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!


Don’t know if they want to do the writing intensive in January, an 8-week class in March, or what? Gift certificates are now available for online classes with Ariel Gore, future in-person workshops, and other goodies. Choose any dollar amount. Your giftee can sign up and apply funds to any open class. Gift certificates never expire.

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

 

On Suicide, Sex, and Therapy

THIS IS THE WORK
New prose by Megan Jennifer

Suicide is cocky. “Yeah, it’s like a revolving door around your office these days. Everyone wants to talk about me.” Suicide is pleased with itself . . . Suicide doesn’t care that it’s hard for me. Suicide looks at me through shifty shark eyes, eating up my anger and all of this attention. “What’s so hard about it? Isn’t that your job, to talk to people about me?”

Full and Empty

Tonight at women’s group, we check in by answering the questions: what are you full and empty of right now? It is meant to be a brief jumping off place, to gather a sense of where everyone is and how the night could unfold. My answers flash across my mind instantly. I am full of anger and overwhelm. I am empty of comfort and release.

After each of us has spoken, Erin invites us to expand on our check-in headlines in action. I stand up from the bright orange, sectional couch in the far corner of the office and move into the wide-open expanse of hardwood floor at the center of the room. When it’s my turn, Erin asks me to pick a prop from the assortment of scarves, stuffed animals, hats, and trinkets, and to show my anger without using words. I choose a medium-sized stuffed shark from the shelf and take two small steps towards the middle of the group. My hands grip the neck of the shark as I raise it over my head and hurl it at the ground in front of me as hard as I can. The thump is satisfying, but not sufficient. I eye it there, on the floor at my feet, then kick it across the room. Watching the grey and white shark fly through the air makes me laugh. I notice that I can breathe again, my chest is already less constricted from harboring my anger.

Later that evening, the shark and I meet again. I set the stage for a dialogue with suicide, the source of this week’s anger and overwhelm. Erin, our group leader, volunteers to play suicide, an edgy and challenging role to enact. She usually directs any psychodrama work we do, but no one else wants to attempt this, so she steps in. It’s almost hard to imagine Erin, this sweet, intuitive therapist with a musical voice in such a villainous role. To cast her as Suicide, I drape two sheer scarves, royal blue and black, around her shoulders, pulling her long brown hair out of the way, and I hand her the stuffed shark. This way we can clearly tell the difference between when Erin is herself, and when she is representing the embodied concept of suicide.

I set up two low, armless chairs, facing each other. One for Suicide, one for me. Constructing the scene myself is part of this work. The minute I sit down across from Suicide my anger spits forth. “I’m fucking livid at you, Suicide. You’re sneaky and you won’t stop sending people to my office, who need to talk about you. I hate it, I’ve had enough.”

Suicide is cocky. “Yeah, it’s like a revolving door around your office these days. Everyone wants to talk about me.” Suicide is pleased with itself.

“Yeah, and they want my help. They want me to educate them about you, tell them it’s OK, that it isn’t their fault if someone they love dies because of you. Or they need me to reassure them that it isn’t their job to keep someone safe from you. I’m sick of it. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too hard.”

Suicide doesn’t care that it’s hard for me. Suicide looks at me through shifty shark eyes, eating up my anger and all of this attention. “What’s so hard about it? Isn’t that your job, to talk to people about me?”

I keep ranting. “You know damn well what’s so hard. You took my sister, you took my cousins. Stop taking the people I love. Enough!”

“Yeah, you just can’t escape me, can you?” Suicide taunts me. “Even here, one of your safest places, you aren’t immune to me.” Suicide is smug.

Back and forth we argue. I rage against the injustice of multiple losses. I voice doubts about any responsibility I hold for my sister’s death. I rail against having to be the calm, grounded therapist with clients who are spinning out with their own fears about suicide – for themselves, or their loved ones. “Where do I get to wail like my clients do? Where do I fall apart?”

This especially gets Erin’s attention. She’s still in her role as Suicide, but she sees this as a way to invoke more intense self-care into my days. “Where do you fall apart? Why don’t you cry like that? Where do you allow your anger to be seen?”

My voice is small, not as fierce as I’d like. “I bring my anger here, to group. I take it to therapy. I let it out in the scenes I do with the woman I am playing with. I write it. I am wading through this grief and anger the best ways I know how.”

This is where we close the dialogue, as good a place to end as we can find. To escort Erin out of her role as Suicide, I remove the scarves from her and put away the shark. I choose a bright orange scarf from the shelf and wave it all around Erin. I look into her eyes and say, “You are no longer Suicide, you’re Erin.”

I take my seat back on the couch with the four other women in my group who observed this conversation. They each share what they noticed in my work or how it affected them. I am told I am brave. It doesn’t resonate with me. Brave feels like something one chooses. I didn’t choose this relationship with suicide. And I have no choice but to live my way through this.

The group shifts focus to another woman’s work. I take one of the purple pillows on the couch and rest my head, letting myself fade out of attending to the voices around me.

 

Fierce Compassion

(Post-scene reflections for Ma’am)

I was so nervous, fearful of falling apart as I knelt before you. A chill ran through me even though the room radiated warmth—red walls of exposed brick, black leather furniture, a plush orange blanket draped across one chair. Your touch, your hand over my heart, your eyes on mine reminded me that I am safe here. “It’s OK to let go, your emotion is welcome. In fact, you’re not allowed to hold it in, give it over to me.”

I needed your words more than I could articulate. When I closed my eyes to the intensity of your gaze, you commanded me back, made me look at you and breathe. That moment conveyed such fierce compassion and care I almost couldn’t bear it. Yielding to your feet kicking my ass, or your fists on my back, even your hand in my cunt is easier for me to breathe through than that moment, eye to eye. 

Tonight was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever experienced. One layer of intensity after another, pounding down around me like giant waves breaking over my head, pushing my body to absorb it and let it move out through me. My throat is raw from grunting, growling, yelling. My body is already sore and will be even more so tomorrow. But for now it feels blissfully worn out. I am spent, used, exhausted both physically and emotionally. I feel relief and release. I am grateful—to myself for making this scene happen, for giving myself permission, and to you, for taking me to these places with such skill and attunement. 

I cried many times tonight from the impact, from the rush of emotion pouring out of my body as I processed the physical pain. I cried for the way my body took what you inflicted on me, incorporated it, kept my breath moving and let it pull the tension, sorrow, rage and fear from me. 

There are marks across my belly and my breasts from whips I got to watch you throw, each movement full of concentrated grace. It is breathtakingly sexy to watch the spark in your eyes and your smile as you focus on your next move. At that distance, the length of the single-tail whip you wield, the eye-contact is less intense, I can tolerate it more easily.

Tonight was different in that I concentrated on giving you my pain, let myself release the tension and hurt and sadness I’ve been lugging around. I felt your fists strike it out of me. It is a profound relief to let my body do some of the hard work of this grieving, to feel the intensity on my skin, in my muscles, to experience the thrill of pushing my limits, and the release of letting go.

I like that my tears are welcome here, that all of my emotion is. I adore that I am seen here, really seen as who I am. I can be afraid here and I don’t have to hide; I’m not allowed to hide. You are here to witness, to honor the grief I am pushing through, to help me navigate decades of shame and oceans of loss. 

This time I really noticed your eyes, robin’s egg blue fading to a faint hint of sky. They twinkle. They write compassion all over my body. They can hold whatever I need to bring here. I am safe in your eyes. 

 

This is the Work

It is a relief to have a sense of what’s coming. We’ve only ever done EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprogramming) one other time, and in that session I cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. Tears poured out of me as I gulped for air. But it felt like it shifted some piece of my grief towards healing so I was willing to try it again.

I’d try just about anything Gayle suggested at this point. She’s been my therapist off and on for fifteen years and knows me more intimately than almost anyone in my life. Before this session, I sent Gayle an email listing headlines of things that I’d been weathering since we last met. With EMDR we don’t talk much, so I knew I wouldn’t get to process these details, but I needed her to hold the context. We spoke briefly when I arrived about how difficult the previous week had been, how stress and anxiety had ran rampant through my days. I reiterated that I was calmer so far this week.

We scoot my chair close to hers, so we’re sitting across from each other about a foot apart. The chair is one thing I dislike about EMDR. Lately at Gayle’s office I only want to sit on the floor, either with my back against the wall if I’m coping well, or at her feet with my head in her lap if I’m fragile and need to cry. But for EMDR we need to be eye-level to each other, so I have to sit in the chair.

When instructed, I close my eyes and pay attention to what is happening inside my body and mind. I notice any emotions or thoughts drifting through my consciousness. Gayle invites me to share what I notice and we talk back and forth a little until we land on something that feels significant. When that happens, I open my eyes. She holds up two fingers on her right hand, and waves them back and forth across my line of vision. My job is to follow her fingers, like one of those creepy cat clocks where the eyes shift sideways rhythmically. At the end of twenty or thirty passes in front of my face, Gayle brings her fingers to a stop in the center of my field of vision, and asks me to close my eyes. We repeat this cycle many times throughout our session.

At one point, with my eyes closed, I hear myself say, “Everybody leaves.” Gayle asks me to stay with that, to notice how my body feels when I focus on the statement that everybody leaves. My stomach begins to swirl inside. I feel nervous and scared. My chest tightens and my breathing goes shallow. I am angry and I want to yell. I report all of this to Gayle with my eyes still closed.

Gayle has me put one hand on my belly and one hand on my chest. My desire to yell intensifies. I hold that position for several moments. Then she asks if I want to yell with my eyes open or closed. As I consider this, I notice the energy shift inside me. I breathe the intensity down, calm it through my breath and swallow the yell. I no longer want to yell, I don’t want to speak this anger.

This is where Gayle gets really clear and instructive. She tells me that moment, right there, is a major piece of our work – learning to cross that chasm of not swallowing down my emotions, of not shrinking away, of giving all the parts of myself a chance to speak, to yell, to emote, to exist and be seen, heard, validated. I can feel the passion in her voice, hear the depth of her tenderness towards me. Her dark brown eyes and warm smile emanate love and acceptance.

Somehow I find my words to ask, “Now can I sit on the floor? Are we done yet?”

“Yes, of course, we’re finished with EMDR for today, but we’re not out of time.” I push my chair out of the way and settle myself on the carpet in front of her. My arms are folded across Gayle’s lap and I let myself lay my head down, waiting for the tears to flow. She puts one hand on my shoulder to soothe me.

In that moment, I am struck by how much overlap there is in the work I am doing in each realm of therapy. I notice the way these pieces are knit together within me. With Gayle I feel compelled to use my voice in a big way, and then I swallow it down. In scene with Ma’am, I’m encouraged to sound more like a lion and less like a mouse. I get praised for making noise there, both to speak my desire, and to process the intensity of impact and sensation I am experiencing. At women’s group, I talk back to suicide, and speak openly about being angry.

In all of these places my work is the same – to learn how to be in my body, to find and amplify my voice, to show up and be seen, to cultivate genuine presence. The venues are so different, and yet they aren’t. It is all therapy. It is all self-work. It is all part of constructing the authentic life I want. The work tangles in and around itself as I move between these connections. These are the primary places my body receives touch. These are the places where I get to be an embodied emotional creature. These are the places I am seen and held. This is where I am learning to heal.

Our session ends before I have time to voice any of this to Gayle. We’ve been sitting in silence, connected through touch and shared emotional experience. I stand up slowly, checking to make sure my feet aren’t asleep from sitting cross-legged. I ask for a hug and she holds me tight. When we pull away, I start to thank her but she gets there first. “Thank you for letting me in this far. This is powerful, core work we’re doing. I’m honored.” My words fall silent but a shy smile crosses my lips as I step away and walk out the door.

 

Megan Jennifer writes memoir about grief, love, identity, family, therapy and tangled relationships. Her work has been published in two anthologies and she is working on her first book.