Interview with Scott Loring Sanders

Scott Sanders

Mary Akers: Hi, Scott. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today. I really loved your SOS piece (Argument with Myself on How to Write a Competent Essay). I know that the argument is a literary device, but it kind of begs the question: do you argue with yourself a lot when you write?

Scott Loring Sanders: I argue with myself about everything, writing or otherwise. And it’s funny you ask because I’m in the middle of an essay right now where I’m trying to explore exactly who this other self is. I see him (or me—it gets a bit confusing) as the one who keeps me grounded, my voice of reason. “He” is very logical and often talks me down off the ledge, if you will. But in this particular essay I just mentioned, I’m exploring how different that voice might have become if a few turns of fate had been slightly altered. If a few close calls had gone differently, that voice might not be nearly as stable and helpful as I currently find it.

And by the way, I got this arguing with myself honestly. My mother has talked out loud to herself for as far back as I can remember. My sister and I get a chuckle out of it sometimes, but really, we’ve always accepted it as perfectly normal. There were times, for example, when my mother would be in the kitchen cooking dinner and I’d be in the living room, and I’d hear her having full-fledged conversations. But there was nobody else there. Not a soul. I’m assuming this probably sounds odd to most people, but to me it was no big deal. My mom laughs good-naturedly about it if my sister and I try to poke a little fun at her. It’s just part of who she is. I think it’s simply her way of working through problems and issues, the same as all of us do, she just happens to do it aloud.

She has always walked for exercise, and back in the day I’m pretty sure the neighbors thought she was bat-shit—walking along, carrying on a conversation with herself, her hands flying in front of her face as if swatting gnats. Today, people passing by probably just think she’s got Bluetooth. I find it endearing, actually, partially because it doesn’t bother her in the least. She’s not embarrassed or self-conscious about it, it’s just who she is.

I occasionally do it too, talking to myself I mean. Usually when I’m frustrated with some sort of manual labor. Changing spark plugs, for example. I might bust my knuckles and say, “Come on, Scott. Don’t be such an idiot.” Yes, always in third person. Also, everything that I write, I read out loud, which is rule number one for me. And if I come across a problematic paragraph or sentence, often I’ll “talk it out” and/or make suggestions to myself.

So that’s a long, roundabout way to say, yes, I argue with myself all the time, and certainly when it comes to writing.

 

MA: I love that answer. A Bluetooth connected to the other self. I’m digging that idea. I argue with myself, too, except it’s my last name that comes up. As in, “Get a grip, Akers.” My Bluetooth other has a very sarcastic, paramilitary tone. I’ll know I’m really off the deep end when it says, “Drop and give me twenty.”

I am fascinated by internal struggle. I feel like we must all face some form of it, yes? (It’s not only me, right?) The thing that seems especially brilliant in your piece is that the internal struggle is–on the surface–about writing, but it is also about addiction and moderation imposed by the self, and anger at the intemperate self, the immoderate self, even the creative self. Would you like to comment on that?

SLS: I suppose my first answer covers this to some degree, but I could certainly expound on the writing aspect. And “brilliant” might be a bit strong, but thanks all the same! I’ll take everything I can get.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty confident person. But when it comes to writing, I never am. I question everything. Is it good enough? Why would anyone want to read this? I have no idea where I’m going. What the hell am I trying to say? It’s pretty normal, I guess. I’ve heard plenty of highly successful writers say the same thing.

No matter what I write, fiction or nonfiction, these doubts constantly pop up. It’s always an internal struggle. When I get a piece accepted for publication, often I’ll think, “They must’ve really needed material for the issue” OR “Wow, I fooled them, didn’t I?” Every once in a while, one of those pieces gets nominated for an award, and occasionally even wins, which you might assume would provide some pretty solid validation. But I’ll still tell myself, “The field must have been weak this year” OR “I got lucky and happened to hit on a theme the judge was interested in.” I swear to God, I’m like an awful, domineering step-parent to my own self, where no matter what I do, it’s never good enough. But you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing anymore. Over time, I’ve learned that beating myself up in that way is actually healthy when it comes to writing. It helps push me, it helps make me better, it helps squeeze every little bit I can out of a piece. Early in my career, as I guess many young writers do, I’d knock something out, say, “Voila. You’re a genius” and then send it out, only to receive 100% rejection. After getting pummeled repeatedly, I learned humility and patience. And tenacity.

I struggle with every aspect of writing—composing, editing, rewriting, etc. But over time I figured out that that struggle is part of the journey and process. I now accept it and trust myself that eventually I’ll produce something (hopefully) worthwhile. Those internal struggles and arguments have only made me a better writer. A more thorough writer. But it never comes easy, that’s for sure. Not for me anyway.

 

MA: Agreed. I work hard to remind myself (and others) of the need for persistence in writing. In fact, it’s kind of a thing with me. I run a writing office in Zoetrope Virtual Studios and the title of the office is R.I.P which stands for Rejection Isn’t Personal. The tagline that goes with it is “Writing is a game of Attrition. Don’t attrish.” I stole this from the director of my MFA program, Fred Leebron. (Let that sentence serve as my attribution credit.)

I know you also had a short story published at Prime Number with a character who was addicted to crystal meth. Is addiction a theme that recurs a lot in your writing? (It does in mine.) If so, why do you think that is?

SLS: Substance abuse does show up pretty often in my work. I don’t know that I’d call it a theme, necessarily, but it is certainly a means for developing a character, if nothing else.   Addiction creates obstacles for a character. Which in turn creates tension. Which in turn raises the stakes. Which in turn makes things interesting. And besides, they say “Write what you know” don’t they? In real life, the vast majority of my friends have had—or still have—problems with alcohol and/or other drugs. This doesn’t make them bad people, it just means they have issues they are coping with and/or hiding from. It has been a constant in my life ever since I was a little kid, so it only makes sense that it would infiltrate my writing.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many adults in the world today (or teenagers for that matter) who don’t have some sort of experience with addiction, whether it’s their own or a loved one’s or a friend’s. It’s simply reality, so yes, it often creeps into my work. I’ve written a few essays about my own struggles, but I rarely talk about it in public (though I guess that’s exactly what I’m doing right now!) If somebody reaches out because they’re hurting and seeks my advice, I’m happy to discuss it, but I sure don’t go around preaching about it. Addiction (and recovery) are very personal things that every individual has to contend with in their own way.
ARGUMENT flowers for him

MA: Agreed. What other themes do you find popping up often as you write? I know you have a YA book with a Vietnam vet who plays an important role….

SLS: I often write about males who have issues with their fathers. It’s no mystery where that comes from. I’ve written about my own father in various essays, warts and all. There were plenty of years where our relationship was tumultuous at best, but we got through it, and I’ve never been closer with him than I am now. With that said, tough and sometimes unreasonable—or downright eccentric—fathers often factor in to my work. And by the way, since you mentioned it, my dad is a Vietnam vet.

As far as other themes, I’ve noticed that bodies of water, usually rivers, often show up—even acting as tertiary characters in some ways—though I can’t exactly tell you why that is. Trains and railroad tracks, too. I’ve always found railroads to hold a gritty, grungy mystique which instantly helps create mood and/or setting. In fact, now that I think about it, that story you mentioned in your last question has a meth addict, an estranged father, a river, and a train. See what I mean!

I’ve never really thought too much about theme or symbolism or the like. I just write what I write, but it’s clear that some ideas and topics pop-up in my work more so than others.

 

MA: Thanks for answering that. I know it’s a tough question, and perhaps one better left to those who read our work with a critical eye. (Or perhaps the Bluetooth eye.) For what it’s worth, I think you did a great job of answering it.

You share almost the same name with a well-known essayist and short story writer. That must be mildly annoying at times. Does this ever cause problems for you? Has it ever helped you? Is there something definitive you would like to say about it for your readers?

SLS: Ha, that’s pretty funny. It might be mildly annoying for Scott Russell Sanders if someone ever compared my work to his, but the opposite has certainly never been a problem! I say this because I think he’s topnotch, and I highly respect him. To have my work confused with his would be an honor. Seriously. I mean, he’s one of the original masters of the creative nonfiction genre as far as I’m concerned. And talk about some amazing writing which deals with addiction and fathers? He’s got an essay that I often teach called “Under the Influence” which is a must-read for anyone who’s ever lived with a family member struggling with addiction. Damn near perfect if you ask me.

But yes, I did decide early on to publish under my full name in order to draw a distinction between the two of us. To answer your question, it’s never caused a problem for me, nor has it helped. However, I did receive a handwritten rejection once from an editor at a highly prestigious journal, commenting on how my work was always stellar, etc. It was flattering, but the story I sent wasn’t all that good to begin with. In retrospect, I feel pretty certain that that editor probably got confused and thought he was responding to Scott Russell Sanders and not Scott Loring Sanders.

And here’s a somewhat humorous anecdote. Last year, an essay I published received a Notable mention from Best American Essays 2015. As did an essay written by Scott Russell Sanders. So, thanks to the power of the alphabet and the fact that the letter L comes before the letter R, my name appears directly above his at the back of the book. When that anthology hit the shelves, I pointed this out to my wife, stating, “Look who just one-upped Scott Russell Sanders.” It will probably be the only time, so I’ll take it.

 

MA: I’m a big fan of Scott Russell Sanders’ work, too. I love that story about BAE. And on the plus side, you can tell that critical other voice of yours to stuff it, because there’s no chance you were mistaken for him if you BOTH got noted.

And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

SLS: You know, that’s a tough one because I’m not sure. I do know that I’m much happier sober than when I was drinking. You could’ve never convinced me that that was possible when I first quit, but every aspect of my life has gotten better. My marriage, being a father, my health, my work—both writing and teaching. I’d never written a word (not a serious word anyway) until after I got sober. That’s been fifteen years now, which sounds crazy to me, even today. Fifteen years without a drink was truly unfathomable when I first quit. Hell, a week was unfathomable. To be perfectly honest, the idea of not drinking again scared the shit out of me. But I’m so glad I did it.

I have a saying which I share with people who come to me asking for advice about getting sober. It goes like this: “Not once in all my years of sobriety have I woken up and said, ‘Man, I wish I had a hangover today.’ Not once.” It seems to always hit home on a fundamental level. So, yeah, I’m proud of being sober. I’m proud of my recovery. I was able to drink a lot back in the day. A whole lot. And somehow I equated that with being tough. With being a man. But you know what I learned through getting sober? Anybody can take another drink, or puff, or hit, or snort. That’s easy. There’s nothing to it. You know what’s hard? Not taking one. That’s real toughness. So, yeah, I’m proud of it. And if those words offer some encouragement to somebody out there who’s having a difficult time, then better yet. I had some great support from friends and family, and I’ve also helped a few people along the way. Maybe this interview will help a few more. So maybe that’s what recovery means to me. Helping. Helping myself, helping others. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

Thanks so much for the great questions. I think there’s a new essay buried in here somewhere.

 

MA: Gosh, I’ve enjoyed this interview so much. I wish we could continue it over a…cup of coffee. Thank you, Scott. (Also–yet another aside–I named my son Scott, almost twenty years ago. Good name, that.)

Homepage Spring 2016

Cover image (Approaching Storm)
All artwork appears courtesy of the artist.

Welcome to our Spring 2016 “HURRICANE” issue. We’re thrilled to share the exciting and diverse array of voices in this issue, all enhanced by the beautiful artwork of Lori McNamara which she has graciously allowed us to use for this issue.

After a slow start, the issue came together beautifully and I’d like to extend a big thank you to my devoted editors and readers who make my job so much easier, and to the contributors who have trusted us to bring their writing out into the world. Also, thanks for the gorgeous artwork, Lori. You made each essay, story, flash, and poem pop just a little bit more.

Our July 2016 issue will have the theme of BLINK and October 2016 will be SPIRITS. As always, thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

Interview with Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik

Mary Akers: Hi, Simon. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today. I loved your poem “as if these leaves” in our January issue. In preparation for this interview, I visited your website and read a previous (2003) interview with Susan Tepper. In that interview, you said that you often work from images. Is this still true today? And if so, what sort of images are inspiring you these days?

Simon Perchik: Thanks for the kind words about that poem. With reference to how I work from images I would like to refer your readers to Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities an essay I wrote that more fully answers that question. The short answer is that I confront the image or idea from a photograph with a contradictory image or idea from science or mythology and resolve that difference. Exactly what a metaphor does for a living.

 

MA: I’ve noticed that in much of your work you switch images or feelings in a way that might be considered abrupt, but that to me is more about trusting the reader to follow along and catch up, as needed. Or even better, to form their own connections, their own bridges between the words. Is that how you want your readers to see the leaps you make–as a challenge?

SP: Exactly. It’s as if my subconscious is talking to the reader’s subconscious. If I do it right the reader will experience an emotion the origin of which is nowhere on the page.

 

MA: Along those same lines, when artwork is used to illustrate writing it’s almost as if the interplay between the two forms creates a third meaning that is different from the separate meanings that each work might have on its own. Given that you work from images, would you agree with that?

SP: Yes. There’s a word for this kind of collaboration. It begins with synthe but I can’t remember it just now.

 

MA: Synthesis? I think that could describe two art forms merging to create a third. What sorts of themes or images do you find yourself returning to over the years and why do you think these recur?

SP: Death and love are the only two themes worth writing about. I find myself in cemeteries a lot. No matter how a poem starts out it ends up at a gravesite.

 

MA: And finally, because we are a themed journals, what does “recovery” mean to you?

SP: Recovery, to me, is a process. We never recover. At best, we take in music, art, literature, dance and whatever else to hold us up for a while.

“Cuddle the Schizophrenic and Fear the Bipolar” by Olaf Kroneman

Pink Lily Lagoon (Cuddle the Schizo)
“Pink Lily Lagoon” by Lori McNamara, 2011, oil on masonite

1967: “The Summer of Love.” It was a great time to be in San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury, smoking pot and dropping acid. But not an ideal time to be a first-year medical student in an inner-city Detroit hospital.

Location, location, location.

For five days in July 1967, Detroit burned. Forty-two civilians were killed. It was the Detroit Riot or Civilian Rebellion from Oppression, depending on your viewpoint. They brought the dead and injured into the emergency room. I saw firsthand what a fifty- caliber bullet could do to a child. Black orderlies and white nurses and white surgical residents gently, but rapidly, placed a five-year-old girl on an operating room gurney.

I heard, “She’s still breathing.”

Her hair was braided in pigtails, held in place with pink ribbons.

It was a psychedelic mix of sights, sounds, and smells.

The lights were bright and illuminated the carnage. No shadows. Nothing left to the imagination. The entourage raced out of the emergency room. The custodians followed behind, mopping the floor. An impression of her body remained on the steel stretcher. It was like a photographic negative made in blood. I was ordered to clean the stretcher. As I did, the girl’s silhouette disappeared.

Finished, I went to the lavatory and vomited.

~

In medicine we can be witness to some beautiful miracles. Childbirth always restores me. Witnessing a sick child’s fever break and health return brings professional salvation and affirmation.

But my experience in the emergency room won’t be expunged. Perhaps a neurosurgeon could remove that section of my brain that remembers. There is no debriefing in the medical profession. We are instructed to “hike them up.” Remain silent. It often works. Time is the second-best healer.

With all the women in medicine now, there must be a new expression. But the sentiment remains.

The emergency room experience was harrowing. I had to talk to somebody. I couldn’t talk to my fellow competitive classmates. Medical colleagues didn’t reveal weakness. Angst was managed with silence. Perhaps it is different now.

At age twenty-one, I reflexively turned to those with whom I shared a filial history, a strong genetic and DNA bond. I would try to reach them once again for our mutual benefit. The DNA bond was weakening, but I had to try again. It would probably be pointless; the more education I obtained, the more estranged I became. My academic accomplishments were like a wall. I was learning so much. I was learning to diagnose. I would be able to save lives. In retrospect, my enthusiasm was focused, but intimidating and threatening. I was obsessed.

My studies led me to the family secret, the hereditary curse that doomed my ancestors. At that time it was called manic-depressive illness. It was obvious. I believed it was my duty to tell them, help them. I tried once to enlighten them. I hoped they would be receptive.

My father loved it when I played football or boxed in the Detroit Golden Gloves. He basked in my glory. But once I got into medical school, there was a distance. He seemed afraid of me. My mother too. She held her breath as I talked about my studies and the things I learned. I’m sure they realized I would come to the inevitable conclusion. I would diagnose and explain why so many of our ancestors ended their days in insane asylums or prisons or as homicides or suicides. I wanted to enlighten them and educate them, get those in the family who were affected help. Help before something bad happened.

But now I needed their help. I had to talk to them.

I drove to my childhood home, which was a two-bedroom red-brick bungalow built after World War Two. My brother, sister, and parents still lived there. I looked through the big picture window. My parents sat in front of a large color television, watching Bonanza. Ben Cartwright lectured his middle-aged sons while Hop Sing waited on them.

I entered. They looked away from the glow of the television.

“Well, who’s this?” my father asked. “Too busy to see your mom and dad? Without us there would be no you.”

My mother stood. My father remained seated. “It’s good to see you, son,” my mother said. I kissed her on the cheek.

“Get your son and me a Blue Ribbon, some crackers and Velveeta.”

My mother went to the kitchen. I felt sorry for her. She was a good person but weak and lived in fear. Fear from a volatile husband who could go from paralyzing depression to a high-pressured manic zealot. During his mania he could be very funny, buying us gifts he couldn’t afford. He would entertain us with unbounded energy. He could also get rough. I grabbed my father’s arm once, when still in high school, and told him, “No. Never again.” I was his physical superior, and he was afraid of me.

I warned him about hurting any of us in the family, especially my mother. My father became an expert at psychological abuse. It left no physical marks. I asked her to divorce him. She was too afraid, and she said she didn’t want to hurt the children.

“We’re not children anymore.”

“You’ll always be my children.”

“I know, and you must protect the one with the broken wing.”

“Yes.”

She returned with the beer and snacks. “Son, what brings you here?”

I did not know how to start. I sipped the beer. “Mom, Dad, I’m seeing things in the hospital, things that upset me.”

My father rolled his eyes. Played an imaginary violin. It was what I expected. I should have left before things got worse.

My father sipped. “Beer’s not cold enough, Sue, put a few bottles in the deep freeze.”

She left to put the beer in the freezer.

“Son, when I was in the marines, there were things that were upsetting.”

“But you got in at the end of the war. You didn’t see action.”

“True, but I talked to guys who saw all sorts of things, and I saw pictures.”

I hesitated, then I told him, “I saw a young girl die.”

“How old?”

“Five years old.”

“Well it beats seeing a baby die. You ever seen that?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well,” my father said. “I saw pictures from the war.”

“What a horrible thought,” my mother said.

“I saw your sister almost die when she cut her wrists on a glass jar. It was a bad accident.”

“Dad, it was no accident. It was a suicide attempt. She needed treatment. She still does. I told you before. You can’t just keep her locked up in the house.”

“She just has headaches,” my mother said. “The light hurts her eyes. She has to stay inside, or she starts to act peculiar.”

“She has manic-depressive illness. It explains her behaviors. She’s unstable; she can’t help it,” I said.

“You think she’s crazy? Is that what you’re saying?” my father asked.

“She needs to be on medication. I told you before but you wouldn’t listen. She needs psychiatric help to undo her bizarre behavior patterns.”

They both stared at me just like before. Deer in the headlights. I could tell they didn’t get bizarre behavior patterns. I told them again about the disease; a disease that causes out-of-control emotions, anger, rage, sex drive, but short-circuits the area that allows the ability to love. The conversation ended in insults and denial. They looked at me as if I were the man from Mars speaking another language. But they knew. They didn’t know it had a name.

I changed the subject. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a doctor.”

“You’re not a weakling. You never backed down,” my father said. “We had such high hopes for you. You could be rich.”

My mother said, “Doctors are special people. Perhaps you don’t deserve to be a doctor.”

Her words stung. I was no longer special. I couldn’t talk. The bitterness and abuse of my father had finally leeched into my mother. She had hurt me. She’d never done that before.

“That a girl, Susie. Give him a swift kick in the ass. It’s about time.”

My mother had tears in her eyes. She knew what she did and instantly regretted it. This would be of no help. I stood. “Gotta go, thanks for the beer.”

My mother followed me out the door.

“Why don’t you leave him?”

“It would have upset you three.”

“Not me.”

“Then the other two.”

My mother walked me to my car. My sister was busily scratching the side of my car with a butcher knife. I didn’t say anything. It would be pointless now that she had entered one of her manic episodes.

“Laurel, you get away from your brother’s car. Put the knife down.”

“She can’t hurt that wreck. At least she didn’t puncture the tires this time.”

“She wants you to be able to leave.”

My sister ran toward us. I didn’t know what she would do with the knife. She waved the knife at my mother and me.

“You got into med school, but you’ll never finish.” Her voice was too loud, almost like a shout or growl. She laughed and ran into the house.

“That reminds me of those old jokes,” my father shouted. “How do you unload a truckload of dead babies? With a pitchfork. Ha.…ha…ha.”

My sister laughed as well. Her laugh was higher in pitch, but just as loud.

“I don’t know how you live with all that madness. They both have it. He passed it on to her. You have to save yourself.”

“Sometimes they’re not so bad.” My mother turned and walked into her home.

That’s all I needed. I couldn’t go back again. I knew too much. They would always be afraid of me. I decided to transfer to a medical school on the West Coast.

~

That was almost fifty years ago. In 2017 it will be fifty years since the Detroit Riot. The young girl on the stretcher would be about fifty-five had she lived. The issues then were racism, police brutality, unwanted foreign wars, and gun control. Nothing much has changed. Abortion is on the front burner again.

Naively we thought the Middle East problem was over after the Six-Day War.

Leaving Detroit was a good thing for me. I went into academic medicine. All the academic opportunity was on the coasts then, as now.

Initially I went into a psychiatry residency. I wanted to learn as much as I could about manic-depressive illness, now called bipolar disorder. It’s said that unstable physicians go into psychiatry in order to heal themselves. I don’t believe that. Unstable physicians stay as far away from psychiatry as possible. They’d be too easy to spot.

But I’ve learned enough about the disease that I can spot them. The untreated ones or the ones that go off their medication act bizarre. I saw a surgeon one time get manic, and during a surgery throw a scalpel against the wall. The scalpel ricocheted, just missed the anesthetized patient, and stuck in the surgeon’s leg.

While being sewn up, he was committed.

Unfortunately, the laws protect them. You can’t be proactive. They must do something bad. Someone must get hurt before you can intervene. I’ve seen it too many times.

The treated ones always carry water or are always at a drinking fountain. The medication, the lithium, makes them thirsty. It hurts the kidneys and they always have to pee. They chronically carry coffee because the medication makes them drowsy. I’m on alert. I’m afraid of them.

And they have a peculiar twitching at the mouth or sometimes a locked smile. The mental patient smile.

I’m not the only one with the same fear. I attended a lecture by a famous forensic psychiatrist. The lecture was titled, “Cuddle the Schizophrenic, and Fear the Bipolar.” The gist was that most violent people are not crazy, and most crazy people are not violent. But some are and psychiatry is inept at spotting the suicidal and homicidal.

This hopeless ineptitude led me to change careers in mid life. I became an anesthesiologist. I put people to sleep. I keep them safe. I control their every move while they are under. When they wake up, I’m done. I don’t have to worry if they are suicidal or homicidal.

~

I rarely went back to visit my family. I was not invited to birthdays, weddings, or holidays, but they couldn’t keep me out of the funerals. You don’t need an invitation. I never missed one. I saw them all buried. I paid for them.

Only my sister and I are left. The court got her the help she needed. She attacked her fourth husband with a hammer. Killed the dog. That husband resides in a nursing home drooling and wearing diapers.

I am one of the few physicians that smokes cigarettes, Pall Malls, unfiltered. The red pack looks regal, sophisticated. Opposite the surgeon general’s warning is the phrase “Where Particular People Congregate.” Pall Malls are hard to find. But I have a good tobacconist.

I blame the government attack on smoking as the cause of the obesity and diabetic epidemic. Smoking is a great appetite suppressant. The lives saved and the lives lost is probably a wash.

Nicotine is also a good antidepressant. It seems to me that the social ban on cigarettes caused the pharmaceutical explosion of expensive antidepressant drugs. Big tobacco’s loss is big pharma’s gain. The problem with the new antidepressants is that they unmask and unleash bipolar disorder. Add to that the lack of gun control and large clip AR-15s.

I have been spared; so have my children. But I watch for signs. So far, so good.

I sit in my library. I enjoy my Pall Malls and listen to music. I steer clear of the new antidepressants. I can’t listen to Prozac. I’ve never been adequately debriefed. But I keep myself safe: I smoke.

 

 

Olaf Kroneman has had work appear in Forge, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Healing Muse, The Helix, inscape, Left Curve, Quiddity International Literary Journal, RiverSedge, Gemini Magazine, paperplates, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. His story, “Fight Night,” won the Winning Writers Sports Fiction and Essay Contest, and “The Recidivist,” won the Writer’s Digest short story contest. His essay “Detroit Golden Gloves” was selected as Editor’s Choice by inscape, honoring the top nonfiction piece of the issue in which it was printed.

 

Interview with Laura Didyk

Laura Didyk

Mary Akers: Hi, Laura. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me today. I am so grateful you let us feature your beautiful artwork in the January issue. I know this particular journey for you began with your “Love Redacted” series, which I adore, and which strikes me as being all about recovery. But I have also seen your work expand and evolve in wonderful ways, and I have to ask, how would YOU describe your work? Do you have an “elevator pitch” that you could give someone who has never seen it?

Laura Didyk: Hi Mary. Thank you so much for including my work. You are absolutely right about the Love Redacted series. I’m not sure recovery is the word I would have chosen back when I started—but it definitely fits now. If you look at my earliest redactions, like the blue one below, and then look at the most recent ones (a few of which you published), you can see a preLuv Red earlytty classic transformation from weakness to strength, from heaviness to joy and lightness.

Heartbreak caused by “failed” romance—despite how much creative work is born from it the world over—still feels like fairly embarrassing subject matter (or at least a vulnerable one), especially in your forties. Unfortunately, I know the landscape and how much time it can take to recover. I also know I won’t die from it (even though there have been times in years past when I wanted to).Luv Red later

When I started showing people the redactions, the response, especially from women, was so overwhelming and gratifying. It wasn’t just creating the work that started to help me feel better but the potential it had to help others feel better (or inspired or encouraged).

There’s an amazing book (actually a few amazing books) by a professor of critical theory at the University of Toronto named Mari Ruti. In one of them, The Case for Falling in Love, she emphasizes that failed love (though she rejects the concept of failure when it comes to romance) always brings compensation—it might not come right away, and it might not come in the way that we’d hoped, but if we’re open, it always comes. My compensation from my last break up (god, please let it be my last) is the Love Redacted series, and, really, visual art in general.

Visual art was not even in my peripheral vision three years ago. I’m a writer. Period. Doing the redactions—which became addictive pretty quickly—led to more and more of them, and then eventually to my drawings, which is mostly what I’m doing now.

Elevator speech? I’m terrible with those (clearly). My current boyfriend, who seems to appreciate my verbosity, said I should never try and be concise, that he wants as many of my words as he can get (we really like him) and offered me this funny acronym for the word concise: creative oration not collapsible in size easily. I love this.

So, screw elevator speeches (unless of course I need to write one in order to get money from some government agency).

If I was allowed to be obtuse in my elevator speech, I might use more of Mari Ruti’s words: “If we truly respect the mystery of love, we won’t pledge allegiance to its permanence . . . we’ll pledge allegiance to our faithful efforts to stay open to its transformative energies.”

 

MA: Nice. I like that.And I’m very interested in process–descriptions of how we GET HERE really fascinate me. I love learning how both writers and artists arrive at what they consider to be a final form. What can you tell our readers about your process?

LD: This is a tough one. I guess if I had to be pinned down, I’d say that my process with visual art parallels generally my process with writing. I can sit down and think I know exactly what I’m going to make, and then am quickly humbled by my own arrogance and by my assumption that I can dominate the creative process.

Art is different than writing in that with drawing I use ink straight away. I don’t usually use pencil and erase and perfect and erase and perfect. I use a pen, and then anything that goes astray, or feels like a “mistake” or problem, I have to solve by transforming the image into something else or taking it in a new direction. I have an artist friend who says that making art is almost pure problem solving. And I tend to agree with that, but with an added dose of mystery and intuition.

 

MA: I know that in addition to your fine artwork, you are a wonderful writer. I’m wondering if you find that your writing and artwork inform or overlap one another in exciting and/or inspiring ways? And could you talk briefly about the joys and frustrations of the overlap?

LD: Thank you for the good words on my writing—that means a lot coming from you.

I don’t think that they overlap, no. Obviously, the redactions involve text, and I do feel like my love of language, and both my tendency toward the non-sequitur and my aversion to cliché in my own work, is part of an ingrained aesthetic that is certainly reflected in the Love Redacted series. (As a side note, I’ve seen other work in this same vein, but the result, in my opinion, outside the work of the true masters, is often overly familiar sentiment. It’s fun to find phrases and words and string them together to say something other than what the text is saying. That’s clever. But it’s another to pull language out that genuinely surprises and ignites something in the viewer, turns expectation on its head, creates pain or urgency or inspiration in the body. That’s art, if I may be so bold.)

I will say that people around me, for whatever reason, tend to really want my writing and art to overlap—not that thinking about me and my work keeps them up at night. It’s just they’ll ask if I’ve considered including illustrations in my memoir, or poetry in my drawings. Like I said, down the line, I might find myself doing this and have to eat this interview, but at the moment, the suggestion irritates me beyond measure (friends, are you reading this?), though I’m not exactly sure why—it’s probably something I should look at [insert smile].

 

MA: I’ve thought a lot about the function of art, the accessibility of art, and the conversation between artist and “consumer.” And I feel like art takes two. That the artist makes a thing (poem, sculpture, meal, song, whatever)–we could even call it an art widget–but at first it is simply the artist talking to him-or-her-self until there is someone on the other side of that art, enjoying it, experiencing it, or even hating it. But in a sense art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. What is your perspective on the idea of conversation being inherent in the creation/realization of art?

LD: Writing, making art, making anything solely for the self has value, of course. But I don’t feel like a piece of writing or art or music or choreography or whatever is truly living until it’s been received, seen, heard, experienced. This could mean publication or exhibition or sharing something across a table from a friend. Like I mentioned, when I started showing people the Love Redacted work, the pieces started to come alive and want more than just sitting in a plastic binder sleeve.

 

MA: And finally, since we are a recovery-themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

LD: Transformation. We are so focused, as a culture, on happiness, getting it, becoming it, making happiness happen, that we don’t spend much time focusing on what the hell it actually means. Recovery, for me, has been about transforming from a person who had virtually no inner resources with which to deal with adversity and darkness (how do I deal with being heartbroken? Easy: drink, do drugs, find another love interest—hurry!) into a person who now has the emotional strength and mental stamina to deal with challenges that are going to come my way—loss, heartbreak, failure, rejection, et al—challenges that come everyone’s way. It’s been about doing everything I can to become a braver person.

Be brave. It’s a powerful directive. And one I take to heart. But you just can’t suddenly be brave. Sometimes we need help to do that. And I’m using the term help loosely as it can come in many forms. Just to say that, generally, we don’t “recover” from much by ourselves.

 

“What I Meant” by Pia Z. Ehrhardt

Sea grapes (What I Meant)
“Sea Grapes” by Lori McNamara, 2008, oil on masonite.

While I waited at the traffic light on Canal Street, a toddler straddled his mother’s hip and kicked off his tiny red sandal. He looked down, wiggled his foot, but didn’t have words. I was driving home from the office with my music on loud. My family had just returned to New Orleans after living for four months in Houston. A continuous rusty waterline cut through buildings and houses. We lived a mile away and on a ridge. The woman stood at the bus stop dressed in turquoise scrubs, and her toddler waved his sippy cup at whoever might notice. There was only one hospital open five miles away, and she’d probably taken the Uptown bus to get to the Broad Street bus.

The light turned green and I didn’t pull over to pick up the shoe and return it to the woman before she boarded. When she noticed her baby’s bare foot she would rush up and down the aisle, searching, and the little shoe would be back in the cross walk, waiting, useless because it needed a match. I kept going. Chances were good that her house had flooded. Our house had come through Katrina high and dry. I went back the next day for the tiny red sandal. Someone had pushed it to the curb and I kept it as proof of this part of myself.

 

 

Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of FAMOUS FATHERS & OTHER STORIES. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernOxford American, The Morning News, The Nervous Breakdown, Narrative Magazine, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in New Orleans, where she’s a visiting artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). www.justlivehere.com

 

“Touchpoints” by Donna Munro

gator
“Gator” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite

Bandaged

We nurse
the unwrapped bandages,
until so worn they wash the dirt,
muddy down the arms, down the legs,
past caring how heavy the weight,
how burst the sore.

 

Junkie Air

The air is still.
Heavy to walk through,
push through, breathe through.
Fan blades clog with a soft whirring of your death,
always about to come into the room,
always about to blow through.
From the jetty, I blink signals of light
through the night as you sleep.
Last night you slept
in eye light and wave rhythm.

 

Recovery

On the half sandbar
between beach and village,
there is sea in every direction.
As the tide rises,
one browned, thin-shouldered boy
bolsters his castle with rocks,
pats it down.
His mother watches,
hoping her boy will be the one
to hold the ocean back.

 

 

Donna Munro moved to the ocean and is still searching for one grain of sand with her name on it. She writes with frankness and compassion. She helps with distribution of Cape Cod Poetry Review, is and has been a member of the Cape Cod Poetry Group, the Steeple Street Poets and the Casa Benediction Poets. An emerging poet, her poems have been or are forthcoming in Atomic: a journal of short poetry, Aleola Journal of Art and Poetry and Door Is A Jar Magazine.

 

Contributors Spring 2016

Wendi Berry, photographed at Visual Arts Center of Richmond Tuesday evening, March 15, 2016. (Skip Rowland)
Wendi Berry (Be Still, My Growling Stomach) divides her time between Richmond, Virginia and the Outer Banks, where she dreams of having a writers’ retreat, with an ocean view. A technical editor by day, she’s published in storySouth, Prime Number Magazine, Hulltown 360, and Hayden’s Ferry Review blog. She previously taught composition at the University of Richmond and J. Sargeant Reynolds and is seeking representation for a novel set in present-day Richmond.

Randall Brown
Randall Brown (Stick Figure Suicide) is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in Best Small Fictions 2015 and The Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is on the faculty of Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.

Pia Ehrhardt
Pia Z. Ehrhardt (What I Meant) is the author of FAMOUS FATHERS & OTHER STORIES. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernOxford American, The Morning News, The Nervous Breakdown, Narrative Magazine, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in New Orleans, where she’s a visiting artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). www.justlivehere.com

Todd Follett
Todd Follett (Placental Insufficiency) lives in Alameda, California and is currently enrolled in the MFA Writing program at the University of San Francisco. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Natural Bridge, DMQ Review, and The Pedestal Magazine.

Barry Friesen
Barry Friesen (Fetal Decision) is a psychotherapist and former child protection lawyer. He used to write produced plays and non-fiction books in rainy Vancouver, but this winter writes short stories on the rooftop of his sister’s hotel in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. He has stories in New Plains Review, flashquake, The Toronto Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, “Loss,” an anthology at E Chapbook, Glass Eye Chandelier Anthology, audio stories, and a Kindle book, Recreational Suffering: …and how to choose a better hobby.

Olaf K
Olaf Kroneman (Cuddle the Schizophrenic…) has had work appear in Forge, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Healing Muse, The Helix, inscape, Left Curve, Quiddity International Literary Journal, RiverSedge, Gemini Magazine, paperplates, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. His story, “Fight Night,” won the Winning Writers Sports Fiction and Essay Contest, and “The Recidivist,” won the Writer’s Digest short story contest. His essay “Detroit Golden Gloves” was selected as Editor’s Choice by inscape, honoring the top nonfiction piece of the issue in which it was printed.

Lori_McNamara
Lori McNamara (Illustrator) was born in Ft. Pierce and has lived there all her life. She has an Associate in Art degree from the Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce and considers herself primarily self-taught. She is a member of Plein Air Florida, and the leader of Plein Air Painters of the Treasure Coast. Her paintings are in art collections worldwide.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Sarah Fawn Montgomery (The Talking Cure) holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, and other journals.

Teresa Burns Murphycropped
Teresa Burns Murphy (Peeling Away the Mask) is the author of a novel, The Secret to Flying (TigerEye Publications, 2011). Her short fiction has been published in Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press, 2012), Dreamstreets, Gargoyle Magazine, The Penmen Review, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, The Tower Journal, and Westview. To learn more about her writing, visit her at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.

Donna Munro
Donna Munro (Touchpoints) moved to the ocean and is still searching for one grain of sand with her name on it. She writes with frankness and compassion. She helps with distribution of Cape Cod Poetry Review, is and has been a member of the Cape Cod Poetry Group, the Steeple Street Poets and the Casa Benediction Poets. An emerging poet, her poems have been or are forthcoming in Atomic: a journal of short poetry, Aleola Journal of Art and Poetry and Door Is A Jar Magazine.

Annie Penfield
Annie Penfield (The Cocktail Glass) received her MFA in Creative Writing from VCFA in July 2011. She has been published in Fourth Genre, Hunger Mountain, and her essay “The Half Life” was named a “Notable Essay” by Best American Essays 2014. She has completed a memoir about her days working on a sheep farm in Australia. She lives in Vermont with her family and horses, and is a part-owner of Strafford Saddlery (and writes a lot of copy for their new mail-order catalog).

Tom Sheehan
Tom Sheehan (Not Yet an Angel) has published 22 books and has had work appear in Literally Stories, Ocean Magazine, Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield Review, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary Orphans, Indiana Voices Journal, Frontier Tales, Deep South Magazine, Western Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, and other journals. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner) and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015. Swan River Daisy, his first chapbook, is just released and The Cowboys, a collection of western short stories, is due shortly.

Patti Somlo
Patty Somlo (Time to Go Home) is the author of From Here to There and Other Stories. She also has three forthcoming books: a short story collection, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil); a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, WomenArts Quarterly and other journals. Find her here.

Jamie Watson
Jamie Watson (Baby, Do You Pay Here?) has worked as a director of educational outreach programs and served as the Associate Director of Admissions at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Prior to her career in higher education, she acted professionally and continues to appear on the stage. Many years ago, while pursuing theater in Los Angeles, she worked in a geriatric, psychiatric facility. Jamie is pleased to be included in this issue of r.kv.r.y., and to share this remembrance of the extraordinary people who touched her life.

Amber Weyland
Amber Weyland (The Water-Logged Heart) teaches high school English in Roanoke, Virginia. She is an MFA candidate in Writing at Lindenwood University, and she holds a Master’s in English from Radford University and a Bachelor’s in English from Virginia Tech. She is currently in the midst of moving to New Orleans, Louisiana where she plans to continue writing and teaching English.

William Kelley Woolfit
William Woolfitt (Hatchlings) teaches at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He is the author of two books of poetry, Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, forthcoming). He is also the author of a fiction chapbook, The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014). His poems and stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, Threepenny Review, Tin House online, and elsewhere. He edits Speaking of Marvels, a gathering of interviews with chapbook and novella authors.

 

“The Cocktail Glass” by Annie Penfield

The Cocktail Glass
“Beautiful Day” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

I banished the wedding gifts into a dark cabinet corner—just a few, the ones that held grief. Seventeen years ago, we used these objects for their intended purposes but when alcohol left a bad taste in my mouth because of my husband’s drinking I removed the symbols. Empty cocktail glasses and the silver carafe pushed deep into a cabinet like my husband hiding his vodka bottles. The material possessions were champagne promises, toasting all happy times together. Looking in the sideboard for the good china for a child’s birthday dinner, I would see the silver carafe crammed in the cupboard, a beacon announcing my life had bounced alarmingly off course—no cocktail hour, no champagne dinners, no dinner parties—but instead forgotten dinner conversations and absence from dinner altogether. The carafe lay tarnishing on its side, losing its luster. Hiding the symbols as if it could hide the problem. Remove the articles and maybe the drinking would just go away and the promise of my marriage would return. We would at least look sober. Each house, a move every two years, each time, these items went deeper into dark places.

Five years ago, we built the house to take our kids through all their years in school. Nestled in a high mowing in small town Vermont, we created our home and barn, planted gardens and fenced pastures and cleared trails. I polished up the silver carafe and dropped a plant into it and moved the cocktail glasses into our glass-fronted kitchen cupboard. They were really just glasses after all. We are an open floor plan in a post-and-beam house with glass doors, dogs on the sofas, wooden blocks and Legos© in the middle of the living area, books on every surface, a large kitchen table, and horses out the window. We were not dinner parties and cocktail hours but sledding parties with soup and cookies and potlucks with mugs and paper cups.

Each day I pass the glass in my cupboard. Their presence reminds me how far we have traveled from promise to addiction to sobriety in this marriage. I quench my fears by putting them on display. The tarnished carafe was the fear, and the planter is now the abundance. A cocktail glass is now an everyday glass. At first I wanted to get rid of the objects, the remnants of alcohol and the reminders we no longer live a normal life, that we would not be grown-up in the way I imagined when I opened these wedding gifts seventeen years ago, but now I see the beauty of these everyday objects—as gifts transformed to the life we live.

Will I again be hiding these glasses and looking for hidden bottles, looking for lost conversations, and an absent spouse? Will the drinking, the disappearances, and the hiding creep back? Will I miss its arrival and will it again swallow me? I can’t know the answers. I can make my fear transparent. Now we take the time to sit down and talk. We learn to serve up our emotions, to let them spill over, and not worry that they are messy. I talk about conflicts at work and unmet sales goals, children at school and hay bales in the loft. “Is there more?” we ask each other now, an invitation, we are no longer holding in; we reveal what ails us. I trust that the glass only contains tonic. “You can’t change how you feel,” says my husband.

The glasses I have been able to redefine, my own sense of self still struggles. I hold onto the pain and memory of an alcoholic life: why can’t I put down the fear, like the glass? My glass is now empty of water. I look up at the dog on the sofa, another behind the woodstove. I look at the village of Lego around the planters. I look out my wall of glass and see the horses eating from piles of hay on a snowy field. I take a deep breath and fill myself with gratitude for all I see around me: this inspiring reflection of the life we are living. Time to move into my day: I rinse and dry the glass and put it away. It sits empty, upside-down in the cabinet, unable to hold anything, and this, as it turns out, is the power of the glass. It can’t hold what I don’t put in it.

 

 

Annie Penfield received her MFA in Creative Writing from VCFA in July 2011. She has been published in Fourth Genre, Hunger Mountain, and her essay “The Half Life” was named a “Notable Essay” by Best American Essays 2014. She has completed a memoir about her days working on a sheep farm in Australia. She lives in Vermont with her family and horses, and is a part-owner of Strafford Saddlery (and writes a lot of copy for their new mail-order catalog).

 

“Baby, Do You Pay Here?” by Jamie Ritchie Watson

bamboo grove
“Bamboo Grove” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.

Sporting an Indian headdress, he squeezes his accordion. The punch bowl is filled and the place is hoppin’, but the entertainer has competition at this party.

There is Betty who calls cigarettes “potatoes” and all her friends, “baby.” “Hey Baby!” she says when she sees me. Betty is a pixie woman wearing an oversized, polyester dress and knee-high athletic socks—one with a green stripe and the other an orange stripe. It’s hard to know if Betty really likes me or if she’s just an expert brown-noser. I supervise smoking and Betty is addicted. We are in the dining room of a geriatric, psychiatric facility.

There are others at the party. Vashti, a woman with flawless skin who gives beauty advice and always wears a hat; either her face or her hat is crooked, I’m not sure. Vashti is here, not for the company, but for the punch. Like most patients, she is always thirsty. Wanda, a big-boned woman in a long, red velour robe asks where she might catch the streetcar, and Frank, a tall rigid man, stops to confess that he can’t find his keys. He pats his pockets repeatedly as if he knows they were there only moments ago. Residents are allowed few personal items. A patient who brings a wardrobe from his former life usually discovers that someone sitting across from him at dinner is wearing it.

Bingo!

George strides into the Bingo room. Well over six feet tall, he is gangly and thin. His face is sunken as he resembles a life size apple doll. Bingo is popular with patients because they win candy bars as prizes. George likes Three Musketeers; we don’t offer Snickers because, like George, few patients have teeth. I supervise the game. There are long pauses between shouts of Bingo! As I call out numbers, a bald guy announces trains and their destinations as if the numbers I call represent trains departing from particular platforms.

Louis, a toothless patient in a wheelchair, wins a Three Musketeers bar; achieving his objective, he takes the candy and wheels from the room. Betty plays too and prefers cigarettes to candy bars, but takes whatever she can get. Helen, a bright manic-depressive patient, is legally blind; I play her card for her. Helen doesn’t care much for Bingo, but craves socialization, at least when she is in a high. Helen and I have become friends. She shares recipes with me and was the first to introduce me to bacon and avocado sandwiches. Helen loves to read and since she can’t see has convinced me to read aloud to the patients—mostly to her, of course.

Bill, a hefty man, is a notorious visitor to the Bingo room or for that matter to any room where patients are smoking. As Bill approaches the room, patients yell, “Here he comes!” He enters the room at a limping gallop focused intently on the ashtrays. He snatches a hot cigarette butt and stuffs it in his mouth. Walking away, Bill pats his behind—his signature “kiss my butt” gesture after eating cigarettes—his way of flipping us off. Occasionally, however, he can’t wait until the cigarette is left unattended and his nicotine fit catapults him into the room to grab a cigarette from the shriveled lips of an unsuspecting female patient, leaving the frail old woman with her mouth gaping. The Bill phenomenon creates a sense of urgency and an aura of secrecy to smoking sessions.

The end of the day.

I pass the dining room to see Louis sitting alone in his wheelchair. I hadn’t seen him since he left the Bingo game with his candy bar. I approach and call his name. There is no response. As I circle his wheelchair, I see that his head is slumped to one side, and he is drooling the Three Musketeers. I touch his arm. I find a nurse who checks his pulse; there is none. I go home, knowing that Louis choked to death on his winnings.

My senses assaulted.

I recall my job interview and being escorted through the locked doors into the hallway of parading patients. Over the PA system, someone calls, “Housekeeping to the Dining Room.” No catheters, nor Depends; they just let it fly. Some patients are sitting in a large reception room, but most are walking the halls. Those who are not walking are restrained in wheelchairs. Mr. Alvarez slips from his restraints while singing The Star Spangled Banner. He is stuck on “What so proudly we hailed.” I meet Margaret, a woman with huge, wild brown eyes; her right arm is bent behind her head and she clasps her left hand with her right. She seems wired, as if vibrating tightly while she walks: “I’m swimming in San Francisco. It smells like someone’s fishing in my nose.” I guess I’m supposed to behave as if all of this is not unusual, but it seems damned unusual to me. I try to remain calm.

At the interview’s conclusion, I exit through locked doors into the lobby that now seems remarkably quiet and still. What can I do but take the job? I feel someone is daring me.

Religion, or remnants of it.

Alan, an Orthodox Jew, keeps to himself. Each time we meet, he greets me with a handshake as if it were the first time. Alan obsesses over his food because he’s sure it isn’t Kosher. Served the same thing every day—no meat, mostly mushy vegetables—always tasteless. I ask him if he’d like me to bring him something Kosher. One day I bring Kosher bologna and saltines. He is reluctant to trust me, but I show him the Hebrew National wrapper and Alan enjoys the snack so much that it is as satisfying to me as it is to him.

Religion is a sticking point in what remains of patients’ lives, especially those who have been devoutly religious. There is Grace, a tiny withered woman whose eyes are squeezed shut and mouth is screwed sideways. Restrained in her chair, pushed against the hallway wall, her bony legs are intertwined like a cinnamon twist. Grace is a devoted Catholic, but when the priest comes to give Communion she refuses the host. She keeps her mouth shut tight against the wafer, managing to squeeze out a “Noooooo.” Grace feels she is not holy enough. Religion is no comfort to Grace.

For John, religion equals guilt, and he is constantly sorry. John wears a hat and black horn rimmed glasses; he is thin, like most patients, and taller than average. John shuffles—a side effect of the Haldol. The shuffling can get in the way of what John likes to do best. Dance. On rare party occasions and sometimes when there is no music, John finds a dancing partner. They smile at each other for a moment, but John feels too guilty to continue: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Then there is Nelda. Nelda was a hell of a Mormon—a hook, line, and sinker, no-doubt-about-it-follower of Joseph Smith—but as she makes her hallway rounds, she alternates between a pious grin and “Hi Honey,” and a “Get your cock out of my ass.” Nelda’s family does not visit.

For those who find some comfort in religion, it is usually in the memory of the music; they enjoy hearing hymns played on the piano and some sing to themselves. It’s not the doctrine that reassures them but the litany of songs they remember from childhood. Maybe they have vague recollections of standing next to a parent in a church pew singing Love Lifted Me.

Safety in numbers.

I sign a few patients out to walk to the neighborhood supermarket. George goes regularly and John likes to go. Mary, a sweet woman whose daughter still visits, joins us. The four of us stick together—safety in numbers.

George is the most fun at the store. Like a scientist, he wants to test everything. He makes me guess the weight of the sugar and wants to know if I think an orange would float. George investigates the produce, and we have the entire section to ourselves as the regular shoppers scatter. They scatter, and Mary feigns appropriate facial expressions and reacts as if George is an amusing, errant child. We have what we’ve come for: Bingo prizes for the most part (a single orange to see if it will float), and we’re in line. John is upset. He scuffles and plops down in the checkout line. “Come on, John,” I say. “We’d better get back.” John’s friends are embarrassed and offer scolding looks, but they are accustomed to extraordinary behavior and the episode is soon forgotten.

Occasionally, John gives new meaning to manic. One such day he enters the Bingo room wearing a broad toothless grin. This day life is askew for the dancing man who is on the verge of who-knows-what, humming all the while. “This table is uneven,” he begins and that is a metaphor for what follows:

Frank Sinatra used to sing but now he went to work for the Ford Company or McDonnell Douglas or something. Rudy Valley—he just sings at the Greek Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl and New York. He doesn’t sing in the pictures anymore. He’s too old; his voice is starting to crack. Then there’s that other singer with Jack Benny—what’s his name- Long? Wong? I can’t think of it now. Rudy Valley might have passed away. I haven’t seen it in the papers.

At this point, Carl, the resident ex-con, shuffles toward John and picks up his dinner tray. John says, “Oh, here’s that Carl; he’s gonna take the tray away.” It’s as if Carl lifts the needle from John’s record ending his remembrance of Hollywood crooners.

Carl spent time at Folsom and San Quentin, but he’s a kinder, gentler, squatty old son-of-a-gun now. He is also the only resident clever enough to know that if he trips the fire alarm, the locked doors will open—one of the skills a person learns in “rehabilitation.” Carl writes long letters that he asks me to mail; they are elaborate works of correspondence primarily to the Queen of England. I’ve tried to explain that I can’t really mail them, but Carl insists that I take the letters. One such letter begins, “Dear Queen Elizabeth of London, England, my home town….” He usually mentions The Royal Navy and identifies himself as a member. He makes many fictitious claims including an appointment at Oxford, but is always respectful of the Queen. Occasionally, he writes to less famous folks. He once wrote to me to request some batteries for his Walkman; that letter began, “Dear Madame.”

Dining in the Bingo room.

The Bingo room doubles as a dining room for patients who are inclined toward socialization; it is something of an honor to dine in the Bingo room. George is a regular and sits in front of a shelf with a globe on it. He studies the globe and asks me if I have visited various worldly sites. George maintains a level of sanity here, but he has his idiosyncrasies. He loves to examine shoes while they are on your feet, and always inquires where they were purchased. It would be trite to call it a fetish as nothing about George is mundane. He is a one-of-a-kind guy—a lifelong learner. Most residents take regular medication; some are more heavily sedated than others; several are practically out cold. George’s prescription consists of a single can of Coors each evening.

Wanda, the woman who waits for the streetcar, also dines in the Bingo room, however, at times she’s too critical. She declares of a resident at her table, “This woman is not a member of the Ladies’ Guild.” Martin, an agreeable, fairly well groomed fellow, attempts to mask the fact that he hasn’t a clue how he was placed at Wanda’s table. He must be reminded each evening of his dining room assignment. As he surveys the room, his eyes say I don’t know any of these people, and he turns to me as if we are business associates: “I’m afraid I’ve disappointed you. Didn’t we have a dinner date at six?”

Betty is not welcome in the Bingo room. Although she fits most criteria, she’s too bossy. Betty’s aphasia prevents her from focused and polite repartee so she persists with a strong will and a shit-eating grin. She huffs and puffs and clacks her false teeth, which don’t fit. When no one else is around, she opens her mouth and drops her plastic teeth to show me that food has accumulated on the dentures’ pink palate; “Hey, Baby,” she says, making a face, “Yea, how ’bout it?” Betty is beside herself when she cannot garner a Bingo room reservation and pleads, “Baby, they’re shoving me out. Why?”

While there is no place for Betty in the Bingo room, she still has a reservation at home. I know because I have been there. Betty once insisted that her husband take her home for a visit and they took me along. A tidy house, Betty gave me a tour including the contents of her husband’s sock drawer. She took me into the kitchen and pointing at each of two placemats, she said, “Hey, Baby, him and me—here, here—the two of us.” Enough said.

They’re better off.

The first time I said it was when they took Alice out in a bag. I saw the bag and I imagined Alice inside. Alice, lover of music, always had to have something in her mouth; I usually had Bingo peppermints and gave her one whenever she asked. When she couldn’t find something suitable to suck on, she would find something terribly unsuitable, and if I saw her I would tell her to take it out of her mouth. She would shake her head, her eyes watering and tell me that it wasn’t what I thought. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that,” she insisted. And so, when Alice left in a bag, I said, “She’s better off.”

All souls are visible.

Patients receive regular visits from a psychiatrist. Most of the doctor’s time is spent charting. Everything must be documented. If accurate documentation were possible, what would the good doctor write? How can any description do justice? Maybe this is purgatory and some god is surveying the landscape deciding whom to rescue. There are no impediments to evaluating this pool of applicants. When life is boiled and distilled, this is what remains. No posturing, no excuses, no egos, no religion, no wallet, no keys, no teeth—just naked souls circling the halls wearing mismatched socks. The Manor is a living, pulsating allegory; each resident is Everyman, from Frank, who can’t find his keys, to Wanda, who is frantic to find the streetcar. The protective coating that separates those on one side of the doors from those who are locked within is wafer thin and we are keenly aware of it. It is little wonder there are few visitors; coming here is like having your fortune told.

It’s not all a frightening work of art.

Some souls are bared to reveal genuine goodness. There’s Oda who cradles her imaginary baby in a makeshift bundle, and Mary who just wants everyone to get along, and Helen who loves to listen to good stories because she can no longer read them. There is Betty who has lost all the right words but struggles to connect with a kiss on the cheek, and Mr. Alvarez who sings out his patriotic loyalty as he slips from his wheelchair restraints. And there is George, King George of the Bingo Room, who loves his wife even though they are divorced and see each other rarely.

The doors are locked.

We have become co-dependent, the Manor folks and me. I find it difficult to leave this place that I initially found repulsive. My husband picks me up every evening and I subject him to a review of the day’s events. He asks why I insist on reliving everything. He knows the patients well; at least he would were he to listen, but I am often too intense in the retelling.

How did I begin to feel at home here? Do I believe I can make a difference? The truth is if I were gone more than a few days, I would be forgotten, but it’s safe here. The doors are locked.

Unlike their families, I didn’t know the residents before they arrived. I accept them for whom they are when they pass through the doors. I don’t mourn the loss of their previous personas. Just as I accept them, they appreciate me for what I have to offer whether it’s a cigarette, a story, or a walk to the store. Expectations are manageable and we all live in the moment.

A few residents believe that I am also a patient—one with privileges. Sometimes, I let Betty join me in my office. She enjoys stepping out of the race for a moment—to feel special. She is able to think more clearly when she is away from the others. There’s not much for us to talk about but I offer her a cigarette and this afternoon she notices a jet making a trail through a crystal blue sky. Pointing, Betty says, “I used to go in them back east.” She looks into my eyes to inquire, “Baby, do you pay here?” I tell her, “No.” She seems slightly confused attempting to piece it together. “Oh, you don’t. I thought they were working on you.”

 

 

Jamie Ritchie Watson has worked as a director of educational outreach programs and served as the Associate Director of Admissions at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Prior to her career in higher education, she acted professionally and continues to appear on the stage. Many years ago, while pursuing theater in Los Angeles, she worked in a geriatric, psychiatric facility. Jamie is pleased to be included in this issue of r.kv.r.y., and to share this remembrance of the extraordinary people who touched her life.