Go Big or Go Home

“Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives.”

Jenny Forrester interviews Megan Kruse

Megan Kruse’s debut novel, Call Me Home, is just out from Hawthorne Books! We were lucky enough to get an interview with her during this busy book-launching time. Catch her on her epic book tour this spring.

What do you think you learned about your own philosophy of love when you were writing Call Me Home? Did the act of writing this story clarify your notions of human love?

For so much of the time that I wrote this novel I was adrift, trying to write, trying to live, not sure if I was succeeding at either. My characters were drifting in more overt ways, and I do think that guiding them through the mire and the dark helped me to start to define what is important to me, what it means to love each other and how to bridge the distance between ourselves.

I have always resisted dichotomies of good/bad, right/wrong, and I think that this novel was a chance for me to look closely at that. Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives. I think of my character Jackson, who is escorting in Portland, and that work gives him a brief feeling of power, of control that he hasn’t had in his life before, and affords him the things he needs. And the work hurts him, too, in some ways, but at this particularl moment in his life, he finds the net worth to be positive. Our choices aren’t always easy, but we have to come to terms with them. To love someone, I think, means to believe that they have made their choices for a reason, and to trust that your own experience doesn’t determine how someone else should live.

Beyond believing in each other’s choices, or at least acknowledging them as valid, I think that writing this novel was a reminder to me that we have to hold on to the people who make us want to consider ourselves. When you have found the people who keep you affixed to your life, the people holding the invisible tethers you can feel through the dark and across distance, it is your job to hold them close, to recognize the power of that connection, be thankful for it, and nurture it as best you can.

The landscape of this book is so integral to the storyline. I know some of the places in the book are places you have lived or known intimately. Did you return to those when you were writing? Do you have to be in a geographical place to write about it? Or do you write place from memory?

I spent the entirety of my twenties moving from place to place across the country. I had always thought that I would find the place I belonged–that it was out there somewhere, if I only looked hard enough. But I kept getting older and the people I loved were getting deeper and deeper into their own lives while I kept searching, and I finally began to realize that finding your place was only possible if you also stuck around.

I began writing this novel when I was living in Montana, and finished large parts of it in Texas, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Even as I was searching for the place I was meant to be, I was writing about the land I grew up on in Washington. As I wrote it, it was so vivid–steep banks, deep creeks that filled in winter, curtains of root and dirt and fallen trees that my brother and I knew as well as any suburban child must know his or her cul-de-sac. After I finished the first draft of the novel, I decided rather suddenly to move back to Washington state for the first time since I was seventeen. It’s only as I’m writing this now that I think those things had something to do with each other–that writing this story of home and belonging and recognizing how much that land is a part of me made me understand that my home was there all along. All of that writing was from memory, and that meant something; it made me realize the significance of that place.

That said, I’m still prone to restlessness and drifting. I blame it a little bit on poetry. I’ve always been haunted by the one-two punch of Elizabeth Bishop asking, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/Where should we be today?” and Mary Oliver chiming in, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

Now that I’ve written about places I’ve lived and known intimately, I’ve decided I need to raise the bar–the novel I’m beginning to work on now is set in the Midwest in the years following World War II. I haven’t quite figured out how I will handle that process, since the setting of Call Me Home was written entirely from my experience of place and time. Go big or go home, I guess.

Do you have a particular audience or reader in mind for Call Me Home? What do you hope people came away from it feeling or wanting to do?

I dreamed of a lot of different readers as I was writing this novel. It began as the story of a young queer man trying to make his way without a clear path, trying to establish who he was by feeling with blind courage and hope. I hope that the audience for the novel begins to think about the relationship between place and identity–to consider that there are queer people making lives outside of urban centers, where the way is hazier, and where, despite so many gains, the world is still not a safe place.

I hope as well that people come away from the novel thinking about violence, and paying attention to its echoes around us. In the three years that I worked for a domestic violence intervention program, I began to see it everywhere–the way that an abuser can move into your path like a rock into a river and divert your life elsewhere. You can spend your life running from someone, or from the shadows they have cast on your life. I know that the experience of the family in my novel is only one story, but it is important to me to acknowledge that those stories surround us all the time.

Finishing things is difficult for some writers – what would be your advice for finishing?

I recently taught a class at Hugo House in Seattle called Seeing it Through: Finishing Your Novel. I went in to the course feeling like I didn’t have much right or enough knowledge to tell people how to go about completing a project, but over the course of those two days, I realized that I do have some strategies that I subscribe to, things that have worked for me.

Above all, writing this novel made me recognize that writing only really works if you understand it to be a long game. This wasn’t a very easy realization for me. I remember finishing the first draft of Call Me Home while I was on a residency in rural Minnesota in the spring of 2012, and sending it off to an agent. For the next week or two I marched purposefully around town, waiting for the call to come about how she wanted the book, and on top of that there was already an exorbitant offer or three. It didn’t come then; in fact, it was another few weeks before I heard back that it wasn’t a good fit.

It was a particularly lonely time in my life. That had something to do with being in an isolated place, but more to do with what I’d done to myself. I’d made myself believe that to become a writer was like watching your number come up in a lottery–that it would happen, and then the answers for everything else would fall into place. I thought my life would start when the book was published, and then someone would tell me how to live.

Instead, it was two years before the book sold. The things I began to work on during the early months of defeat have become my current projects, and my slow revision changed the novel remarkably. I think of that Alice Munro quote from The Moons of Jupiter: “They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” This a roundabout way to explain that I think the secret to finishing is recognizing that this is your writing life. You have to take away the timelines and the expectations–you’re doing it now, and you’ll be doing it tomorrow.

The other piece of advice I kept touting like a pundit in my recent course was to be greedy with your writing practice. This goes along with the idea that writing is a long game, with no clear endpoint. I believe in playing to your strengths and desires; write today what you want to write–as long as you write. I’m never going to be someone who writes each day from 6-7am, but maybe I feel like writing at 2 in the morning or maybe not today but tomorrow instead. Don’t let anyone fool you into how it’s supposed to be done. Be kind to yourself–that’s different from letting yourself off the hook.

You have an MFA. What advice would you give others about getting an MFA or not? If a writer does want to go the MFA route, how important is choosing the right program?

I know that there are hosts of opinions out there about the MFA–essential or useless? Homogenizing or inspiring? I think you should be clear to yourself about what you want to gain from a program, and where you’ll be coming out of it; those expectations should dictate if you enroll, or in what kind of program. I’d always been drawn to Montana and what I viewed as a Western voice–storytelling with a strong sense of place, of space. I tend to make decisions quickly and with great resolve, and the University of Montana was a wonderful spot for me–to be teaching and writing in a small town that felt analogous to the rural, tumble-down vistas I’d grown up in. I did struggle, as I think a lot of people do, with hoping that the path will become clear post-MFA; I was–and maybe still am–underemployed for a long time. I think that the choice to complete an MFA needs to be a conscious one. You can go and do it, and you can make it sustainable with teacherships, but don’t do it unless you can say to yourself honestly that this is a step along a path you’ll be on forever. The act of writing is what makes you a writer. I remember being nineteen, finishing up my first “novel,” a 250 page Jeanette Winterson lesbian fiction rip-off. I was so certain that I would turn a corner and suddenly be someone. It was exactly the same feeling I had in Minnesota, waiting for the agent to call about Call Me Home; it had taken me another ten years to really understand that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t matter what the milestone is–a first terrible novel, or an MFA; you work and work and then you get there, and it feels wonderful or anticlimactic, but regardless you keep going.

How much time do you spend on social media promoting your writing? How much do you think social media helps or hinders writers?

I used to be a super-weirdo about social media. I was really cagey about anyone knowing where I was or what I was doing, and I think I wanted to control peoples’ impressions of me. I remember demanding loudly of someone I was at dinner with, “Why on earth would you want to tag us here??” As time has gone on, I got over myself a little bit. I recognize, even if it’s still difficult, that you can’t control anyone’s opinions of you, beyond being certain to be a basically decent human. Once I let go of that, I started engaging more on social media. And here’s the thing–I cannot imagine going into this novel publication without that community. I have been tremendously lucky to have the support of so many incredible writers, friends and family, and the team at Hawthorne, who have been my greatest champions from day one. Social media is the forum where I can feel all of that support now, a place to reach otherwise nebulous, far-flung communities. Once I began to think of social media as a clearinghouse for sharing information and victories and questions about writing, my angst about the platform fell away.

This question made me think of the other day, when the news about Harper Lee’s second novel started circulating. I realize that there are still many questions about the publication which need resolution, but I bring this up purely as an example of the role of social media in my writing life now. I woke up and I heard the news, and because I am surrounded by writers and readers, my entire social media feed was on fire with it. I ran down to Georgetown in the weak winter sun to grab lunch with a friend and I was full with a rare joy for the whole world– a sense that we could all come together and be awed by something. I was grinning wildly at cars, thinking Harper Lee! As silly as it sounds, I know that feeling of connection is spectacular and rare, and if social media provides it, I can’t discount it.

Megan Kruse grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana, writing about lonely places and our faulty, beautiful hearts. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and she recently completed residencies at the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska and the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in Minnesota. Her debut novel, “Call Me Home,” releases from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She currently lives in Seattle.

Call Me Home

Excerpt from the new novel Call Me Home by Megan Kruse

Megan Kruse is a young writer of raw and fearless talent and Call Me Home showcases all she can do. She writes here of harrowing lives — of a family bent and broken by violence, where each person is desperately trying to somehow grow toward light and liberation. In the process, she offers a most unlikely tale of hardness and hustle, of grace and loss, of painful love and tough breaks and the unimaginable paths we must all eventually take toward survival.

— ELIZABETH GILBERT, author of Eat, Pray Love

 

Jackson

Silver, Idaho, 2010

The belated Easter party was to be held that Saturday night at A-frame A, the most complete of the new houses. Just a few beers, and then the Longhorn, according to the much-circulated plan.

 

Who had an Easter party? Jackson didn’t care. He was going to see Don. He hadn’t seen him since Honey brought him to the East side on Tuesday; each day that Don’s truck didn’t appear, Jackson tried to pretend he wasn’t disappointed. Now he shaved in the pocket mirror, the one he’d stolen from Lydia, and put on a clean shirt. He did everything slowly, meticulously. He drank the rest of the bottle of wine. What a girl he was. He thought again about the lock of hair he’d given to Chris. In his imagined, more perfect life, he discarded sentimentalities. Into the trash with the birthday cards, faded photographs. A better Jackson would scorn them all.

 

It was a little past seven when he made the walk to A-frame A. Already the light was draining away; he hadn’t remembered a flashlight. The lake was lapping against the shore, a dark, bright line that curved like a knife blade in the dim evening light. The clouds had lifted, and the faintest web of stars was beginning to stretch over the water. There were crushed cans along the path. When he got to A-frame A, there was already a crowd. Jackson was a little late, because he hadn’t wanted to be too early, but now it seemed like he shouldn’t have worried. He could hear Jay Donahue and Bill inside, shouting and laughing, already drunk. The floor was still not sanded, but the windowpanes were up, the electrical wiring coursing through like veins. Someone had set up a card table and filled it with bags of chips, open plastic cartons of donuts, and cupcakes. There was a group of men sitting around it, drinking from a small cityscape of open bottles. Don was nowhere in sight. He had the feeling of walking onto a stage.

 

“Jack!” Bill flagged him over. “You gotta hear about this. Tell him, Jay.”

 

The whole room smelled of men – a different smell from the high school cross-country locker room, which had appealed to Jackson in another way – wispy, ephemeral slips of running shorts, clean sweat, shampoo. The men in Silver smelled dirtier. Beer sweat, sawdust. No one had touched in the locker room – all of the runners were virginal, clean, and of themselves, communal only in their dedication to noble pursuits: a second shaved from the half mile, a lighter pair of running shoes. The Silver crew touched with beery, cheerful abandon, and Jackson was one of them. Their meaty hands palmed him. Was it possible they weren’t thinking of sex? All of the things that had marked him in Tulalip, in Portland, evaporated. It seemed like no one saw. Then there was Don, he thought. Don saw or he didn’t. Jackson looked around for him but he couldn’t see him. Josh, the crew leader on the north side, was holding up a pen, one of those naked lady pens, and laughing loudly. Jackson laughed loudly, too, slapped his own skinny leg – A broad! And her top falls off ! Was it really this simple? Men and their simple wants. Josh turned the pen and the woman’s top slid down again.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Jackson saw Don climb the steps to the open house, knocking his boots against the doorframe. Don was wearing a red sweater that pulled against his stomach, his round shoulders hunched forward. He was carrying a case of beer and smoking a cigarette.

 

Don didn’t look at him. He gave a wide, encompassing smile to the room, and Jackson concentrated on an open fifth of Early Times. He took a long drink, and then another. One of the guys slapped him on the back. “Good man!” he said, knocking his own bottle against Jackson’s.

 

Amy

Women’s Shelter, Alamogordo,

New Mexico, 2010

 

The New Mexico sun was a flat disk, the clouds high above in the hard blue sky. The house was the same as all of the others in town – a brown stucco box, bleached to a bone color in places. Inside was a long hallway with six doors and part of a family behind each one. The mailbox was always empty, and it bothered her the way the mail car drove right by. Wasn’t it a giveaway? It seemed like an obvious thing to overlook when you were trying to make a building look like a home, like a place that held any whole family instead of six or seven approximations: what was left of families, after. The backyard was a scrabble of dirt and rock, where Lydia sat with a little boy against the tall wooden fence while Amy was inside talking to the caseworker.

 

“You can’t blame your son,” the woman kept saying to her. “You can’t blame him, and you can’t blame yourself, but you were right, you needed to go without him. You couldn’t take the chance that it would happen again.” The woman’s eyes were watering, in danger of spilling over. “This happens with teenagers,” she said gently. “They get angry at their mothers. They want their fathers’ love, and their fathers manipulate them just like they manipulated you. You had to make a decision for your safety and your other child’s safety.” She waited, but Amy didn’t say anything. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

 

Her head felt thick. The woman didn’t understand. Who would? The idea of trying to explain made her feel like she was trying to walk through thick mud with aching, bone-tired legs. He was safe, she knew that. Jackson was always the self-sufficient one, the big brother. But that was the problem – he rarely seemed to need his mother, but he needed Lydia, and Lydia him. From the time Lydia was an infant he’d watched his sister, held her, fed her, protected her. Amy had at times almost resented their closeness, Jackson’s hovering, for the way it implicated her, proved what Amy knew: that Gary was dangerous. In some ways, Amy thought, Jackson considered Lydia to be his, and she couldn’t blame him for it.

 

She hadn’t chosen one over the other, she told herself now; she had not. It was the right thing to do. Jackson had a life ahead of him that shabby Tulalip, Washington, could not give him, and she knew with as much certainty as she knew her own love for him that he would leave that town, that he would make his own life and see his father for what Gary was. And to take Jackson – to bring him to this new life, when he was supposed to be starting his own – wasn’t right.

Bridges

New prose by Shari Winslow

“This is what happens when you teach high school,” she said. “You connect if you can, and you love them even when you hate them, and you just care so damn much. And then they’re gone in some way or another.”

 

I saw her on the street. First Avenue, on my way to the bookstore. She’d cut her hair; instead of her long, thick braid she sported a choppy bob, her dark blonde edges brushing the top of her collar. Her black pea coat was the same, though. One arm hung loose against her side. For awhile she’d tried wearing a prosthetic arm, but she hated that. She’d gone her entire life without a left arm, and trying to fit one into a space where she’d never missed one before made her feel even more self-conscious.

“Hey,” I said. “You changed your hair.”

She turned and smiled.

“Yeah, well. It’s almost the only thing I can change. So why not?”

Snowflakes drifted in the damp, gray air, swirled in the glow of the Christmas lights still on the trees, but didn’t land, didn’t stick. It was early January. She had been dead for nearly a year.

She walked away.

I saw her everywhere. Not every day, not all the time, but everywhere: in the produce section at Fred Meyer. In the food court at the mall. Striding down Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma, towards Union Station. But of course it never really was her. She would turn around and look right through me with a stranger’s face. Her perfectly functional right arm would clutch a purse, her left arm swinging free.

In late February of the previous year, the head of the English department at the high school where I taught said, “Did you hear? Bethany killed herself.” Her eyes gleamed with the juiciness of the gossip. She loved being the one to break the news. She had taught Bethany for one semester of IB literature, but Bethany was in my sophomore class the entire previous year. Halfway through her junior year she asked to be my TA after she dropped calculus. Most of the time she sat at my desk and read while I walked around my room, gesturing wildly at my sophomores. Sometimes I caught her smile when I paused in front of a kid’s desk and said, “The life you save will be your own!” or “You might think this is just a notebook for English class, but this is the essence of your soul!” She entered grades into my green spiral grade book with the vinyl green cover. Her handwriting was perfect.

She borrowed my copy of The Awakening and spilled coffee on the cover. Just a corner. It barely warped, and it didn’t matter. Of course it didn’t matter. But she couldn’t stop apologizing.

I didn’t count the number of times I walked her up to the counselor’s office. I didn’t ask how she managed to cut her right wrist when she didn’t have a left arm. I just watched as she sipped from a styrofoam cup of water, and when she finished, she used her perfectly manicured thumbnail to shred that cup into a perfect spiral, her jaw clenched.

Her counselor was short, feisty, warm, with a Peruvian accent. I can still hear the way she said her name: Bay-thany.

Bethany shredded her yellow paper hall pass next.

Her counselor called her mother. Again. Bethany already saw a therapist, already took medication, but her counselor explained to her mother that she was sitting there in her office, sobbing, with fresh cuts.

Her mother wanted to know how her math grade was.

I wrote Bethany’s letter of recommendation, because she was brilliant and because I wanted her to get out. She lasted one semester at Mount Holyoke.

My department head said, “I heard she was sexually assaulted and just went crazy. She didn’t even go back to school second semester.”

I walked back to my classroom. My sophomores arranged their desks in a circle for their Socratic Seminar on All Quiet on the Western Front. What is worth fighting for? I half-listened, trying to take notes. My kids glanced at me, trying to see if I was writing when they were whispering and giggling and having chatty side conversations. I looked at my paper. The only thing I could write, sitting safely and miserably in a circle of sophomores, was a single sentence: Bethany killed herself.

After lunch the counselor called me up to her office.

“I wanted to make sure you’re okay,” she said.

“I’m okay,” I said, but I cried, and so did she.

“This is what happens when you teach high school,” she said. “You connect if you can, and you love them even when you hate them, and you just care so damn much. And then they’re gone in some way or another.”

You lose them all eventually, in so many ways, so many ordinary ways.

And then you lose some because they die, because they drink too much and drive on the wrong side of Peasley Canyon Road. Or they slip and fall when they’re hiking on Mount Rainier on a family vacation.

And you lose some because they kill themselves.

You lose one because she jumps off the Aurora Bridge on an ordinary day in February.

They call it the Suicide Bridge; I read one article that claimed a person died each month. Sometimes bodies land on the pavement, or on cars. The dot-com employees working below the bridge talk about grief counselors being brought into their offices.

Sometimes the jumpers land in the water, and they might not die right away.

Bethany landed in the water. Bethany. Bay-thany.

But I didn’t hear anything until afterwards. After she died, after the funeral. My department chair’s eyes gleaming with gossip. The counselor’s eyes closed with grief. You lose some. You lose some.

The last time I saw her, really saw her, she was visiting one of her friends on campus during her Thanksgiving break. They hugged each other, smiled, giggled. I caught her eye and waved and thought that maybe she’ll be fine.

Shari Winslow writes and teaches English in the Pacific Northwest.

Poetry Workshop in the Literary Kitchen with Rosebud Ben-Oni

 

Poetry & Pop: A Creative Writing Workshop

Get more writing done and take Rosebud Ben-Oni’s workshop!

 

 

How can popular culture shape your poetry and create a unique voice? This 7-week workshop will lead writers through a series of questions, prompts and exercises utilizing existing popular culture to help craft poems. Students will offer feedback on each other’s work. We will also analyze existing poems that utilize popular culture, in order to better fuel creativity and spark discussion on how poetry informs and responds to social and political ideologies.

Feb 10th – March 28th

Rosebud Ben-Oni, award-winning poet and playwright, is the author of SOLECISM. Read more here http://rosebudbenoni.com/bio

$225 for the 7-week workshop
A $65 deposit saves your spot
Class size is strictly limited, so please sign up early!

*          *         *

Christmas Lost and Found – by Margaret Elysia Garcia


“Our worst fights have always happened during Christmas. I have always bought my own Christmas gift and wrapped it and set it under the tree pretending it was from him. He has spent all of our Christmas’ retiring early to bed. Disengaging. Or drunk.”

 

When he was in elementary school, my husband’s mother took him to his aunt’s house for a Christmas party—and then left him there without a word, without so much as a change of clothes, for months. His aunt had four kids and a superior attitude of a sister with a green card, a husband, and a mortgage. He could stay and be a grateful eight-year-old. He could watch her kids open presents. He could have left over toys already half broken from their birthdays and other Christmases. He could unwrap the present that was wrapped for unexpected guests during the holiday season. Cheap women’s cologne you buy at the drug store. A badly scented candle. A weird toy from Avon.

He asked Santa in a mall for a Star Wars action figure. He wanted a Millennium Falcom but knew better than to ask big. He’d settle for a Han Solo—even a knock down made in China and sold in Mexican swapmeets where the face of the doll didn’t quite match up to where the machines placed the eyes and the hair so everything looked slightly off and slightly cheap and slightly Mexican swapmeet.

At school, where he was trying desperately to keep a low profile and to fit in with American kids despite his lack of English and his clothes that reeked of fresh over the border (black dress leather cowboy boots and button down shirts and big belt buckle like he was some mini weekend brown cowboy ready for Sunday school or norteno singing). The white teachers got stuff ready for the Christmas program. In the nativity scene all the angels were white, Mary, Joseph, the baby doll stand in for Jesus, the shepherd, even the wise men from the Orient—all white. It was someone’s bright idea to make the brown kids in the ESL class sing “Feliz Navidad” like they must have sung it in their home country. My husband had never heard it before and they made him sing and dance at the program, singing it to the little white kids—along with Cambodian refugee kids and other brown kids, because that seemed like the perfect spot for the other kids in the Christmas program.

As an American teenager, he often spent it alone or with a bottle on Santa Monica beach looking out on the ocean, thinking about disappearing. By that time, he’d been adopted by West Side jews and did Hanukah instead. It didn’t hurt as much and he was happy to eat Chinese food on Christmas.

When December rolls around my husband becomes increasingly hard to live with. He usually refuses to partake in any of the festivities. I’ve never seen him put an ornament on the tree and usually I’m the one who does Christmas. I do the shopping, I do the baking, I do the Christmas cards, and I do the singing in choir and the decorating of the house.

Our worst fights have always happened during Christmas. I have always bought my own Christmas gift and wrapped it and set it under the tree pretending it was from him. He has spent all of our Christmas’ retiring early to bed. Disengaging. Or drunk.

I’m the one who puts water in the tree to keep it fresh. He’s the one who volunteers to chop the tree up for kindling afterwards.

I insist on keeping the tree up ‘til Epiphany. I put up my grandmother’s nativity scene despite not having any religious affiliation anymore. I put the three kings on the opposite side of the living room and slowly move them over to present their gifts to the baby Jesus.

I have no problems with myths; I thrive on creation.

Our children are 10 and almost 12 and still believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, leprechauns, the Easter Bunny. Anything really—except Jesus. I’m floored by their belief, as I have felt so very little. But I do believe that people can change. Perhaps their belief comes from me.

Our tradition has become me overcompensating for his under achieving holiday spirit. But this year, I couldn’t do it. My mother had been sick. And then I had been sick. And I had no energy to find the Christmas boxes in the storage shed nor energy to buy a tree permit and go chop one down in an area that needs thinning as is the tradition for mountain folk living in a national forest. I couldn’t really bake cookies. I didn’t send any cards. The most I could do was sit catatonic on the couch and occasionally order something online while watching sitcoms on huluplus. It was already the second week of December and there was no hint of red or green in the house.

The children started to worry and I started to cry. My husband offered to do the thing that would send most mountain people into an uproar of protest: he offered to go buy a tree from in front of Rite Aid from the Boy Scouts. My kids were beside themselves. Buy a tree?! Buy a tree?! No one buys a tree. You put hot cocoa in a well insulated thermos and you put snacks in the cooler and you borrow someone’s 4WD vehicle , go up into the mountains with a saw and determination and you cut down your tree. This is what I get for fostering a tradition with my children.

I started to cry in front of them. Something I try hard never to do. And then we were all crying. And then I went to lay down for awhile.

When I woke up, they were back from Rite Aid with a tree. They’d found three of the five boxes labeled ‘Christmas’ in the storage shed and had begun to decorate the living room and the tree. They only found one string of working lights and they didn’t get a Charlie Brown Christmas tree like I usually get when I chop one down, but instead a bushy, perfectly symmetrical cone shaped tree. The perfect kind, that you buy.

The kids did an abysmal job of decorating the living room and the tree. The ornaments all seemed to cluster towards the top, the lights somewhere around the middle and the bottom of it was completely bare. They put it in a precarious place by the corner of the living room and kitchen which would make sitting in the dining room that much more difficult from branches jutting out. They cluttered the living room with all the decorations that other people have given me that I never put out but feel to guilty to throw away.

My husband bought Christmas presents to distribute among the four of us—and the ones that come from Santa. No cards were mailed. Nothing got baked. Someone sent a box of Sees. He bought some store bought goodies. He made us drinks. He helped plan the menu and he went and picked up my friend from college who joined us. Somehow, in the absence of my well spirit, he found his.

Margaret Elysia Garcia blogs at taleasofasierramadre.com

New Work by Cynthia Bostwick

FISHING

by Cynthia Bostwick

After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”

I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”

My mother’s memory of that night must be vivid. As she’s gotten older, she tells it more often. She awakens in the night, in her upstairs bedroom, to find her father in her bed. He’s drunk. She’s a teenager. She says the worst thing was he threw up on her new bedroom rug.

My sister and I share a glance. What the fuck was her father doing in her bed? Drunk? So drunk he threw up? The story is endlessly shocking, even on repeat telling, because it always ends the same way. My mother gets a far off look in her eyes, and she giggles a little, “I really liked that rug. I was so mad.”

I was so mad. But she was never mad when he kicked her, breaking a rib. Or when he broke a date’s nose when she got home half an hour late. Or when he called her a bitch in heat and made her smoke a cigar with him. After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”

I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”

My mother shrugs. “Well, he was strict,” and she looks into the distance, “but he loved me.”

I have never told her about him exposing himself to me in a rowboat, with my brother. Well, I must have told her when it happened, unless my brother convinced me I shouldn’t. I never told her about the recurring nightmares I had about that time, how I would never again go fishing with my grandfather, how my dreams had me getting hit in the head with a rock, and my grandfather telling me not to tell my mom, because I had gotten blood all over my blouse and she would be very, very mad at me. I no longer know, clearly, what part is the dream and what part is real. But I know what I saw, and I know my brother said, “Grandpa, your snake is showing.”

I am awakened by a mooing sound outside my bedroom window. I know it is my grandfather, and we are going fishing today. I am six, maybe seven. My parents had a party the night before, and it was pretty loud. They are still sleeping. I get dressed. My brother is already in the kitchen. He hands me my straw hat. We walk down the front lawn to the lake, and there is grandpa, with his khakis, his old cotton shirt, a burning cigar, and our poles. He has a grownup version of my hat on. His wire-rimmed glasses are perched on his nose. In the boat is a cardboard cylinder, I know there are squirming worms inside.

My grandfather waves his cigar, motioning us into the boat, and he steps in. The boat rocks a bit, next to the dock. He stumbles a little, and we take our seats. Me in the bow, my brother rowing, and my grandfather in the stern.

The sun is low, below the trees, the summer day is just beginning. My grandfather unwraps biscuits, cut in half, buttered and put back together. I can smell my grandmother’s Estee Lauder perfume on the handkerchief he has them wrapped in, the sun shines through the soft cotton. The water is still, just the ripples around the oars as they dip into the water, in rhythm. The galvanized catch pail sits waiting. He tosses a biscuit to me, and I catch it with one hand. He eats one, smiling at me.

We’re out just before the weeds, over the bluegill beds. He puts the biscuits back in his pocket, and take a pole from the seat. He lifts it up, and lets out a little line to unhook the line and sinker from the rod. Reaching back sideways, he casts the line over the beds to catch a fish. The red and white bobber sinks slightly, then rights itself on the surface. I bite into the biscuit, the warm butter drips out the side of my mouth. My brother tucks the oars into the boat and readies his line. There’s no rod for me, I am just along for the view. A pair of mallards swims into the reeds.

My brother casts, and I duck—he is close enough to hook me and I am dreadfully afraid of fish hooks. Last week, my brother hooked Andy, our neighbor, as they were casting from the shore. The only way to get the hook out of his back as to push the barb through his skin and cut the barb off with a pliers: Andy tried to be tough, but in the end he cried as the barb pushed through his pale skin and my father clipped off the barb.

I right myself and look at my grandfather. I see that his penis is hanging out of his open fly like a long sausage. My brother sits between us and I poke him. He looks at me, and I point. My brother laughs. “Grandpa, your snake is showing.” I giggle. My grandfather looks right at me. It seems like forever, but finally he tucks it back inside his baggy khakis, the ones he always wears fishing.

That night I have a dream, the first of my many recurring instances of the dream. My brother and grandfather walk me up the shore to our house. Blood streams from my head, and I am wearing my favorite blouse, a white and blue sailor’s blouse, what they called a “middy.” It’s soaked in blood. I cry. My brother tells me to be quiet.

“Mark threw a rock out of the boat and it hit me in the head,” I sob. My grandfather orders me to take the shirt off, and he puts it in the catch pail. I go to my room. No one else is there, and I am still bleeding. My brother tries to wipe away the blood, and my grandfather says I can’t tell anyone what happened.

“But my middy blouse,” I sob, “Mom will be so mad.” He says he’ll get the blood out, but I think how can he? My blouse is soaking in the fish pail with hooked bluegills.

Years after my grandfather died, I ask my brother about this dream. I tell him I’ve had it so many times, and ask if he remembers anything. We’re both high from the joint we’ve shared. “Never,” he says, “that never happened, Cin.”

I tell him not to call me that. I hate that nickname. He looks shocked. “But we’ve always called you that,” he says, incredulous.

“I know, but I am not a Cin,” I say. I feel the fear and sadness rising. “I am not a Cin and I don’t want to be called one.”

He holds his hands up, as if to fend off a blow, “OK, sure. No worries.” I pass the joint back to him. I never have the dream again.

A couple of years ago, I asked my mother about the events in my dream. “Mom, I have this memory of getting hit in the head with a rock Mark threw and bleeding all over my middy blouse. Do you remember that?”

“You loved that blouse. I loved you in that blouse,” my mom says.

“I did love that blouse,” I say. “But did that ever happen? Do you remember that?”

“Your brother was always throwing rocks,” she says, “and you put your hand through two windows,” she says.

“But do you remember if he ever hit me in the head with one? I think we were out fishing with Grandpa.”

“No, I don’t remember that. I do remember Daddy coming and mooing at your window to wake you up to go fishing,” she says. “He loved you kids.”

And that’s the end of it.

*
Cynthia Bostwick lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she learns new lessons everyday from her ten year old son, her spouse, Linda, their dog Henry and the sad and angry people she meets in her day job as a lawyer.

Literary Kitchen gift certificates now available!


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The End of Eve wins New Mexico – Arizona Book Award

Ariel Gore’s darkly comic memoir, The End of Eve, just won a 2014 New Mexico – Arizona book award. You can get a signed copy right here. $16.95. FREE SHIPPING.

“It turns out that both life and art are balancing acts. In one as in the other, Gore seems to be saying that even as we acknowledge past traumas, we cannot let those wounds dictate our actions in the present. The End of Eve is a product of bravery, love, and hard-won wisdom. In sharing it, Ariel Gore invites her reader to bask in the light she has found.” –Los Angeles Review of Books


Midlife Teen Mama Trauma

Mid-Life Teen Mama Trauma
By Nina Packebush

 

Last night a text came in from my girlfriend’s ex-wife saying that their 13-year-old daughter was in the ER with difficulty breathing.

Of course my girlfriend went into Mama Panic Mode and prepared to head straight to the hospital 30 minutes away. She went into our bedroom to grab her shoes and wallet.

I followed and, as I opened my drawer and pulled out a clean, long sleeved shirt to hide my tattoos, I reminded her to change her clothes. I made sure my jeans were reasonably clean, free of holes, decently fitting and that my Chuck Taylors were the newer ones, rather than the tattered, dirty ones.

My girlfriend was wearing Friday-night-in-a-partnership comfortable clothes, meaning she was a little sloppy. The colorful Vans she chose weren’t the right shoes for an almost 50-year-old woman.

She turned to me with confused irritation. “I’m not changing my clothes. We need to go. It’s just the hospital.”

It’s just the hospital.

I looked back at her with anxiety building; my mind trying to figure out the best course of action. She was stressed and frantic, but she looked sloppy–cute queer sloppy for sure, but certainly not respectable and well-kept. I didn’t want to insult her or tell her what to do, but I was genuinely confused. The hospital hasn’t been just a hospital to me since I was eighteen-years-old and went in for my first OB appointment.  I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. As I navigated doctor appointments, playground politics, ER visits, and even everyday trips to the grocery store I learned that I wasn’t the right kind of parent. I looked away when people stared.

I learned to laugh when the pediatrician joked, “So you know how this happened, so it won’t happen again, right?” while he weighed and examined my infant at his first well-baby check-up.

I pretended not to care when people asked me if my son was my little brother.  I quietly answered when complete strangers asked me how old I was and “Is the dad still around?” It didn’t take me long to learn that presentation mattered. Words mattered. Image mattered.  A lot. And it especially mattered in the presence of authority.

I’m a queer mama with three children; 28, 24, 17, and I’m co-raising my eight-year-old grandson with my middle daughter, who also happens to be a teen mama. I have spent my entire parenting life as too young while navigating different levels of broke, poor, or lower-middle-class, and most of the last thirteen years queer single parenting. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is a 49-year-old mama of a 13-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. Her son is essentially the same age as my grandson.  My girlfriend has spent the majority of her thirteen years as a parent partnered in a solid lesbian relationship, living a solid middle class life.

My girlfriend and her ex-wife had been diligent and intentional on every step of their parenting journey. They had picked out sperm donors and paid for insemination. They had a house, financial security, and a stable relationship before they started their family. My family began on one of several drunken nights collecting sperm the old fashioned way from my spandex-wearing, wispy mustache toting, heavy metal boyfriend. My pregnancy brought tears, canceled abortion appointments, subsidized medical care, and not one second of preplanning. Her journey into motherhood included celebrations, fulfilled dreams, and genuine happiness.  Our parenting experience was night and day.

I was quiet on the way to the hospital that night.  I rubbed her neck and I reassured her that everything would be fine, but that brief exchange standing in front of our dresser was heavy in my mind.  Of course I had always felt that teen mama was an integral part of my identity, but until that moment when I stood face to face with my girlfriend, I hadn’t fully realized just how deeply that identity and experience had shaped me.  I’m 47 years old, in the beginning phase of menopause, have adult children, and am a doting granny, but I’m still a teenage mother. Teen Mama will be an identity that I carry for the rest of my life, right alongside the scars and tools for survival that the experience gave me.

When we got to the hospital nobody looked twice at my girlfriend. She was a mama who had rushed out the door to be with her kid. She was the right age, the right socio-economic background, her kid had private insurance. While I sat alone in the waiting room that night I noticed a sign that read, this is a safe place to leave your newborn. In my exhaustion and stress I had to fight back the tears. I know what it’s like to be young, pregnant, and afraid. I can imagine the scenarios that would drive someone to make the choice to drop their infant off with strangers. Yes, adult women sometimes drop infants off, but the average age of a mother relinquishing her baby to an Infant Safe Space is nineteen. I took a picture of the sign, and when I got home I showed it to my daughter.

She shuddered, “This makes me so sad. I can’t even imagine…but I can.”

And that’s the thing, we can both imagine because we have both felt the shame, confusion, marginalization, and loneliness that being a teen mama is. We have both faced judgment and we have both had our parenting questioned for no other reason than we were too young, despite the fact that we are damn good moms.

I said to my daughter, “You know I can imagine being eighty years old and still reaching for the long sleeve shirt and clean shoes before going to the doctor, the ER, the hospital.” She nodded.  She knew exactly what I was talking about.

Becoming a mama before I became an adult shaped who I am, and although there are a lot of scars associated with that, those scars make me who I am today. Those scars are evidence that I’m damn strong. Those scars have left me with a deep empathy for other people and an ability to creatively survive and thrive. I’m a queer. I’m a writer. I’m a granny. I’m a wanna-be-urban farmerand an unschooler. I’m a lot of things, but mostly I’m a teen mama and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even a good credit score and the ability to go the hospital in rumpled sweats and a tank top.

Nina Packebush is a rad, queer, zinester granny living in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in a variety of alternative publications and websites including Hip Mama Magazine, Mutha Magazine, The Icarus Project, Literary Kitchen, and the anthology My Baby Rides the Short Bus. Nina is currently working on a young adult novel. You can find more of her writing and some of her audio at: thegrannychronicles.com