Interview with Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

Jennifer Schomberg Kanke

Brandi George: I’m always shocked by how much we have in common. We’re both from working-class families in the Midwest, and we’ve both endured childhood trauma. We are the first in our families to graduate from college, and we’re working poets and scholars. And yet, at least for me, this success often feels hollow. It’s tough to write through painful emotions while also teaching, researching, publishing, and competing for academic jobs (what a stressful sentence!). How do you juggle all of these different responsibilities while also writing powerful poems about your past experiences?

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke: I try to give myself the time and space I need for each thing when I need it. There was an old TV show on Lifetime back in the late 90s called Maggie and there’s a dream sequence scene where she’s learning how to spin plates and the secret to spinning plates turns out to be that you don’t have to have your hand on every plate at once. You keep your eye out and see which plate needs your attention and let the others do their thing. And I think that’s how I balance all my responsibilities, just keep my eye out for which plate needs me. Granted though, that’s tough when writing poems about the kind of life I’ve had because opening myself up to certain issues could make me unfit for human consumption for a day or so and you really don’t have that kind of luxury when you have 100 students relying on you. I have a good counselor and a lot of good self-care that lets it happen.

But another part of your question that I wanted to clarify is that I don’t always consider myself to be the first person in my family to have graduated from college (and some days I don’t consider myself to have had a traumatic childhood, but that’s another issue entirely). It all depends on how you define college and first, and even family. Only one of my grandparents was able to graduate from high school, but my father has an associates from a tech school and I always thought of that as “college” until I got to Ohio University and realized that most other people weren’t counting that. And my Aunt Bunky and my cousin Cindy finished their bachelor’s before I did, but they had both taken a lot of time off to have children after high school and came back as non-traditional students. So the joke in the family is that I’m the first non-non-traditional graduate. But according to all the Federal programs for first generation students, I’m a first generation college student because, by their definition, my aunt and cousin aren’t “family,” family is only immediate family to them. And I’m not sure if that definition of family sits well with me. My family is rooted in Appalachian traditions and family is incredibly important to me.

 

BG: Writing about family members can lead to hurt feelings, conflicts, and often, guilt. We don’t want to hurt the people we love, and yet they have hurt us. How do you hold people responsible for what they have done, while also taking into account their own, often traumatic, lives? What role does poetry play in this process?

JSK: I don’t know if I’m particularly interested in holding people responsible for what they’ve done. It might sound self-centered, but my goal is my own healing and placing responsibility or demanding atonement isn’t a large part of that. Not to bring up TV again, but there’s an episode of Northern Exposure where authorities from West Virginia come looking for Chris and they try him for something he did a long time ago. He’s able to get off by proving that he’s just not that same person anymore and so can’t be tried for the crimes. I can’t try my family for crimes their old selves committed against me. Well, I mean, I can, but I’m not sure what good it does any of us. It doesn’t change the past. It doesn’t change how those things have affected me or how they’ve become part of my own self-perception and self-talk that I have to fight against every day.

What I am interested in being able to do is to have conversations with them about what things were like back then and how those things effect the person I am today and the life I’ve had since then. And that’s where poetry comes in for me. It opens up those conversations in a smoother way than me trying to just brazenly bring it up. Which probably says a lot about my personality that I think it’s easier to write a poem, publish it where anyone with an internet connection can see it than to just say “hey ya’ll, that sucked, let’s talk about it.” Maxine Kumin once said that writing in form helped her deal with tough emotions because it gave her control (or something of that nature) and I think poetry in general also does that for me.

 

BG: Personally, I’ve found that there is great power in the images that are pulled from traumatic experiences. In your poem, “I Am Not Worth $8.50,” you open with the following image:

The hallway mirror is veined with gold paint,
each square a repetition of the last,
making the distance from the living room
to my bedroom look farther than it is. (1-4)

The image is resonant and unsettling. Would you talk a little about how and why you chose it? Do images do a different sort of work in poems about violence?

JSK: Is it a horrible and unpoetic answer to say that I chose it because it’s just what the end of the hallway looked like? I know, I know, that’s a simplification and there are always layers to any choice that we make. We lived in a three bedroom ranch and the hallway with the bedrooms and bathroom were off the living room area. I spent a good amount of time running from that living room, trying to make it back to my bedroom and get the door shut. That mirror (a sort of ghastly relic from the previous owners) is burned into most of my memories, it was always like I was running toward myself. Safety was my own image. Or at least my own image adjacent.

I don’t really think that images do any different work in poems about violence than they do in poems on other topics. The image’s job is always to give us access to the moment, whether that moment is one of violence or of ice cream and unicorns, or of violent unicorns eating ice cream. The image is like that episode on Charmed when Prue and Piper get sucked into the painting. The image is the magic spell, there to pull us in and not let us go. Or at least part of that spell, the other part being the use of rhythm and sound elements. It can be easy to overthink it all and what those lines are between the image itself and the way the image is rendered, especially when writing violence.

 

BG: It’s easy to overwrite painful experiences, but “I Am Not Worth $8.50” does a lot of work in a very short space. How did you arrive at the final draft of the poem?

JSK: Would you hate me if I said the poem really only had one draft? There were a few tweaks, mainly with me trying to decide how much a lock cost in the mid-80s and deciding how forthcoming to be about how long it took for the lock to break. In my poems where I’m trying to be honest about what my life was like and how I felt about it, I have to go for shorter because if I let myself think too long or write too long, I start making jokes and referencing pop culture stuff. Which is cool, I love pop culture, especially TV (as I’m sure is probably pretty apparent by my earlier answers), but I use it as a protective mechanism. Which works wonderfully in my fiction ( I think, I don’t know, I guess you’d have to ask editors who are looking at my submissions to get a real answer on that one!), but for poetry I think it doesn’t work as well. It becomes a shield against the pain. And there are days when I really want that, but if I want my poems to do the work I’d like them to, I’ve got to put the shield down and come just with my heart open. My crazy, needy, angsty little heart.

 

BG: You are one of those lucky, multiple-genre writers. Are there other things you can express in your poetry that you can’t express in your fiction and vice versa?

JSK: I think poetry lets me express things faster. Poetry lets me do a ripple effect thing, it takes five seconds for the pebble to hit, but you’re seeing the disruption on the water for a few minutes after and it’s spreading out over the whole lake. Fiction lets me hide more. And I’m a big fan of hiding. I feel like poetry gives me less wiggle room with the facts. I try to stay as close to the truth as I can with poetry. I know that’s not the way it is for everyone, but it’s the way it is for me unless I’m being very clear that it’s a persona poem. I still honor the lyrical I. I think poetry comes from a sacred place and you defile it by taking too many liberties with the facts of the situation. Those liberties become ways of hiding from the truth and from ourselves. That said, I think a little bit of tweaking (like saying something’s blue when it was really red if that scans better or emphasizes a point or saying it took a month for a lock to break when really it was a much shorter period of time), is okay, but not much more than that. But with fiction I can mix my real memories with other things that are completely made up and no one knows which are which. That makes me feel safe and comfortable and hidden. I’ve been trying to write creative nonfiction and that’s not going so well. I don’t have the “Truth instead of truth” of fiction or the vagueness of poetry to hide behind. I feel a little too exposed in creative nonfiction. I’m also just more familiar with the forms of poetry than with creative nonfiction, so there’s that too.

I am Not Worth (Under the Sea)

BG:I Am Not Worth $8.50” is not written in a traditional form, and yet it has a very strong sense of sound and rhythm, including a few iambic lines. What is your relationship to traditional forms, and what role do they play in your work?

JSK: When I was a kid I was a voracious reader and my wonderful Aunt Jannie, one of my father’s sisters, would take me to the Goodwill Bookstore, which she called “The Day Old Bookstore” (because we’d also usually hit up the day-old-bread store while we were out). There wasn’t a lot of selection for a tween, but there certainly was quantity! For fifty cents you could get a paper grocery bag full of books, but you had no idea what was in the bag before you bought it. I got lots and lots of Nortons and old poetry books that way. So, Thomas Campion was my first poetry love. Not Shakespeare, not even Spenser, nope, Campion all the way. And Campion was also a composer who did music for masque dances and songs for lutes. My parents also loved Steeleye Span, a British folk rock group, and we were in a contra dance band together. The early forms I was exposed to were all musical forms. I don’t think consciously about sound and rhythm too much, I just feel it, I dance it. Of course, I’m also a child of the 80s and 90s, so sometimes that dance is slam and sometimes it’s the pogo and sometimes it’s the Boot Scoot Boogie. But I also love sonnets, but that love came later when I took English classes in college and then studied poetry more deeply in graduate school.

 

BG: Since you began writing about your childhood, you’ve received messages of gratitude from readers who have endured similar experiences. What poets do you feel thankful for?

JSK: That’s a tough question. I think the answer to that has changed over time I’m grateful to Gwendolyn Brooks because she showed you could take a formal foundation and build something new and powerfully contemporary out of it and also for her poem “a song in the front yard,” which, along with Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” is one of those poems that just pops into my head when I’m in a bit of a mood. I hear them in my mind and think, “yep, other people were sick of this shit too” and it makes it easier to put one foot in front of another. Catie Rosemurgy’s “The Office Party” is another one of those poems. Her line “I want my maybe back” is pretty much the story of my life and I love her for that line. I feel grateful to Anne Sexton and Marge Piercy because they were the first female poets I read that talked about things I didn’t realize you were allowed to talk about in poetry (because, remember, I’d been reading Campion and Donne, and other members of the Old Bros’ Club).

I’m also thankful for Marge Piercy beyond her work though because she was the first person to tell me that my story needed to be told and that I needed to stop hiding behind poetic craft and just say what things had been like. She, and the other poets that were in her annual workshop in Wellfleet this summer, made me feel that my voice was important and that my story and the story of my family is just as important as others. Because I tend to downplay it. I never became a drug addict or had affairs or did anything all that exciting by the standards of contemporary poetry (I’ve played only in the front yard, in Brooks’s terms). I had a 3.9 GPA in high school and undergrad and went on to get a PhD. I’m the kind of person who people are surprised has had the kind of life I’ve had, probably because I’ve learned to just not talk about it. Marge made me see that that resilience is exactly why I need to be writing about it, to show the variety of experience.

I’m also thankful for Mark Halliday, J. Allyn Rosser, Janis Butler Holm, Barbara Hamby, and David Kirby for not only their great poems, but also for putting up with me in graduate school while I’ve floundered around trying to find my voice. And Josephine Yu,Wendy McVicker, Becca Lachman, Kathryn Nuernberger, Lydia McDermott, and you for being great writing and personal supports as I work on this stuff. The orchestra’s probably about ready to play me off on this question, but believe me, I could go on and on with this. There are so many poets who have made a difference to me with their work and also with their love, support and community. You write poems alone, but you need community to be a poet.

 

 

Brandi George grew up in rural Michigan. Her first book, Gog (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), won the gold medal in the Florida Book Awards. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, Columbia Poetry Review, and The Iowa Review. She has been awarded residencies at Hambidge Center for the Arts and the Hill House Institute for Sustainable Living, Art & Natural Design, and she attended the Sewanee Writer’s Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar. She currently resides in Hattiesburg, where she is Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Interview with Millicent Borges Accardi

accardi_millicent_borges

Mary Akers: Hi, Millicent. Thanks so much for speaking with me today about the wonderful, lyrical poetry in your new book “Only More So.” Let’s start with the first things a reader encounters: the title and cover. I love the title and the title poem, especially the lines:

“That now she must survive by owning air,
holding back the red, the full, the bare,
the proud canvases of flat language paper
that once told her everything she needed
to know.

It was like this, only more so.”

Those lines and the title you chose and many of the poems in the book speak to me of suffering, but also of the light that can follow suffering. Or perhaps simply the desire to keep on, despite the suffering, which seems like its own form of hopefulness. Would you care to comment on that?

Millicent Borges Accardi: There are times when suffering seems inerrant to the human condition, as something that is, we try to believe that suffering is apart from us, something that is dumped on us, something we have to endure, to fight, to guard against. When, in fact, suffering is one of the keys of a chord played in life, not good or bad just “there.” Equal to or alongside joy and satisfaction. Of course it is easier to say this from a point of distance and more difficult when you are in the weeds or in the darkness of a painful situation and it is or seems impossible to look at the sky above.

Suffering does not necessarily stem from conflict. But sometimes it is just the hollow sound that the heart can make.

Image result for Only More So Millicent Borges Accardi
MA: And the cover. Beautiful. It feels like an apt image, too, that mandala. Your poems speak to the universe–the vast experience of life–and also, by extension, to the universal (by way of the specific). The phrase “repeated questions” (to the woman from the soldiers) from the title poem sends us back to the mandala for meditation, for consideration, for a way toward peace. Was that your intention? Or am I reading too much into it?

MBA: The book cover was created by Salmon’s graphic designer Siobhán. Directors Jessie Lendennie (Chairperson) and Siobhán Hutson work together at Salmon Poetry to create the beautiful books they publish. The cover of Only More So is a mandala, which seems suited to my work since a mandala is a microcosm of the world and poems are like that, brief moments, or snapshots of a universal truth. Mandalas are used in Buddhism, as spiritual guidance, as well as an aid to meditation, focus and trance. In fact writers may refer to the process as similar to being in a trance. Like the poet Ralph Angel, says,

I always compose in longhand. I will be in my trance and find myself putting down a line or two that jams me up—. . . There was a reason for it if I was in my trance, if I was in a pure place and I was hearing language in a way that wasn’t distracted. It’s just another problem to solve. (Sleet magazine interview March 2012 )

 

MA: And just a publication-process question: did you have a say in your cover? I have heard so many different stories from authors about the process of finding a cover for their books–sometimes it’s a joy, other times a nightmare. How did that process work for you?

MBA: My husband is an artist and for the first two books he had paintings that magically fit in with the book cover, but this one?  Not so much. Salmon Poetry was wonderful to work with. I sent the designer a few suggestions, and then she came up with the mandala, which suited the book perfectly.

 

MA: I loved the poem “The World in 2001.” The collective voice works so well in this poem, the voice of the narrator and the father speak as one about perceptions and loyalties, and then it spins at the end into helplessness in a beautiful and moving way. Do you consciously plan that turn in a poem? Or is that a more organic process that the poem itself seems to “want” as you write and revise?

MBA: As many times as I have tried to plan “a turn” in a poem, or to outline an idea, it always seems to be the result of the more organic process. As you say, the poem itself seems to “want.” In stories too, no matter how much time I spend on an official diagram, I always throw them out when I start into the work and the work takes me on its own path. In school I was terrible at the preliminary steps for the Final Paper where the teacher had student prepare a Thesis Statement and supporting ideas. Typically, I would just write the essay, then spend hours building an outline backwards so I could “show my work process.” I did the same thing in logic and math.

So letting the poems grow naturally means I do not have to work backwards to create a contrived outline.

 

MA:I loved “The Well.” I remember that story in the news of the little girl trapped in the well and it wouldn’t leave me alone for days. Is that what drove you to this poem? Do current events and/or news often compel you to comment or explore them in a poem?

MBA: Like the rest of the nation, I was transfixed to the story of the little girl who had fallen into a well. We all wanted the best for her. It was such an American story. A poor family. A struggle. A very sweet personable child. The firemen were heroes and everyone had their eyes on the tragedy, hoping for the best. We wanted things to work out. We needed it to have a happy ending.

Sometimes a poem can serve as a divining rod, passing over events in life.

 

MA: Oh, and “Renovation.” Holy cow, that one slayed me. The voice of that poem really speaks to me. It gets inside my head with its PTSD tiles and grout and I hurt as I read, but in a good, cleansing way. What was the inspiration for this poem?

MBA: This poem washed over me too, as it was being written. The imagery fell on the paper, and I really did not see the whole picture until the poem was finished. Sometimes, I fear we trivialize things by discussing the back story, instead of focusing on the end result: the work, the poem itself. An unimportant moment can lead to a multi-layered poem, and it may be a mistake to breathe the beginning, as if that were a key, that when obtained, unlocks the secret to the poem’s ultimate message.

 

MA: Fair enough. Then let’s talk about “In a Certain Village,” a wonderful allegory that riffs on a fairy tale that we all know well, but then it shifts and we are left to think about the bigger story of that story we think we know so well. In fact, there are many times that the poems in this book take on big but familiar themes. I think that readers will be satisfied by the references and their exploration, but I do wonder if you felt some trepidation at the start when these common themes began to emerge? I know I always do, and it’s something along the lines of Will I do it justice? Or, How can I say anything new?

MBA: I didn’t feel any trepidation, I just wanted to tell the story we all know in a different way, from a wider perspective, perhaps. As if this is one of the most important stories in the world and it is universal. Generally speaking a fairy tale has a beginning, a middle, and an end, How those pieces cling together and grow and connect those three areas may be the same, but the interpretation or moral of the story varies from culture to culture. For example, Disney uses watered-down fairy tales as fun stories for children where as Struwwelpeter (1844), a book of horrific stories by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, is meant to frighten and discipline children.

At AWP this year, I was on a panel, entitled Monsters Under Your Bed: Writing from Folklore, Reinterpreting Legend, with Jose Faus ,Maria Vasquez Boyd, Amy Sayre Baptista, and  Miguel M. Morales where we discussed literary interpretations of folklore from cautionary tales to tales of terror. like El Cucui, Los Duendes, and La Llorona. My next book, that I have been working on for many years is a collection of Portuguese fairy tales.

 

MA: Sounds wonderful! I can’t wait to read it. And now, because we are a recovery-themed journal and because the answers to my last question are always fascinating, what does “recovery” mean to you?

MBA: Recovery does not mean starting over. It is building a momentum with a clean source. It means being significantly changed, re-aligned or evolved. A “new normal,” is not back to the original, a perfect or imperfect or deeply flawed original. Recovery is not back to the way things were or used to be. Recovery itself could be physical, mental, emotional, but  true recovery is a transformation not a return.

 

 

Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American poet, is the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon) and Woman on a Shaky Bridge. Her awards include the NEA, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, FLAD, Money for Women (Barbara Deming) Millicent holds degrees in English and writing from CSULB and the University of Southern California

 

Writing is Easy: You just open your veins and let the blood drip out

Kay Merkel Boroff My second husband left me when I brought home an adopted three-hour-old daughter. A male colleague asked, “Were you raised to be independent?” I answered yes, though the thought was buried in my subconscious. The biological mother took the baby back, and I kept teaching.

When I was hired to teach at The Hockaday School, a girls’ school founded in 1913, the headmaster said, “Kay is a role model for our students.” I’d lived in Viêt-Nam where my husband Jon was a pilot for Air America, a subsidiary of the CIA. Jon was killed flying in Laos. I returned to Dallas, a widow with PTSD, and began teaching at Hockaday in 1973. No one knew I lived with PTSD. No one knew I’d suffered a nervous breakdown. No one knew I was learning disabled. No one knew I’d washed sheets in a bathtub and ridden buses in Bangkok, burned a body in a Buddhist funeral, snorkeled off Con Son Island near the Tiger Cages, witnessed Vietnamese strippers dancing in my dining room for my husband’s Captain’s Party.

In 1970 no one knew about PTSD. Gold Star Families weren’t yet created. Nevertheless, my stomach kept hurting, I froze whenever sirens screamed and ambulances and fire trucks drove by. Once a tornado siren was wailing, and I stood frozen on the sidewalk until a neighbor took me by the hand and led me to safety. My internist kept testing me for Asian bugs and found nothing. I finally did biofeedback and starting writing. I had Agent Orange on my legs, my nerves were shattered. After the nervous breakdown my junior year at TCU, I had my father’s words seared in my brain: The first one is free. The second one they cancel your insurance. My psychiatrist lessons apply today: 1.Learn to say no. 2. Tea Kettle Theory: Let off steam. 3. Ladies don’t have much fun.

At school, I found a mentor, the lesbian English Department Chair, who suggested we read WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES (Clarissa Pinkoa Estes). “Be wild; that is how to clear the river.” No encouragement needed. War is fun—unless you get killed. THEY PUT ON MASKS (Byrd Baylor) explained to my sixth-grade students that we separate ourselves with masks of makeup, clothes, cars, religion, politics. I knew about masks. While teaching English to Middle School girls, I defended my thesis and published THE CONSTITUTION OF ADVANCED OBJECTS: A THEORY AND APPLICATION. Reading T.S. Eliot, W.V. Quine, and Melanie Klein, I created a reading paradigm to teach reading using objects viewed in a circular direction rather than in the traditional Fictean graph. Reading with a learning disability is an arduous task. I read from object to object, stringing leitmotif “beads” on a necklace, the topic sentence wrapping with the concluding sentence, as James Joyce FINNEGANS WAKE—

A way a lone a last loved a long the

wraps back to the beginning—the piano recital and the forgotten notes—the nervous breakdown—Jon’s death.

A last loved a lone.

A journey back to Southeast Asia

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s

from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of

recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

I gain entry to an hermeneutically sealed text—a Gadamerian notion in Quinean terms—by viewing the writing as a seamless web of objects.

Another faculty mentor twenty years my senior gave me a poster with these words—

Writing is easy: You just open your veins and let the blood drip out.

This mentor helped me apply for a grant and attend my first Writing Project. “Enjoy the journey on the ‘write’ track” became my motto: WRITE is displayed on my Texas license plate. My unpublished novel titled Z.O.S., “Zone of Silence,” the acronym for the CIA’s subsidiary, is a personal mantra. I write to know how I feel. I write to quiet my anxieties. I write to keep depression at bay. I write to come home to the Texas red dirt.

Thai temple rubbings Jon made were stolen. Letters of his were lost. I feared one day nothing would be left of my husband. “Painting the Elephant Gold,” originally a haibun—a writing combination of prose and haiku—wrote itself when I dropped the ceramic elephant purchased from Udorn Thailand days following Jon’s death. After being shipped around the world, residing in multiple apartments and homes, moving the elephant one night, my treasure crashed into pieces at my feet. I glued the pottery back together, painted it gold, and wrote the pain away. Kintsugi—like my life—gluing heart break together with American blood and Asian gold.

–Kay Merkel Boruff @KayMerkelBoruff  http://www.writeink.org

 

Contributors Summer 2016

Jerri Bell
Jerri Bell (Care Packages) is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She and former Marine Tracy Crow are the co-authors of It’s My Country Too: True Stories of Women Under Fire from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, forthcoming).

Kay Merkel Boroff
Kay Merkel Boraff (Painting the Elephant Gold) lived in Viet-Nam 68-70 and was married to an Air America pilot who was killed flying in Laos 18 Feb 70. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, Texas Short Stories 2, Taos Magazine, Grasslands Review, Fifth Wednesday, Stone Voices, Turk’s Head, and Paper Nautilus.

Jessica Braun_Headshot
Jessica Braun‘s (Stay Awake) writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, NEPA Family Magazine, and Literary Mama. She lives with her husband and two daughters in coastal Massachusetts. For more of Jessica’s writing, visit her blog at www.nocigarettesnobologna.com.

Rachel Crawford
Rachel Crawford (Mourning Light) is a writer, teacher, and editor. Her work has appeared in Red Rock Review, Lucid Rhythms, The Lyric, Apeiron Review, Red River Review, Illya’s Honey, Freshwater Poetry Journal, Literary Juice, The Wayfarer: A Journal of Contemplative Literature, Anima Poetry Journal, Crack the Spine, Rock & Sling: A Journal of Witness, and RiverSedge. She lives in central Texas with her husband and daughter.

Kelly DuMar
Kelly DuMar (All These Cures) is a poet, playwright and workshop facilitator. Her poems have appeared in Lumina Online, Corium, Cape Cod Review, Kindred, and Tupelo Quarterly. Her poetry chapbook, “All These Cures,” was published by Lit House Press and her plays have been produced around the US and Canada. Her new book of poetry & prose will be published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. Her website is kellydumar.com

Magdalene Fry
Magdalene Fry (Barks & Vois) is a single-parent advocate from Wayne County, West Virginia, and was educated at Anglia Ruskin and Marshall Universities. She lives in Michigan with her daughter and works as a mental health and wellness coordinator. These selections are from her books Barks and Vois.

Fay Bio picture
Fay Henexson (Illustrator) is a native Californian, a librarian by profession, and a photographer by avocation. Fay has developed a particular interest in using the camera to find abstracts in old buildings, neglected machinery, and other objects. Her work can be seen on her website and its companion blog, Spirit Standing Still.

typewriter
Liam Hogan (Living in Fear) is a student in the Writing B.F.A. program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This is his first professional publication.

Jennifer Schomberg Kanke
Jennifer Schomburg Kanke (I Am Not Worth $8.50) is originally from Columbus, Ohio and currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida where she teaches creative writing and critical theory at Florida State University. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and Nimrod.

Danielle Kelly
Danielle Kelly (What to Do on a Day Like This) holds an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College and is Managing Editor of HeartWood, an online literary journal. She is a banker, a multi-denominational church singer, and currently serves as Adjunct Instructor of English at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV.

Lucinda Kempe
Lucinda Kempe (On Perseverance) has work published or forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Summerset Review, Matter Press’s Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, decomP, and Corium. She won the Joseph Kelly Prize for Creative Writing in 2015 and is an M.F.A. candidate in writing and creative literature at Stony Brook University.

Katherine Koller
Katherine Koller (The Caregivers) is about to begin her career as Development Fellow for the Chicago nonprofit Peer Health Exchange. She graduated from Northwestern University, where she majored in theatre with a concentration in performance, activism, and human rights, and a minor in creative nonfiction. She also taught Pregnancy Prevention in Chicago Public Schools and directed a course in consulting for nonprofits.

Len Kuntz
Len Kuntz (Twisters) is author of The Dark Sunshine and an upcoming story collection I’m Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You.

Cyndy Muscatel
Cyndy Muscatel (A Fine Line) has had short stories, poetry, and essays published in many literary journals. A former journalist, she now writes two blogs. She teaches fiction writing and memoir, and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. She is writing a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle.

“Twisters” by Len Kuntz

Twisters (Bamboo Sprout)
“Bamboo Sprout,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

I am six almost seven when the twister comes do you see it do you see it my brother asks it must be as far away as dickinson or fargo the hill we live on gives a view of the flat land and on it this afternoon with the sky gone gray as night this twister is a manic marauder a cone-shaped thing aladdin’s angry genie unleashed will it take us I ask you’re such a scaredy cat my brother says but he doesn’t realize I’m not really afraid he sleeps downstairs and can’t hear their fights mom’s muffled shrieks her squeals mirror glass shattering atop their dresser pipe or fist hitting the wall going through it on the other side of mine my little indian warrior clock with its big brown eyes coming free of its nail breaking off one pony tail when it hits the floor and bounces dead as I always knew hate you hate you I hate you she screams and so he hits her my father does hits or slaps I’m leaving you you’re a monster oh yeah I’ll show you a monster last night was the worst every evening is bad but last night the floor shook bombs exploded I expected smoke expected flames to burn their room to cinders but breakfast came and mom was at the stove frying flap jacks wearing a head scarf and jackie o sunglasses smoking silent as a hollow log saying stop your gawking and eat go on you let it get cold and I’ll whoop you sure as satan and now in the distance the cyclone is swiveling its smoke hips and I imagine it sucking up barns and buildings and houses with screaming children and astonished parents milk cows and chickens hogs farms being rolled up like rugs the moss place folger’s farm chicory square all of them slurped up that massive funnel of dirt while I wait our turn kenny says we better get downstairs come on you stupid turd I shake him off fine go ahead and die see if I care he might mean it he might know more than I think there the twister jerks pivots like a spastic ballet dancer made of dust moving through smolinski’s plot swiveling mowing pulverizing breaking things apart wherever it finds them a motorcycle comes flying this way hurled a mile through space like a chrome asteroid this is it this is it this is deliverance this is god acting saying I’ve heard your prayers this is his wrath that I’ve read about only at the bottom of bell street where the coolie sits the twister veers east without warning east east why east I’ve been waiting my whole life my short life willing eager to give it up and there you go god there you go you do not exist don’t tell me any more lies there you go no different than the gray ghost vapors my mother blows out of her nose when she smokes mom dad and me the fight between three maybe not tonight but tomorrow tomorrow the twister will reappear a different cyclone but just as savage and cruel and it might finally be the one that takes me the one that ends it all.

 

 

Len Kuntz is author of The Dark Sunshine and an upcoming story collection I’m Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You.

 

“The Caregivers” by Katherine Koller

The Caregivers (The Mask of Comedy)
“The Mask of Comedy,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

Tessa ~
I was sixteen when I realized my dad was cheating on my mom. I was the only one who noticed. I had to tell her. For years after, they were in counseling and my mom was trying so hard, while my dad was just lying, deceiving, and deteriorating.

And then he started making the sketchiest career choices. Like starting his own cell phone business in the middle of the recession when he knew nothing about business or cell phones. Then he tried selling cars. Then he couldn’t hold down a job at all.

They got divorced. For so long my mom hated him. She treated him horribly. I mean, I hated him, too. I treated him horribly. We just didn’t realize. We didn’t understand that the first sign of dementia isn’t trouble remembering. It’s behavioral changes. People with Frontal Temporal Dementia lose any kind of empathy. They can’t read anyone else’s feelings. But he was only fifty. And it’s so hard to diagnose it early on.

I didn’t even notice the physical symptoms until ten years later. It started in his arms.

Carrie ~
My father had six children: me, another girl with my mom, and four more with his wife after her.

Not one of them helped when my dad got sick. It was a full-time job. I used to spend so much time at Maryhaven—the nursing home my dad was in—and the patients all loved me cause I’d come in singing My Fair Lady at the top of my lungs. I used to do improv, see. I used to do Comedy Sportz, so I’d really put on a show. Then I got into organizing ice-cream socials and music therapy—oh, and animal therapy, everyone loves playing with puppies. And I’d connect with the patients’ families—I knew what they were going through—so when a position opened at Mather Pavillion, I took it. I was basically doing the same things I’d already done at Maryhaven, but this time for pay. Except I haven’t been able to work since I broke my kneecap. I’m on my feet the entire time at work. Thank God my insurance covers me while I’m on crutches, cause I literally can’t do anything there sitting down.

Amber ~
So I’m the oldest of six, and I’m thirty. Andrew, my middle brother with Down syndrome, is twenty-three. It’s kind of a joke that two months after I got married, my mom asked when I was going to start having kids. I told her, “I spent my childhood raising your kids and I’m still looking after Andrew.”

Every summer I took care of my younger brothers. When I went looking for a real job, everyone asked, “Any previous job experience?” Um, none, technically.

So instead of kids, I have a lot of pets: two dogs, four cats, two chipmunks, a ball python, and a fennec fox. And Andrew’s the only one in the family besides me who knows all their names.

My husband, Gus, is really good about it all. His parents died when he was two and his grandma raised him. We met in high school, so he knew my story. My mom got custody of the younger boys at first, but when she moved to Vermont my dad fought for Andrew and won. Dad has nine siblings here in Milwaukee and Andrew’s very close with his grandma. But Grandma can’t really do much now and my father’s a vascular surgeon, so he’s always on call. Gus and I take Andrew every other weekend to help out. His favorite thing is pasta. Gus makes it every night he’s here.

Tammy ~
I would have Andrew out here in Vermont with me if I’d had my way. But I didn’t have an extra $60,000 a year. So, he’s there in Milwaukee. I tried making Amber his legal guardian, but my ex-husband and I do a lot of fighting so he’s the legal guardian. It should be Amber cause she actually makes the decisions. The group home calls her cause they’ve learned that her dad never answers his phone. He’s kinda not real responsible.

I told Amber I don’t want Andrew living with her cause it’s too much for anybody. She’s always wanted to move to Portland, so if she does she’ll probably bring him with her. She’s been closer to him than any of the other kids. She’s the oldest. She really goes out of her way. She’s the one I count on.

Naomi ~
When I was younger, I worked at a camp for kids with special needs. My brother called them, the Tards. He’d say such horrible things and make me cry. Like, “Why do you want to work with kids who only have half a brain?”

Years later, Caroline was born. She had the lowest muscle tone the physical therapist had ever seen, like a ragdoll. But she was a happy baby, really delightful, and my brother adored her. Then she started missing milestones. Sitting up, scooting, and each one she missed was another blow. We waited four years for a diagnosis. Prader-Willi syndrome was literally the last thing they tested her for.

Tessa ~
Finally, my dad got diagnosed with ALS and Frontal Temporal Dementia. But by then he didn’t have health insurance because he’d been let go from his job. And his crazy schemes had lost so much money. I didn’t know how we were going to afford it. His healthcare, I mean.

I finally found a nursing home to take him if he got on Medicaid. But to get on Medicaid, you need bank statements from the last five years. I knew his current bank, but had no clue which bank he’d had before that. I basically had to make a list of every local bank, walk in, and say, “Did this person have a bank account within the last five years?” And I’d show them my Power-of-Attorney papers. There was no other way to do it.

Ten banks rejected me before I found the right one. I was so relieved…until that man, with that stupid little mustache, came back and said, “You’re missing one of the Power of Attorney pages. We can’t give you the records.” Well, I started crying right there in the middle of the bank. I sobbed my whole story through tears and snot. Finally, he was just like, “Okay, okay, I’ll give you what you need. Just stop crying!”

So eventually I got my dad into the nursing home. I was still taking care of him though. You’ve got to keep an eye on the staff. You’ve got to make it clear that someone’s holding them accountable. Because they will do whatever they can get away with. I even had to teach the nurses how to get him out of bed. They were lifting him by the arms. The arms! With his ALS, that was the most painful part of his body. And I thought, “If they’re messing up when I’m around, what are they doing when I’m not?”

It wasn’t just the nurses. Uhhggg, the doctors would ask him all these health questions and then stare at him like they were expecting to get some legitimate answer. And I’m just going, “You want his answer? Or the truth? Cause if you want the truth, you should probably be talking to me.” I had to take him to the hospital once for severe rectal bleeding. The doctor asked my permission to do an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, every oscopy you can think of. He said it might be cancer. So I’m like, “If you find cancer are you going to save him?” And he said, “Oooh, well, no but…” Then why put him through those painful tests if he’s already dying? You’re going to make him suffer because you want money? No. Leave him alone. I just want him to be comfortable.

Carrie ~
Two years ago, I was walking outside my apartment, and tripped. That’s all. I tripped and broke my patella bone! Well I was healing, slowly, and then I tripped on my crutches and cut my face open! You see this scar? I needed twenty stitches! And I hurt my knee all over again. The doctor said this happens all the time because crutches are so hard to use! But anyway, I’m not even sure I believe in doctors anymore. My physical therapist has done a thousand times better for my knee than any of the doctors.

The medical system is so fucked. Like with my dad? When he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s? I’d stop by once a week, make sure he had groceries and everything. But he got worse and I started coming every other day, then once a day, then three times a day for all the meals. It was my whole life… One night, I get to his house after grocery shopping, and I call, “Daaad,” but he doesn’t come. So I’m frantically screaming his name, expecting to see him lying on the floor. And I can’t find him anywhere. I assume he’s wandered off and gotten lost, you know? I call my friends; we’re running around Evanston searching the streets. I’ve called the police, and three hours later, we can’t find him anywhere.

So I’m lying on the kitchen floor, sobbing, when Dad just strides through the front door with his head wrapped in bandages. Apparently he tripped on the sidewalk, his glasses cut his face, and the neighbors called an ambulance. They never even bothered telling me. And then the hospital! He wears a bracelet saying he has Alzheimer’s, with my number, and no one called. They sent him home—alone. They just stitched him up, wrapped his head, and told him not to lie down.

I was so pissed. I called the hospital and I told them they’d made a big mistake. I told them if I had more time and energy, I would sue their asses. He had a medical bracelet and they never even called. At least they waived the medical bills, which saved us a few thousand dollars.

Amber ~
Andrew was diagnosed with Down syndrome before he was even born. The doctors suggested my mom have an abortion, but both my parents are pro-life. My mom actually had her tubes tied after my first two younger bothers were born, but my dad said, “If a vascular surgeon can’t have a ton of kids, who can?” So she had the surgery reversed, and had Andrew. After Andrew was born, she wanted more kids so he’d have younger siblings to play with, since the first three of us were so much older.

Tammy ~
The second Andrew was born I saw the doctor crossing her arms, shaking her head, and looking at him. She was Indian. They don’t understand why we have Down’s kids. In India, basically they’ll kill females. So a retarded child, why even have it? It’s not a fun thing, when you just have a baby and see the doctor shaking her head.

I had a blood test. Can’t even think of the name, it’s been so long. They said it came up normal. I had no idea. Except he was smaller. I thought, “God, I’m not gaining weight like I did with the others.” Makes sense though, cause they’re little people.

The hospital sent a representative from the Downs National Alliance. She came in all cheery telling me it’s not as grim as the public thinks. She was right. He’s one of my easiest kids. And the Alliance people say there’s a list as long as your arm of people willing to adopt Down’s kids. I said, “Really? Cool, but I’m keeping him.”

Naomi ~
The doctor said, “Do not look up Prader-Willi on the internet!” So of course we did. And what we found, it was just, it was just…devastating. Severely obese children eating themselves to death. Parents finding their children eating garbage, or getting calls in the middle of the night to say their kid had broken into a store to steal food.

I have had weight issues since I got pregnant the first time, so it felt like an insatiable appetite was probably worse than any other disability my baby could have. I waited for years, dreading the night I’d come downstairs and find her stealing food from the refrigerator, or worse, eating out of the garbage. I wouldn’t want to go downstairs in the middle of the night for fear of it beginning.

But it never did. To this day Caroline has never eaten anything I haven’t given her. She’s eighteen now, and it was definitely a trade-off, but I’d take the way it turned out over the alternative any day. You see, Caroline’s IQ is lower than most kids with Prader-Willi. She reads at a seventh grade level and math is much lower. So we could…brainwash her, kind of. Ever since she was four, her breakfast, lunch, and dinner have been the exact same food, same portion, every day. And since her cognitive function is so much lower, she doesn’t question it.

Most kids with Prader-Willi turn eighteen and realize that they have free will. They emancipate themselves and within three or four months, they gain a hundred pounds. There’s nothing the parents can do about it. Usually, they die. We’re not going to have to go through that with Caroline. I’ll take our situation any day.

Of course now, with her peers going to college, and prom…it hits home. She’s not going to do those things. But it’s a lot harder for me. Caroline always says, “I’m the luckiest girl in the world!” That’s how she sees it. She wakes up happy, she goes to bed happy. Her quality of life is damn good.

Tessa ~
If I wanted to go on a date, I had to stop by the nursing home first to check on Dad. If I wanted to go out with my friends, I had to stop by the nursing home first to check on Dad. And then I’d be at this hip bar, drinking a fruity margarita, surrounded by my dolled-up friends, and just feel…miserable. I was a real downer. I’d spend the whole outing wishing I were at home, being a downer alone.

Carrie ~
I don’t talk to my siblings anymore. I’m the only one of my father’s six children who did anything for him. My brothers were all too busy. Towards the end of his life, my dad started asking for my sister. She agreed to Skype with him. But after the second time she said she wasn’t going to do it anymore, because she wasn’t getting anything out if it. We haven’t spoken since.

Amber ~
Once Andrew turned twenty-one, he was too old for public school, so my dad put him in a home. It’s okay I guess. I wanted a nicer home for him, but I don’t think he minds. The really nice homes have twenty-five year wait lists. We had to find this one at the last minute, because it was always the plan for my mom to keep him at home. But she wanted to get far away from my dad, and when she moved to Vermont she lost custody of Andrew. So now I do most of the caregiving. I handle emergencies. On weekends I bathe him and cut his nails. The home’s supposed to do it, but he hates water so they don’t force him.

Tammy ~
I think Andrew is happy. My son Michael says, “Mom, Andrew likes to go to dances cause he’s with his homies.” Michael stayed and watched once, and said Andrew gets out in the middle of the dance floor, takes the microphone, lifts his shirt up. He’s got a big pasty-white belly, and is doing a belly dance in front of everyone. “He’s like a different person with his homies,” Michael says. “Like he knows those are his peeps.”

Amber ~
I end up doing most of the work because my brothers aren’t married and go out on weekends. I’ll call and say, “When did you speak to Andrew last? If you’re in town you should see him.” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, I should do that.” And it’s like “Yeah. You should do that.” In most families one person becomes the caregiver because it’s just easier that way. If you had six people responsible for Andrew, and communication wasn’t perfect, it would get really confusing.

Naomi ~
I’d keep Caroline home forever if I could, but she’s such a social kid. We’re looking to find two or three other families with special-needs kids and buy a house where they can live together. With a fulltime caregiver, of course. We’re lucky we can afford to do that.

My son’s been wonderful. My husband, too. Don’t get me wrong, Grant drives me nuts, but he’s so good with Caroline. He’s really been my partner in all this. Of course, Caroline gets a lot of her bad habits from him. Like licking the yogurt off the top of the lid. Well, that might be a Prader-Willi thing, but Grant does it, too!

If I were asked to give advice to parents of a Prader-Willi baby, know what I’d tell them? Nothing. Caroline is skinny, she’s never stolen food, she’s the only kid with Prader-Willi and a nut allergy to survive. I don’t want to give false hope. Our happiness is so rare.

Tessa ~
Everyone says, “I can’t believe you did all that. You’re such a wonderful person.” First of all, I didn’t have a choice. There was no one else to do it. It’s like you don’t realize what you’re capable of until you’re faced with it. And then you just do it. I still struggle with the guilt of wasting so many years hating my father because of that affair. I couldn’t have known what was causing it and all, but still…

You know, when we got the diagnosis, it was almost a relief. Especially for my mom. For all those years he was lying, she kept asking, “What did I do to make him cheat on me?” When we found out that his behavioral changes were a symptom, it was like a million weights had been lifted off her. It all made sense. It was nothing she did.

My mom even visited him in the nursing home. The way his face lit up, she knew he remembered her. She was sitting in that old mauve chair, the one that spilled out stuffing, tenderly spoon-feeding him clumpy rice pudding. “I forgive you,” she told him. “I’m letting this go.” And that was the greatest closure.

Carrie ~
There are two kinds of people. Those who can handle it, and those who can’t. Don’t get me wrong, I think the second kind are ultimately selfish, I’m not defending them. But I will concede that it’s hard to see your father sick and not be the man you grew up with. Since it’s hard, they leave. Anyway, my brothers didn’t care and my sister was too selfish. I was the only one at his funeral. Eight years of caregiving left me drained in every way. It’s been three years since he died, and I’m still tired, but I’m starting to feel like I have a life again.

Amber ~
It’s hard for people to relate when I tell them my brother has Down syndrome. They sympathize and say, “Wow, that sounds terrible.” But they can’t understand. My friend has a cousin with Down syndrome. And finally I could say, “You know what it’s like!” It’s a relief to meet people like that. They reaffirm that what you’re doing is hard and taxing, and difficult. But it’s something you do because it’s family and you love them.

Every aspect of your life becomes: how does this impact the person I’m caring for? My husband and I want to move out to Portland, it’s been my dream forever. But as long as Andrew’s here, I can’t leave him with my dad. I have to put my life on hold until I can bring him with us.

Tammy ~
People say, “God knows who to give those kids to. You’re so patient.” And I’m like, “It’s not like there’s an option, okay? You’re given this and you deal with it. I’m not any more special or any more patient than anybody else. I don’t have a choice.” God, I’m so sick of people saying things like that. If you had one you’d deal with it too. Cause you have to. You don’t have an option. They’re family. What are you going to do?

 

 

Katherine Koller is about to begin her career as Development Fellow for a nonprofit in Chicago called Peer Health Exchange.  She just graduated from Northwestern University, where she majored in theatre, with a concentration in performance, activism, and human rights, and a minor in creative nonfiction writing. In addition to her coursework, Katherine spent three years teaching Pregnancy Prevention in Chicago Public Schools with Peer Health Exchange, and was the Executive Director of a Northwestern course in consulting for nonprofits. She loves the theatre, and acted in many campus theatrical productions.

“I Am Not Worth $8.50” by Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

I am Not Worth (Under the Sea)
“Under the Sea,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

The hallway mirror is veined with gold paint,
each square a repetition of the last,
making the distance from the living room
to my bedroom look farther than it is.
One step, two steps, three and safe
to hold the door shut with thin arms
against whoever wants in tonight.
My parents buy a lock,
it’s broken within a month.
Replacing it would be a waste of money.

 

 

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke is originally from Columbus, Ohio and currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida where she teaches creative writing and critical theory at Florida State University. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and Nimrod.

 

“Stay Awake” by Jessica Braun

Stay Awake (Driftwood Detail)
“Driftwood Detail,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

The day I returned from my honeymoon, I weighed 88.3 pounds.The problem was, I didn’t know I had a problem.

Even when I passed out in the bathroom of our honeymoon suite, hitting my head and gushing blood all over the Spanish tile, I didn’t know I had a problem.

“I just got too much sun,” I said to my husband Phil. And I believed it.

I could admit that I obsessed over calories and exercise – but when family members used the word “anorexic,” there was a complete disconnect.

“I am just a picky eater,” I explained. I believed that, too.

At first, Phil supported me in resisting that label. But when my primary care doctor insisted that I enter an eating disorder treatment center, Phil sat silently, slumped over in an orange plastic chair lodged in the corner of the exam room. He looked so tired, so defeated.

Choosing a facility is like looking at colleges, except you are mentally ill and there are no football games. The first place was a psychiatric hospital. We drove up the long driveway, curving around the pastoral grounds. I half expected a deranged lunatic to come sprinting over the hill, chased by a band of orderlies.

As we sat in the waiting room, I reviewed the treatment options in the hospital pamphlet: Day Patient or In-Patient. “I’ll be a day patient,” I whispered to Phil, “but that’s it.” No way was I moving into this place.

The program director had other ideas. “It’s in-patient or nothing.”

“Why?” Phil asked. “Something is better than nothing, right?”

The doctor leaned forward; his relentless eye contact made me squirm. “It won’t work. She will fail.” He looked down at my legs, then back up at me. “Why do you think your feet are blue?”

I looked at my feet, corpse-like in flip-flops. “It’s cold in here?” I squeaked, more of a question than an answer; a little girl scrambling to cover her tracks.

“Come back when you’re ready,” said the doctor, standing up.

“Screw him!” we said, slamming our car doors. But indignation fizzled into silence. I glanced at Phil, his face ashen, his hands white-knuckling the steering wheel. “We’ll find a place,” he said.

He was right. A treatment center for eating disorders – a summer camp version of the psychiatric hospital – agreed to take me as a day patient on a trial basis. I was to show up at 9:00 and leave at 3:00 – and I had to follow the rules. Meals were timed and monitored. A schedule board listed daily activities: “Friendship bracelets at 11:00.” Friendship bracelets? I was 27.

My first lunch was lasagna. I sat staring at the tower of cheese and noodles when the girl across the table leaned in.

“You don’t need to eat it. You get a freebie on your first day.”

I nodded in gratitude. I pushed the lasagna around with my fork and read the rules posted on the wall: No Microwaving, No Bathroom, No Plate Clearing Until Approved. Some girls wept while they ate, others so sedated they dozed off, fork poised mid-air. The rest were robots: Open, chew, swallow. Repeat.

Tune out. Don’t think. Just Eat. These mantras got me through most meals. But foods with no nutritional value -cookies, brownies, donuts – made me want to come out of my skin.

“Some foods can be eaten just for pleasure,” said the cheerful nutritionist with a condescending wink. Sure. Tell that to the poor girl crying over a jelly donut.

I was ten years older than most of the patients. Some looked up to me like a big sister, despite the fact that I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom unsupervised. One girl liked to stop by my room to talk. She looked at the wedding photo I had on the bedside table.

“Wow, you were really sick then, right? I can tell by your arms.” There was admiration in her voice, as if looking emaciated at your wedding was an achievement. “Did you eat your wedding cake?” Her eyes narrowed, hungry for my response.

She wanted me to tell her that you can get away with not eating your own wedding cake; that you can fake being happy and healthy enough to fool people, even your own husband.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t eat it.”

She nodded, relieved. I felt sad. She didn’t know that having a husband just made things more complicated.

But I did. Everyday at 3:00, I exited the world of art therapy and guided journaling and entered my real world, with a husband and a mortgage and a house that needed to be cleaned.

It was impossible to transform from “psych patient” to “wife” in a short car ride, like Clark Kent entering a phone booth and emerging as Superman. So everyday, I stopped for a secret six mile run. I needed the repetitive pounding of my feet hitting the earth, aggressive music blaring in my ears, drowning out my thoughts. With each mile, the events of the day became more distant and foggy. Then I was ready to go home. To be normal.

One afternoon I stopped at the grocery store for some dinner items, still sweaty and dazed from my run. The automatic doors swung open; the blast of air-conditioning like a bucket of ice water. I felt disoriented by the fluorescent lights and crowded aisles.

I wandered around the store with no sense of purpose, and found myself in the bakery aisle. My hands gripped the orange handlebar of the shopping cart when I looked around.

I was surrounded by donuts: in the bakery case, on the shelves, in boxes arranged on display: Original Glazed, Boston Creme, Confetti Sprinkled, Double Chocolate Dip.

“Can I help you?” said the man behind the counter.

“What?”

“Can I start a box for you?”

“Oh…no. No. Thanks.”

I pushed my cart away from the glass. The idea of “starting a box” of donuts was as bizarre a question to me as “Would you like to sample some arsenic?” I wasn’t someone who ate donuts.

But I was.

The memory came flooding back: the treatment center cafeteria, the saccharine smell of the chocolate glazed donut, the minutes ticking away. It was the only thing left on my plate. I should have eaten it first. Now I was too full.

Just eat it. The hard glaze made a cracking noise against my teeth. The inside was soft, like birthday cake. Bite, chew, swallow. The biting and chewing were actually exciting, like kissing a boy you shouldn’t be kissing. But the swallowing made it real.

“Excuse me!” A shopper was trying to squeeze around me, her cart tapping impatiently at my heels.

The din of the store was muffled in my ears; I couldn’t breathe. I have to get out of here.

I made a beeline for the Exit and escaped to the safety of my car. I sat with the windows closed; my body began to thaw from the arctic climate of the store.

This isn’t working.

My worlds had collided. I thought I was a normal person with some eating issues. But I knew a panic attack in the donut aisle wasn’t normal.

I am not sure how long I sat in that parking lot. I just knew I couldn’t leave. If I left, the whole scene would be pushed to the back of my brain, stuffed in a mental file labeled “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.”

If I left, I would drive home, go inside and make up a story as to why I never made it the grocery store. Let’s just order dinner, I would say to Phil.

I had to tell someone what happened.

I dug my phone out my bag and dialed the treatment center, then my therapist’s extension. Don’t pick up, don’t pick up. I had just enough balls for a recorded confessional; if she answered I would hang up. It went to voicemail.

“Danielle, it’s Jessie. This isn’t working. Being a day patient. It’s just…not working. I’m struggling.”

What do you call these moments? Grace? Seconds of sanity? It’s the truth slicing through the fog of lies you’ve been telling yourself. When time stops long enough for you to ask: What the hell am I doing?

I was admitted the next day and stayed for three weeks. Now, ten years have gone by. I have two beautiful daughters. I had setbacks early in my recovery, but I caught them early. The voice from the parking lot was more dominant. The more I listen to that voice, the stronger it becomes. Don’t go back to sleep, it says. Stay awake.

 

 

Jessica Braun’s writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, NEPA Family Magazine, and Literary Mama. She lives with her husband and two daughters in coastal Massachusetts. For more of Jessica’s writing, visit her blog at www.nocigarettesnobologna.com.

 

Two Poems by Magdalene Fry

Barks (Tree Bark #2)
“Tree Bark #2,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

From Barks, no title

Dante and William pulled Gabriel
by the hand, in just that kind of way
little girls would, dressed in lacy
Sabbath shoes, tip toeing to the attic
where someone hid a secret from old
grandmother, and if they didn’t put
up a finger to their lips — the cat
would rend the poke in two with so
many laughters. It is uncountable —
“Shh,” they said and brushed his
tawny feathers between their wide
open palms in turns, “We’re straightening
our scarves about your neck, for tomorrow
some sun would like to glance about your
eyelashes.” Gabriel blushed. How he did.

 

From Vois, no title

Lest a we
sunder the gravel toothed
yesterdays’ big burp,
I light candles
and make single
a self in knowing
there be another I
than me – hallelujah
the brain, the vat
and them birds that
call out how time
is not but space with
light and light
with space – and
the tree nymphs cackle the grandest
middle fingers with
the opal story of
stone and root
and ever green in
mind. And on Olympus
they draw straws
and make card castles
not batting an eye
on the difference
between Delphi
and Solomon –
drink up, Zeus thunders
a surely nominative thy
and begins to speak
in ships and in –
anon, anon, anew.

 

 

Magdalene Fry is a single-parent advocate from Wayne County, West Virginia, and was educated at Anglia Ruskin and Marshall Universities. She lives in Michigan with her daughter and works as a mental health and wellness coordinator. These selections are from her books Barks and Vois.

 

“Living in Fear” by Liam Hogan

Living in Fear 1(Red Volcano)
“Red Volcano,” Photograph by Fay Henexson

today is little white birds and the silent sun
and airplanes, repeating themselves
and sirens

where are you going, friend?
haven’t you heard?
the world is cold, and made of glass

 

 

Liam Cloud Hogan is a student in the Writing B.F.A. program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This is his first professional publication.