a year, then two, I rose in the night and went to our son.

***

Through it all we were compulsive about documenting his good times. We kept a camera with us and were ready at a moment’s notice when any smile, like a ray of sunlight, passed over his face. To tell a happy story about our child, even if slightly fictional: we needed that. For all of his desperation and pain, he was still an incredibly beautiful boy. Dark blue eyes and soft honey-blonde curls. Chubby dumpling cheeks inherited from Rebecca’s Polish family. He was the baby strangers at the grocery store, men and women alike, stopped in their tracks to coo over, who people called a little doll. Rebecca organized our pictures of him on Facebook to share with friends and family, and in any spare moment of downtime she and I found ourselves scrolling through them, hungry for the lives of wonder and enchantment the pictures suggested.

And, yes, there were the rare good days: the times we put him in the stroller and, one foot in front of the other, walked the neighborhood. There were the days we stopped to chat with friends down the street about Nebraska football or the weather. He would sleep a bit, then wake and keenly take in the world, and even play peekaboo and giggle a little. We began to wonder if it were all in our heads.

I remember one day we came home at dusk to the sound of a robin chirping in the maple tree in our yard, and that sound—those gurgling chirps—lifted me out of myself, out of my pain, out of despair.

Other days I managed to write for an hour or two, or garden in the backyard, or cook Rebecca a nice meal and chat with her in the evening as we watched television. For those few hours his screaming and screeching, his terrible sleep, as well as his new symptoms—the eczema scarring both his cheeks and forehead, his distended belly and disgusting bowel movements—belonged to a distant, harmless past. On the good days we were as optimistic as we had been on the night he was born.

Unfortunately, there was no method for inducing one of those infrequent good days. What calmed him on one occasion could provoke him on the next. If one thing went wrong—if none of our bottles were clean and we had to wash one before feeding him, and, if in the time it took us to wash the bottle he started to cry—nothing brought him back. Theories about his pain dominated our talk. We got different brands of diapers. We changed formulas. Changed detergents. We got him softer sheets and an organic mattress pad. We put him to sleep in his crib in his room, in a swing, in a co-sleeper by our bed. We put him to bed early, kept him up late. Fed him vitamins, a probiotic. Every minute of every day was consumed by the most basic of necessities: getting him to eat, getting him to sleep, getting him to stop crying. Like wild animals—like wolves frantic over a wounded body in the pack, faced with blood, raw bone—we circled and paced around our helpless child. We kept a vigilant watch for clues, for answers that never came.

In the meantime, in our hour of need, Rebecca’s job—our main source of income while I was in grad school, and which allowed her to work from home and be with the baby full-time—was slashed by two-thirds. Friends fell away. Certain academic mentors shunned, admonished, or ignored us. Only a chosen few understood our predicament: we were not sleeping; we had no money. Then after my graduation and a year spent working as a lecturer, my job, too, was cut. We were grief-stricken, exhausted, broke, burdened with student loans coming due, and fearful about the credit card debt we were racking up in order to pay for diapers and groceries. During the twenty-minute spurts of his nap times, I tapped out cover letters to schools in far off California and New England, and waded through the bureaucratic hell of unemployment. My caseworker, a former teacher himself, told me that in this economy I would be better off if the letters behind my name were GED instead of PhD.

Rebecca and I talked about how many months we had before we would have to ask my parents if they could put us up in their basement. They lived five hundred miles away in Indiana, and the job prospects there were worse than in Nebraska. Rebecca’s father was out of the picture, and her mother passed away twenty years before, taken too young by breast cancer. We cashed in the small investments we had worked hard to accumulate and lived in fear of what new bills might arrive in the mail.

This was not how our lives were supposed to turn out. I should have had a job to support us, to at least get us the essentials. Rebecca should have had the chance to be the mother that she herself had only known for so long, the chance to be healed by love and loving. Our son should have known so many things: calm and comfort, the warmth of our arms, the wonder of a budding consciousness.

When we first decided to have him I had been scared of everything that could go wrong: with his health, with Rebecca’s health, with money and jobs. I did not know what kind of father I would be, and I worried I would lose my writing, my sense of self. I was anxious, too, over the fact that part of bringing a child into the world meant offering that child—and also myself, Rebecca—to the infinite variety of suffering life devises for us all. On our walks around the neighborhood with our dog, as we held hands and talked and made plans, I had a hard time imagining how I would feel as a father, and what would be different. In the mornings, as we laid in bed together—as I held Rebecca and cradled an arm around her growing belly—I wondered if I had made a huge mistake, if I would be found out as a fraud. At the same time, I knew how much Rebecca wanted this. Every night I watched her as she sat with her laptop, reading books on natural childbirth, buying baby clothes and slippers and BPA-free baby bottles, combing websites for tips, and making lists of all the other things we would need. Each time UPS brought a box to the door, she opened it and pulled out a prize to show me: alphabet flashcards to hang on his wall, a wrap for carrying him around, Sophie the teething giraffe.

If anything gave me the courage to face my fears about fatherhood it was the joy Rebecca felt preparing for his arrival. It was contagious. I began to imagine him, his soft weight on my shoulder some Saturday in the fall as I watched a college football game, the sighing up and down of his breath.

But that scene never played out. In the first eighteen months of his life, he fell asleep in our arms exactly three times (and then only out of exhaustion). I became angry, sullen, withdrawn. Jittery and lacking a good reaction time due to the sleep deprivation, Rebecca didn’t feel safe on the road and stopped driving. Our walks with the dog got fewer and farther between. The toys and trinkets we bought before our son was born stayed in their boxes or were played with once and set aside. The night’s adrenaline-spiked confusion left us hung over and wanting only to be alone between work and caretaking shifts, and in the mornings we did not hold each other. Instead we gradually became a family of shut-ins who only left the house when absolutely necessary, for work, groceries, the doctor. Any leftover energy went right back into our son’s care.

***

Two months before his second birthday, I landed a phone interview with a school in New England and needed the house to myself for a few hours. Rebecca took him to the zoo. There was a train at the zoo, and she wanted to treat him to his first ride. But before they got to the train, he went ashen and started crying. She took him to the bathroom to change his diaper, and once she got his pants down he panicked, started screaming. Afraid of what the other women in the bathroom would think, she hurriedly pulled his clothes on and brought him out into the light of day. She took him to a park bench, held him, rocked him, offered him a sip of water, some animal crackers. He was confused and shrieking, and several times he tried to run away from her but she held him tight, spoke to him in as soothing a voice as she could manage. Finally, when he still did not calm down, she walked him to the car, buckled him into his car seat, and drove around town, in tears herself, until she was sure my interview was over.

“I can’t take my son to the zoo? To ride the goddamned train?” Back home she came in the door, angrier and more frantic than I had ever seen her. “I’m calling Tricia.” Tricia was our new pediatrician, a woman I had known from one of my writing classes at school. She was writing a novel set on a ranch in western Nebraska.

“What’s she supposed to do?” I said.

“She can get us a bed at Children’s Hospital in Omaha. I’m calling her. I don’t care if it’s the ER. We’re going.”

“Hon—”

“We’re going.”

She stormed off to the bedroom to call Tricia, and I looked at our son where he sat on the floor. His eyes were puffy and red. He seemed a little dazed, out of it. Rebecca had convinced herself he had celiac or an intestinal blockage, something with the gut, and she wanted an endoscopy performed. I edged away from that. The thought of surgery scared me: a masked doctor leaning over our precious child.

I picked him up, stood in the doorway.

“Yes. Okay,” Rebecca said.

She shouldered past me to the kitchen and wrote something on a piece of paper. I shifted him uneasily from one arm to the other. He was heavy, awkward. Finally she hung up the phone and turned to me.

“We’ve got a bed.”

“For when?”

“Tonight.” She went back to the bedroom, began packing an overnight bag for the three of us. “They may scope him.”

I said I didn’t understand. If he needed an endoscopy why hadn’t Tricia ordered one before? What had changed? He had a meltdown at the zoo? He had meltdowns every day. And what the hell were the doctors supposed to tell us that they had not already told us? No matter the symptoms we described or the photos and videos we brought in, he was meeting his physical and developmental milestones. And what if the scope proved as inconclusive as everything else had? What then?

“I don’t care,” Rebecca said.

There was a fierceness in her voice—she had made up her mind and nothing was going to change it. So I said nothing more. It was lunchtime anyway. I put him in his high chair, set about making his milk, dumping applesauce in a bowl. Rebecca put our bags by the door. The house was quiet.

All afternoon I worried about what would happen at the hospital. And if they didn’t find anything wrong with him, what would they think of us for having brought him in? Out of my confusion the only reasonable thing seemed to talk to Tricia myself, to make sure we were in the right. So before we left for the hospital, I put in the call. I asked point blank if she thought an endoscopy was necessary. No, she said, frankly, she did not. “Then why even get us a bed for the night?” I asked.

“For Mom’s peace of mind.”

“What?”

“Well, if we can make Mom feel better,” she said, “that’s probably what we should do. We should make Mom feel better.”

I thanked her and hung up the phone, feeling sick to my stomach. She thought it was Rebecca—thought it was us. Part of me thought it was us, too. We were first-time parents without family nearby. We were under a tremendous amount of strain because of money. And even though we both feared something was wrong, he did have his good days. But I still could not get clear of the fact that if it were all in our heads, why could he not sleep for more than a few hours at a time? Why was he so fussy? Why did he shriek? Why was his belly distended? Why the alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea? And why, no matter how we worked at his care, could we not comfort him?

When it was time for us to go to the hospital, we prepared—as we had learned to— down to the smallest detail. We packed the car with snacks, sippy cups, diapers, multiple changes of clothes, pillows, blankets, baby books, books to read, magazines, the iPod, Rebecca’s laptop. On our way out of town, we picked up sandwiches and drove north to the interstate under an indelible powder-blue sky. Instead of our normal route, I took an ill-advised shortcut that ended in a barricade of flickering ROAD CLOSED signs. Rebecca stared out the window, silent, as I turned us around. We snaked through side-streets and made our way to the outskirts of town, where houses and gas stations gave way to hot green cornfields rippling in the breeze. Up ahead, a grain elevator towered over a set of railroad tracks. No sooner had I spotted the crossing than bells sounded, red lights flashed. Here came the train—a freighter loaded with coal from Wyoming. It was huge and moving at a steady clip, and the roar as it approached and pounded down the tracks ate up every other sound. I pulled over to the side of the road, cut the engine. The rattling and clunking of its cars, the grinding screech of steel on steel: I felt it pulsing through me, from the hollow of my chest to the tips of my fingers. I thought maybe getting stopped like this, a second time, was a sign. Maybe we shouldn’t go. In the passenger’s seat, Rebecca looked pale and overtired, as though that morning’s flood of anger and determination had receded into the deep channel of weariness from which it had spilled. I asked her what she wanted to do. She shrugged, said she didn’t know. In back, in his car seat, our son turned a Dr. Seuss book over and over in his little hands. I loved him so much. He was sick, and I did not want him to be sick.

I started the car and drove us home.

Steve Edwards is author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a backcountry homestead along the Rogue River in Oregon. His writing can be found in Orion Magazine, The Rumpus, Electric Literature and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.

What’s Jen Pastiloff’s workshop all about anyway? It’s about being human. Connecting. Finding your voice. Not being an asshole. Singing out loud. Sharing your fears. Bearing witness. Telling your fears to fuck off & fly. Listening. Moving your body. Laughing. Crying. Finding comfort. Offering comfort. Letting go. Creating.
Next one after this is NYC Feb 4 at Pure Yoga West. You don’t need to be a yogi at all. Just be a human. Click photo to book.

 

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.

Family, Guest Posts, The Hard Stuff

How To Move Your Mom Into A Nursing Home

June 27, 2016
mom

By Pam Daghlian

Buy a plane ticket. Rent a car. Pack warm clothes.

Weep in the airport.

Drive north for an hour and a half. Decide to take the route home around the lake instead of through downtown. Nod to the diner you waitressed (and bussed, and hosted, and dishwashed) at in high school. Turn up the radio. Let the memories flood.

Greet the dog. Hug your stepdad. Allow the awkwardness that the absence of your mother creates. Pull yourself up into the pick up truck, sit in the seat where your mom always sat. Say that would be nice when your stepdad says let’s eat out after. Realize the two of you have never eaten together without her.

Walk through the front door at the Senior Living center and see your mom sitting at a table in the dining area. Notice that she is the youngest, the most upright, the most doesn’t-belong-here looking resident.

See that she does not smile or say much, but know that inside she is beaming. You came from San Francisco to see her. In the snow. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, healing, The Hard Stuff

The Defiant Heart

June 11, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Karen Palmer

There was a family that lived two doors away from us, just over the top of a hill in Silver Lake, in a house that looked like a Beatrix Potter illustration, with a thatched roof and multipaned windows and roses in the tiny front yard. The dad was a doctor, a handsome pediatrician, the wife a full-time mom, blond, tanned and athletic, a swimmer and a tennis player, with happy crinkles at the corners of her eyes; and they had two children, the older a six-year-old boy, the younger a baby girl who was two. My mother and father didn’t know the family well — the parents moved in different social circles and their kids were several years too young to be playmates for me — but my mom used to get up the occasional bridge game with the mom, along with Meryl, who was my friend Jennifer’s mother, and a few other ladies from our neighborhood.

The summer of 1967, the family went off to their annual vacation at Big Bear Lake, and the little girl drowned. The parents, each headed back to the cabin for lunch, took different paths along the edge of the lake. Each thought their daughter was with the other.

Everyone was so sorry about the little girl’s death — this was such a nice family — but as the shock wore off, I became aware of a creeping communal notion that the wrong child had died. No adult ever said so, and certainly not to me, but the feeling was palpable. The little girl was bubbly and sweet, full of personality. The boy was skittish, dorky, and therefore less appealing. At the funeral he was too lightly hugged and then too quickly let go. Later, when the bridge games resumed, I heard someone say, What a shame, now that one was going places, and the ladies all sighed. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts, The Hard Stuff

A Misguided Hunt for Answers

June 6, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

Sensitive material. Mention of rape/sexual/assault.

By Leila Bruch

I was desperate, so I called his cell phone three times in under an hour. I knew he was free. He was probably watching the phone blow up and crowing to all his roommates that the crazy bitch from a few weeks ago was looking for more.

Next, I sent a text: “You need to call me because we have a problem.” I’ve watched enough TV to know how to use a possible pregnancy to get a recalcitrant man on the line.

Lo and behold, my phone began to ring.

Once his name, “Do Not Answer,” appeared, my stomach turned on me. My brain followed suit, and pleaded for me to let the phone ring. My rage steeled the weaker parts of myself as I answered and spat, “You are one sick fucker.”

On the other end of the phone, my rapist was silent.

“When was the last time you got tested?” I snarled.

I didn’t feel remotely bad about the false pretense. I knew I wasn’t pregnant because the morning after he assaulted me, I ran across Saturday traffic dribbling both ways on a six-lane highway to buy Plan B.

This occurred back when Plan B was only available behind the Pharmacy counter, so I marched to the back of the CVS and muttered my request to the sneering white-coated pharmacist, who passed me a clipboard. I bent my head low and copied my driver’s license number, name, and other probing details on the first open line. All the while, I could feel the pharmacist’s eyes on my unwashed hair.

I pushed the clipboard back when I finished. After she examined the information I provided against my ID, the pharmacist picked up the slim rectangular box by two clawed fingers and dropped it into a bag. I swiped my card for the fifty dollar fee, and when it cleared, I clutched the bag and ran back across the street. I already knew what to do with the two tiny pills; it wasn’t my first time taking Plan B. It was, however, my first time taking Plan B without being certain I’d had inadequately-protected sex.

That’s one of the problems with sexual assault – sometimes, you don’t know what has been done to you.

~

Three days before the pills and several weeks before the call, I was in a group of undergraduate women beginning a semester away from campus with a tour of the library at one of the universities in Washington, D.C.  As we stood around the library’s entrance, we talked awkwardly about our course load, the things we missed about campus, and the internships we’d just started.

Across the hallway stood an attractive Hispanic man with a wide smile. I noticed him, and he noticed me. It didn’t take long for his fixation to become the topic of spirited conversation. “He’s cute,” someone squealed. “Oh, my gosh, he’s coming over here!”

The man sauntered over and offered his hand as he introduced himself as Arnaldo.* He asked for my number and I wrote it on scrap of notebook paper.

Later that night, Arnaldo and I spent an hour on the phone, talking about our families and his career aspirations after law school. When Arnaldo asked if he could take me out the next day, I agreed.

The next evening, plans shifted from a date to kebabs and cards. Arnaldo came to my apartment with three of his friends. I invited the two women in my group who weren’t returning to campus that weekend to join us, and we all wandered across Jefferson Davis Highway to the Kebab Palace.

During dinner, I noticed that Arnaldo’s personality was different than it had seemed on the phone. The night before, he’d talked about family and school, and now he was waxing poetic about his love of partying. I didn’t have much interest in the D.C. party scene, so I zoned out in favor of considering the various items on my weekend to-do list.

Before long, the whole group trooped back to my apartment. Soon, they were all crowded around my dining room table. One of Arnaldo’s friends dealt cards while another explained the game and the third opened a twenty-four pack of cheap, canned beer.

Meanwhile, I escaped to my room, where I scoured my email for a message I’d been expecting from my internship coordinator.

The sound of Arnaldo closing my door startled me. He walked across the room, turned me around, and shoved me against my desk. He kissed me, and I pushed him away.

“Hey, don’t do that,” I said. “I don’t want to kiss you – I barely know you.” I laughed, trying to take the sting off my rejection.

Arnaldo pouted and loitered in my room for a few minutes while I puttered around with my laptop. “Are these your friends?” he asked, pointing up at a series of photo collages taped to the white wall above my bed.

“Yeah.”

“And that’s your family?”

“Yep.”

As I walked to my door, he grabbed my waist and kissed me again. This time, I wasn’t laughing. “I’m serious, Arnaldo. I don’t want you to kiss me. Not tonight.”

Arnaldo trailed me with a hangdog look that stuck around too long.

These should have been my first clues, but I was naïve about Arnaldo’s intentions. I let him stay.

The next day, when I told an ex-boyfriend about what eventually happened, he got hung up at the same crossroads. There was a long silence, which he broke by saying my name. That’s when I knew I was in for a ration of shit; he only used my name when he was disappointed. “Why did you let those guys into your apartment?” he asked. “You hardly even knew them. What did you expect?”

In a few weeks, my ex’s retraction and apology came via Facebook message. “I just finished taking sexual assault training. I realize you didn’t do anything wrong. What he did was wrong. It was not your fault.”

Part of me still didn’t – still doesn’t – buy it. I had invited the rapist in with all his friends. I could have kicked him out at the first sign that he didn’t take “No,” as my real answer. The truth was that I hadn’t.

Continue Reading…

Forgiveness, Guest Posts, Pregnancy, The Hard Stuff

How to Get Through It.

December 4, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Jillian M. Phillips.

Step One

Two days after Christmas, realize your period is late. Triple-check the calendar, just to be sure. Ask a friend to drive you to the Planned Parenthood. When you get there, keep your head down, hoping no one you know sees you. You don’t want to explain that you’re neurotic about your flow and too poor to buy an eight-dollar pregnancy test.

When the doctor comes in and confirms that you’re pregnant, hide your smile. Try to appear appropriately distressed because you’re not married. Nod along to everything she says. Pretend that you are interested in “Options.” Accept every pamphlet gratefully and solemnly, as if each one contains a sacred promise.

When your friend drives you home, share the news with her. Allow her to see your joy, but don’t tell anyone else. You know how hard your life has been lately. Your rent is way overdue. You’ve received two disconnection notices from the power company. You don’t want people telling you that your baby is a mistake. You don’t want it to be a problem people tell you to fix. Rationalize that you have eight more months to be in a better apartment in a better neighborhood. Your boyfriend, X, has a new job. If you watch your budget carefully, you can save enough to get a nicer place.

 

Step Two

Write in your journal about how excited you are. You know this baby will be a boy. Name him Caleb. Picture him with black hair and gray-blue eyes. See him in your mind as a voracious reader with a contemplative nature. He will be a poet. He will have a strong will. He will speak softly, but firmly, and use literary quotes in everyday conversation.

Decide that you are unwilling to allow X any say in this pregnancy, because he will tell you to get rid of it. He’ll tell you that you are financially unstable, barely able to take care of yourself, not ready. Write in your journal that you will wait until your second trimester, when you can’t legally terminate the pregnancy. It’s only two months away. You can keep your mouth shut for that long.

 

Step Three

Call yourself an idiot for leaving your journal open on the kitchen table while you were cooking dinner. Curse your stupidity at not putting it away in your nightstand, where it belonged, instead of letting X find it. Now he knows you’re pregnant. He tells you exactly what you thought he would, and is even angrier because he knows you were planning to lie to him.

X tells you to “do what’s right.” He reminds you that you have always been Pro- Choice. Curse yourself again for not having strong enough faith in your religion to hide behind. You have no argument other than that you’ve already come up with a name. The moment you rolled the syllables around in your mouth and felt them on your tongue, pregnancy ceased to be an abstract concept. Caleb is no longer a scientific term— embryo, zygote—he’s a person to you.

Listen to X’s argument. Let him pace around the living room as he rants on and on that you can barely put food in your own mouths, let alone a child’s. In a self-satisfied, fuck-you tone of voice, tell him that you are planning to breastfeed, which negates his argument. Casually add that he was the one who didn’t put on a condom. This is his fault as much as yours. He ignores this. You always forget to take your pill on time. One simple thing and you can’t even do that. Mutter something about subconscious intentions.

Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, loss, parenting, The Hard Stuff

Dear Jerk: A Letter To The Father of My Kids After He Took His Own Life.

December 4, 2014

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By Erica Richmond.

Dear Jerk,

I drove Rain and Moxie to Dresden this weekend for your inurnment. Up until now I didn’t even know that word existed. I guess I should thank you for increasing my vocabulary.

While I’m at it, thanks for giving me the opportunity to explain cremation to our kids (I’m not sure it translates well into the afterworld but that was sarcasm). Difficult conversations seem to be a regular occurrence for me these days and I had to explain how your body could fit into such a little box. I told them that you had wanted your body to be turned into ashes before being buried. Rain’s eyes grew huge and he asked,

“HOW did they do that?”

Before I could even formulate any sort of appropriate and non-traumatic response he continued,

“Was it flame thrower or laser beam?”

God I love him.

When we turned down Trerice Street toward the Dresden cemetery I pointed out the high school we had both attended. Did I ever tell you about my first memory of you? It was here at my Grade 9 dance. You were in Grade 14 (that can happen when you leave town for a while to play hockey) and you ran past me across the dance floor with the Police and principal right behind you. Squeals of laughter and chants of “RUN HOOP – Don’t let them catch you!!” echoed over the early 90s dance music. You’ve never been boring.

Did you notice that Bittersweet Symphony started on my playlist as we entered the cemetery? It IS a bitter sweet symphony that’s life…. Well at least sometimes.

The ceremony itself was short and sweet. Hallelujah. You must have been as proud of Rain and Moxie as I was. They stood quietly between me and your parents and listened to the minister read a piece that one of your friends had written. I bet you chuckled when he even read the word ‘shit’. Did you notice that Moxie had chosen to wear the fancy black dress you had given her? Did you like the red roses they picked out for you?

After the service we went back to your parents’ house. The kids took off to play tag and the rest of us sat around the backyard eating sandwiches, drinking OV and sharing our favourite Hoop stories.

There are 2 things that you can be certain of:

  1. There are a never-ending amount of Hoop stories to be told.
  • You were (and continue to be) incredibly loved. As dark as your world had become for you I hope you had some understanding of how much you would be missed.

Continue Reading…

Anonymous, Guest Posts, Pregnancy, The Hard Stuff

Sharing Your Worst.

December 1, 2014

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By Anonymous.

 

They say everything happens for a reason- and I found that easier to believe for a while.

But I call bullshit. Sometimes the worst happens for no reason whatsoever.

My daughter is a deep empath. She absorbs all of the family stories, feels sad for Godzilla when the M.U.T.O.S. are getting the upper hand. When she was about five when she wanted to take every homeless person home with us, as we had plenty of good food. They could sleep on her floor, she offered, or in sleeping bags in the living room. When I tell her stories about my childhood and how my brothers were mean to me (I usually tell them because the stories are hilarious,) she feels terrible for me and wants to somehow make it better.

So I can’t publicly write about one thing that happened to me because I’m worried it will somehow hurt her. There’s this part of me, this protective mama instinct that wants me to keep the truly ugly shit from her. I want my daughter to grow up thinking that pregnancy should be healthy. That the stories she hears that happen to strangers couldn’t possibly happen to her. When I thought of writing about this before, I imagined her years down the road thinking of this story, having been told, and worrying through her own first pregnancy, “What if it happens to me?” Or worse, that she would spend her pregnancy feeling sad for me and my experience – because that’s how she’s wired. Maybe this is the wrong approach, but as I’ve found in parenting, this is seat of the pants instinct stuff, so I’m going with my gut on this one. Hence, the anonymous story.

So why write it at all? To work it through?

No. I made my peace with this-or as much peace as you can make with the truly bad things that happen in your life- years ago. But there’s another part of me that remembers how very alone I was when all of this happened. I had heard no other story like mine, had nothing to compare to or sympathize with. Aside from the nurses who worked at the place where I got the procedure done, and my mother, and my husband, there was no one to talk to about this. It took a few years before I even saw an article where this had happened to someone else. And I did write about it once, anonymously for Salon in an op-ed piece because they were going to make “late-term” abortions illegal in my state. And for a time, they did. And I would have had no help at all had this happened to us a few years later.

My husband and I had shacked up for a few years when he figured it would be a good idea to get married. I was working, he was working, we enjoyed our early marriage as we had our first years together and four years into our marriage we bought a house. All of our ducks were in a row, he had a profession that could support us both, it was time to have a baby. I had contracted Lyme disease- nowhere near its east coast origins and had just finished my course of antibiotics and at my doctor’s advice, had allowed a month to pass after that. It was time to give it a whirl. I got pregnant in the first month. My husband had wanted kids since he was small, I was a bit more apprehensive about the whole thing, but was thrilled nonetheless. We were twelve weeks in and everything looked fine, so we came out of the closet, sat on our sunny bed on a Sunday morning with the phone (back when they were attached to walls) and called everyone we wanted to share the news with. Everyone was thrilled. This was really happening. I got the standard blood tests and we celebrated Christmas with family and I was 14 weeks along. My belly was getting round and hard. My brother said, “Oh, I just thought you were getting fat.” The day after Christmas I got a phone call. My doctor said that something in my blood test said we should probably get an in-depth ultrasound and an amnio. The chances were small, but something was up. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, parenting, The Hard Stuff, There Are No Words To Describe This, Things I Have Lost Along The Way

Deep Blue Secret.

August 10, 2014

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By Deb Scott

I have to tell you my secret fast or I won’t tell it to you at all.

It is a secret that few people know, even all of you who think you know me.

Even my family, the ones who were there don’t know. I mean they know but I think they don’t let themselves remember.

The secret is about my daughter. My baby who died.

Continue Reading…

Self Image, The Hard Stuff, Women

Featured on HuffPost Women: Women Need to Stop Apologizing!

June 18, 2014

Whew! The last few days here at The Manifest-Station have been wild. Thank you to the Today Show and Yahoo! and The Daily Mail and Cosmopolitan UK, Nieuwsblad in Belgium, and all the other places that are linking the site and sending traffic and readers our way. I am humbled. I am grateful. I am excited. It’s been a rough 6 weeks for me with my foot breaking. I’ve been battling some pretty serious blues as well as severe physical pain so the site’s success is literally putting a spring in my step. I leave for Paris Saturday where I will spend a few days hobbling around with my mom (to thank her for running my retreat business like a badass) before I head to Italy to lead a retreat followed by a workshop in London.

I wanted to share with you all how excited I am that HuffPost Women put my essay about how women apologize too much on their home page today! I woke up and almost fell out of bed, which wouldn’t have been good because the last thing I need is the other foot broken. I want women (especially young women) everywhere to read it. Thanks Huffington Post for choosing to feature it. It was scary and it makes me want to barf a little that it’s really out there in the world but I know that those are often the things that often need to be shared the most.

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Here’s an excerpt:

If I had told that guy I didn’t want to sit on his lap, or I had yelled at that man to let go of my chest, then I would have lost them, and in some small way, I wanted to make them happy, like the teenager in that mom’s letter. I squirmed when I read the letter because if I was as brave as this mom was in writing to me, then maybe I could write a piece on the things we let slide and how quiet the world would be without so many “I’m sorries.”

This is my small attempt at understanding the way we keep ourselves underfoot, the way we don’t say what we want to say for fear of losing what we probably never had in the first place. So, to answer that teen’s question in the letter of “What difference does it make?”: It makes the kind of difference, say, where you stand up when he touches you and you say, “Excuse me, but please do not touch my body like that.” Or, “F*ck you, get your f*cking hands off me.” That’s the kind of difference it makes.

And then you grow up and maybe when you get to be my age you only say I’m sorry when you’ve hurt someone or reared your car into theirs.

Click here to read the rest. I would be humbled if you’d share it. #NotSorry

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Click photo to read the HuffPost Women essay. (This is the picture from their site.)

It makes me feel terribly vulnerable, this piece. But, ultimately I know it is important. I hope you will read it and send it to a young woman you think it would do some good for. It would mean a lot to me. And don’t apologize for it. I won’t either.

Thanks to you all for being so fierce and faithful. I love the people who read and write for this site.

I would love to hear below in the comments if you over-apologize. And, if you do, where? Looking forward to your thoughts! See you in London or Seattle at the end of July! Love, Jen

 

Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature yoga/writing retreats to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif and she and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Tucson & Lenox (guest speaker at Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. She’s currently finishing her first book, a memoir.

 

 

healing, Owning It!, The Hard Stuff, Video, Vulnerability

A Video About Guilt Wherein I Tell It To F*ck Off.

May 19, 2014

Eff Guilt. With my dirty hair, bad lighting, no makeup, and a big ass glass of wine, I send you a video I did on one take. Because that’s how I’m rolling right now. Free. Or, as my friend Kathleen Emmets would say, “F*ck it.”

Here is the blurb I wrote on guilt:

Sitting here with my broken foot has allowed me a lot of time to think. I’ve been thinking about guilt and how so much of my life has been swaddled in guilt. The last words I said to my dad when I was 8, and he was 38 were: I hate you. Then he died. Just like that. I mean, there were a few hours in between where I jumped on a bed and my aunt babysat while paramedics tried to revive the life back into him but basically the time between those words and his death was minimal. I felt guilty. All my life, my “go to” emotion is guilt. I take off work, I feel guilty the whole night. I feel guilty for this or that. It’s work for me to let go of guilt. It’s an old old deeply imbedded seed.
So, I’m laying around, pretty much immobilized because of my foot. And I’m bummed. I won’t lie to you. Why would I? I’m a truth teller. I’m bummed, but get this- I feel oddly calm and present. You know why? For the first time, in a long time, I don’t feel like I SHOULD be doing something else, I SHOULD be somewhere else, that I have to go, go, go. Because I can’t. I truly cannot move right now so I have to be still. Normally, if I lay around with pajamas on, I feel guilty. I do it but I feel guilty about it. But right now I am freed of any guilt and I feel good about that. I have space to write and create, even though I am a little sad. What I realize, even though I already knew this obviously, is that guilt is a trap. It immobilized me way more than any broken foot could.
I am so tired of it. It keeps you from being here. It keeps us locked in a land of SHOULDS, and I SUCK.
When my foot heals, I will remember this moment of absolute freedom- this moment of knowing that the only possible place I can be is right here. Yes, I am forced (literally forced) to learn this knowledge the hard way but you reading this? You don’t have to break your foot to release yourself from the prison of guilt.
If you f*cking like something, like it. And be done with it.
The prisons we build for ourselves are far stronger than any casts on our feet.
So, I don’t feel guilty that I should be out enjoying this gorgeous sunny day.
I don’t feel guilty that I am not out exercising.
I don’t feel guilty that my hair is ten days unwashed.
I don’t feel guilty that I feel frustrated.
I don’t feel guilty that I am sitting all day.
I don’t fel guilty that I took a week off of work.
I hope you understand the freedom I am talking about here.
It took a broken foot for me. For you? Just do what you’re gonna do. And let that, be that.

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xo Jen. ps, I am only doing ONE workshop in LA. June 7th. I have only a couple spots left so book asap here or email barbara at jenniferpastiloff.com to sign up. 

Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  Los Angeles, SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas.

Guest Posts, Letting Go, The Hard Stuff

Waiting for the Grassy Drop. By James Claffey.

April 21, 2014

                                         Waiting for the Grassy Drop

“Oh, he loved his mother / Above all others” (“The Great Hunger” by Patrick Kavanagh)

We drive the seventy-five miles to my father’s grave and my mother barely says a word. Through towns and farmland once so familiar she’d list each one and its inhabitants, the names dropping like musical notes. No more. Today, all she says is, “Ah, I don’t remember any of this. I must be addled.” My heart cracks a little more.

We pick our way back from the grave, treading carefully to avoid someone else’s resting place. Clouds scud by over the mossy, bird-shit stained gravestones and my mother stumbles as she navigates the grassy drop to the path. I catch her fall and bear her weight, realizing the next time I visit this blasted patch of earth might be to bury her beside my father. “God bless you, Son. You’re very good,” she says.

No. Not really. I’m not very good at all. Far from it, if I am honest with her. I left home and twenty-one years later return to witness my mother’s descent into a childlike state of bewilderment and uncertainty. The signs were there eighteen months ago when she tripped over a trouser press in her bedroom and gashed her hand. It was three days before she had it looked at by a doctor. An accident, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she said. No, she didn’t lose consciousness, she insisted when the doctor pressed her on the matter.

You’d have to have known my mother to know her strength. Raised four boys and a husband who was, for all intents and purposes, a fifth boy. He couldn’t boil an egg. Mow the grass? No problem. Domestic duties? You must be joking. After raising us, she took care of him in the aftermath of a terrible car wreck. Started a small business selling apple tarts and cakes to local shops, until some jealous neighbor shopped her to the health department. She marshaled our father through his medical appointments, his drinking, and his flailing nightmares.

Since my father died of a stroke fourteen years ago she has lived alone, independent, taking care of herself on her own terms. I call her every Sunday. The conversation rarely wavers from a well-oiled script—the weather, “How are the family? How is work? The words turn in on themselves, repetitive patters of paisley print. She asks, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And three minutes later, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” And again, “Are you happy to be back teaching?” The repetitiveness is ominous. Her short-term memory is in tatters.

She no longer cooks: this, the woman whose baking and cooking was the talk of our friends and relatives for most of her lifetime. The cousins and aunts and uncles who’d show up every year just before Christmas to collect their cakes and puddings and couldn’t stay for tea because of a million excuses are long gone and never visit. The fridge is a museum of hard-caked milk in jugs, of meat gone off, of bread with mold, of decay and ageing.

There is evidence she no longer bathes, either. The week I’m home, the shower in her room never gets used, nor the bath in the landing bathroom. I sneak into her bedroom and check her washcloth for dampness and use. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing her body with the wet cloth every few days. Her clothes, too, are dirty, unwashed, recycled. I do three loads of laundry for her, making sure to dry them on the rickety clotheshorse in the spare bedroom. The fastidious woman who took so much pride in her appearance has been shut inside another version of my mother, a living Babushka doll.

For as far back as I can remember, mother solved with alacrity the Sunday Observer Crossword for forty years. Every time I arrive home we pass the paper back-and-forth, solving the last few clues together. This time the grid is a blank slate. I fill in a few clues to get her started and pass the paper her way. Two days later only my handwriting is on the checkered grid.

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. The phone calls from my brothers warned me, “You’ll be shocked at what you see.” Not really, as my weekly phone calls, or Skype time with her tip me off to the changes afoot. I ask her what she had for dinner at my brother’s house. “Chicken,” she says. He interrupts and corrects her. Not chicken. Chorizo. Her once-strong mind, her sharp-witted remarks, her caustic comments on various topics are now faded tapestries in a room no longer accessible to her.

I see myself in my mother; the genetic code of her side of the family is strong in me. I have her family’s famous ears, as do my son and daughter. I put my daughter to bed each night, reading her a bedtime story, giving her the “double cuddles,” she asks my wife and I to bestow. My toddler cried her eyes out when I got on the bus for LAX and my heart gave way. “You go see your momma?” she asked me before I left. “Yes, my love, I go see my momma…” I didn’t finish the sentence. I wanted to say, “Yes, I go see my momma, and it might be the last time I get to see her alive.”

What I see when the door to her house opens is not my mother. Is my mother? My mother is not my mother. Not the mother I want. Where has she gone? She has been replaced by this diminished, bird-like imposter. I try to draw her into conversation about her life, my brothers and their families. She sits in her armchair, smoking cigarette after cigarette. A distant look on her face. She is there, but not there. I am bereft; witnessing her withdrawal from this world, seeing this woman who used be the rock our family clung to, reduced to shards.

The truth is unknown. Over coffee with my brothers we speculate. Willful decision to withdraw? A series of mini-strokes? Dementia? We don’t know. Tests on Thursday: brain scans, angiograms, EKG, MRI, the lot. Maybe there’ll be answers. She has an inhaler for the emphysema and smokes like a fucking chimney. Did the doctor tell you to cut down on the cigarettes, I ask. “Ah, no, he didn’t.” Of course, the doctor said cutting back would be a good idea, but that cutting them out at her stage of life might be depriving her of one of her few pleasures in life. Irish doctors, I suppose they know what they’re doing…

She tells the doctor at the Royal Victoria Eye & Ear Hospital when we go in to have her eyes checked that she’s addled, too. She also tells the Romanian receptionist we make her six-month check-up with: “I’m addled.” Code for bewildered, confused, unsure, and unable to remember. All I want to do is go home to my wife and daughter and cry. I’m addled, too.

Her pills are displayed on the kitchen counter. Seven boxes, and three bottles of eye drops in the fridge. The names and the directions confuse me, so I can only imagine what they do to her. “I don’t know whether I’m coming or going,” she says. Several times a day I ask if she’s all right and she answers the same each time, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” She sits in her chair, smoking. Silk Cut Blue, the long ones. The cushion and the carpet around her feet bear the burn marks that have us so worried she’ll burn the place to the ground one of these nights. Grandchildren refuse to enter the house because of the smoke, and one tells my brother to shower immediately he returns from her house.

We meet again, my brothers and I, at a local coffee shop, to have a conversation we never imagined having. Talk of living power of attorneys, of long-term care, of nursing homes, of unimaginable scenarios we surely only thought happened to other people. Amazingly enough, for a quartet that rarely agrees on anything, we are in consensus about how to move forward with my mother’s care. We all agree that maintaining her independence for as long as she is able, and of reasonable sound mind, is what is best. If, or when, she becomes a danger to herself, well, that’s another conversation to be had.

My mother and I sit in front of the television; her breathing a shallow wheeze of short, swift inhales and exhales. I picture her lungs, 80-90% useless, blackened from seventy years of smoking. The specialist spotted her breathing issues straight away, declared her to have “emphysema.” Strange, how her regular GP never said a word about her breathing. Bloody nationalized medicine and its inept purveyors.

At night, her bedside alarm clock beeps incessantly, the snooze button malignant and disruptive. I try to fix it for her, but she shepherds me out of her bedroom. The alarm keeps going off every ten minutes, and after two nights of this fiasco, I take the batteries out and hide the clock in the spare bedroom.

Two weeks later, back in the smoke-free house on the avocado ranch in Southern California, I realize it’s as if the alarm clock was displaying the same repetitive pattern as my mother does when I speak with her on the telephone. If only the answer to her problems were as simple as replacing the batteries inside the clock. There’s no replacing her batteries. All that remains is to tell her I love her, ignore the repeated questions and answer them as if each instance is the first time of asking. If we’re lucky we’ll travel home at the end of the summer so her grandkids can have a few memories of their Irish grandmother before she deteriorates further.

I see my mother in my children, I hear her voice on Sunday phone calls, and I write my stories and novels with the love for words and literature she gave me when I was a young boy. She is in all my stories, standing over the actions of my characters, a witness in a manner of speaking. And I too am a witness, to the playing out of her dénouement. All I can do at the end of the day is bear witness, say, “I showed up.” All else is beyond my control.

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Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his family. He is the author of the collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His website is at www.jamesclaffey.com.

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Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, Salon, Jezebel, The Nervous Breakdown, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen leads The Manifestation Retreat/Workshop: On Being Human all over the world. Next up: a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif.  She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Seattle and London July 6 and Dallas. (London sells out fast so book soon if you plan on attending!)