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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.
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“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
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
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.
(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.
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I’m sorry if I seem a little scattered since the invasion of Detroit; I’ve lost a few things, and if you can find them, will you send them my way? Two peach trees, one pear tree, one plum tree, five rose bushes, one fairy door, one swing set, used, one play scape, pirates and adventurers since moved on, one mural, one door frame with ten years of my daughter’s growth marked in pen, and yes, what I really want back are those years. It was all eternity, but now we have been displaced.
In the house that you live in, in the city you declare bankrupt, in the school system you have dismantled, you have stolen our memories.
I miss my home. I grieve the house we lived in when the children were small, the rooms they pulled their stuffed animals through by a long ear or a string, the marks on the door frame to show how they’ve grown, once a year in pen, because we were never going to leave.
Here are the rooms of the nine hundred square feet and the happiest days of my life: hardwood floors, high ceilings with crown moldings in a fleur de lis pattern, stained glass windows and a crystal chandelier. We painted the front room blue, the color Nereida chose. “Blue like my dress, Mami. Azul! Azul, Mami!” She runs up to me on the couch saying her name is Esther, and that she will crown her big sister the queen of all the Cheetahs.
The neighbor girl, Iztlali, painted the dining room a soft green and it resembles a room from a magazine, with the bronze chandelier and the long white curtains, but then I put in the toys, and art supplies and a rug. It becomes a place of ever-changing landscapes, and there Maria and Nereida spend hours; they sing, dress up, marry each other, and their stuffed animals become involved in long fairy stories from bright picture books.
The best days are the days after the trial when Cesar has been released and has already gone away to Honduras. Those moments are the sweetest, when the evening is hushed.
Soon, it will be time to lay Maria and Nereida down in their toddler beds, in the room with the mural that Itzlali painted. Fairy creatures from Mexico come alive at night and bring the girls into a nighttime world populated with one-eyed birds and bright colored flowers the size of their heads. “Mami, sing us another song,” the girls say, and I do, the one about the coyote.
And perhaps snowflakes fall from the sky, and Detroit quiets; my bedroom looks out onto the backyard, where the snow covers the play scape, the fruit trees, the garden fence.
“I’ll get the kids up to bed,” she says. And soon my housemate and friend from the old neighborhood comes down the stairs, and we share coffee, or a drink, and whisper plans for our children, dreams for things we are going to do. She shows me her timeline to quit the Detroit EMS and become a midwife; I promise to look into classes to get my teaching certificate. Maybe we can get the kids into that new art school.
At night the Detroit sky still flames red in brilliant sunsets from the upstairs back porch, and the trees grow peaches and pears and plums in the summer, and the roses the Lithuanian woman planted wind through the fences in a pink, white and red barricade. I pick two-dozen red roses on the last day of school in the Migrant Center where I am the teaching assistant, and give each graduating mother a rose for completing the ESL course. But at the end of the year, we are all laid off and we have to re-interview for our own jobs.
I wear my mother’s clothes to the interview, a long, two-piece sweater dress with low-heeled loafers. I miss her. They still smell like her, lavender and fresh sheets. I resemble a round owl with tortoiseshell glasses, not even curvaceous, just round.
As I walk in I feel a chill invading my body. The principal interviewing me is an iguana, his tongue slips in and out of his moist lips. The union representative at the meeting exchanges a look with the principal, lifts his eyebrows. When I leave, past the large glass windows of the interview room, I can see their heads bent together. The secretary, a woman my age dressed in a tight leather pantsuit and 4-inch heels walks into the room. The men smile at her. She asks a question, or says something, and they laugh. I don’t get the job and everyone in our center is replaced by a Teach for America Volunteer.
I find a job where I fit in. I work at Wendy’s; the smock is blue and white, and it makes me look slimmer. My coworkers don’t look down on me, and because of my freckles, some of them even call me Wendy. I’m one of the fastest cashiers, they say. “That’s pretty good,” I say. There is no history, just me, tying on my blue and white headscarf in the bathroom at Wendy’s hamburgers.
I can make change by counting backwards, so I know if the computer is wrong. I never needed a calculator to do math. I can just open the cash register with a key and count out the change; since I can do math fast in my head it also means I get the best shifts. When the line is nine deep, I like to catch someone’s eyes in the back line, see their hungry look, and watch their surprise when they get all the way up to the front in no time. It also means I get to talk to whole football teams, people who would never talk to me when I was in high school–they are filled with gratitude when they get their orders.
Square beef slabs, pink and plump, stacked on their paper squares line the walk-in shelves until it’s time to carry them over to the grill. I know how to work every station, the register, the grill, the Frosty machine, the fryers, and the cleanup stations– pots and pans, mopping, scrubbing the bricks, vacuuming. Window washing. My apron is caked with grease when I work the grill, and when I close the restaurant I have sweated and cooled down so many times throughout my shift I feel like an athlete, both spent and high on endorphins.
The giant stainless steel lettuce chopper is the only machine that I edge away from. I told my bosses all those shiny little blades were too much for me. I wanted to see what my arm would look like chopped into little squares; I’ve always liked blades. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that out loud. Maybe that’s why I’ve never made Manager, even though I said, “Just kidding!”
How do I lose the house? It happens in stages. Wendy’s doesn’t pay that well, and Cesar is back, and in and out of the house; I can’t get him to move out. Then, one night, Cesar starts a fight in the bar; two guys drag him outside, throw him down on the ground and start kicking him in the head. His cousin stabs one of the guys, and is arraigned with attempted murder. His cousin saved Cesar’s life; I take the money out of the house to pay for the lawyer and his cousin’s freedom. But I am finally able to tell Cesar to go to hell, and he mostly stays away. I think he’s met someone. Zubayda. They move back to Cesar’s family farm in Honduras. That’s what I hear from his cousins.
Then the storm rips half of the roof off, and the house loan pays for the contractor that fixes the roof, but he doesn’t fix it. Kent threatens to kill me when I try to get my money back. Don’t ever use Kent’s roofing in Detroit. Fuck you Kent. Your dad is rolling over in his grave for what you did to his business, you mother fucker.
“Your kids like to play in the backyard, don’t they?” he says. And the next day, the back gate is missing from the yard. And so the house loan pays for a new gate, and bars on the window, and another guy, a neighbor to slap some tar on the roof to hold it together for the winter, and a floor and ceiling for the upstairs kitchen, ruined by the roof that Kent built. It’s like Stephen King started writing nursery stories and implanting them into people’s yards in Detroit, and you can’t return the book back to the library, because the library’s been burnt down.
There’s always a place for money to go, until I start having to buy the food with the credit card again, because one thing about Cesar being in Honduras, is that he’s in Honduras, not here, and the girls need shoes and winter coats.
So we get behind, and then we get behind some more. Patrice, who rents the upstairs rooms, gives birth to Emma, and then Patrice moves out to the east side into her new boyfriend’s place. Things just fall apart little by little. My house goes to someone with 17,000 to spare. I’m not allowed to buy my house for 17,000, but someone can. The couple is bright eyed with glee. The woman laughs and takes a picture of the sales price. “You have to post that, they won’t believe what a steal they can get here,” he says. He didn’t pronounce the ‘r’; they’re not from around here. They barely glance at me.
I start selling the furniture little by little. The one-bedroom apartment we can rent in the town just north of Detroit doesn’t have room for all of the bookshelves and dressers. I keep the table from the house I grew up in, the one we made with dad, and the girl’s bunk beds. I keep mom’s blue mixing bowl, and the girls’ art supplies and dress up clothes. As I pack the last box in the truck, I sniff new adventure too.
The girls are bewildered by the silence in the suburbs. They learn how to cross the street. They learn how to ride their bikes. They are ten and twelve when we move out of Detroit, and their babyhood is gone, forever in the house on Larkins Street, on the dead-end block where we climbed down onto the freeway with jugs of water for the truckers the day the traffic stopped and the power grid went out on the entire Eastern Seaboard.
I want to write a new history for myself. I do not know the name of my great-grandmother. It is as if a giant hand deposited us here, lifted from the nothing, a myth of a place over the ocean; always within a few miles of the narrow place in the river called Detroit.
Michigan, from space, is in the shape of a mitten; it is a left hand. Left handed like me, and the narrow strait of Detroit curves around what would be the thumb joint, the rest of the state is filled with trees and people who are sure that Jesus is white and wants us to bomb the infidels. The talking heads on the TV say that what happens now is what matters, and what came before is nobody’s fault who is alive today, and we should forget it.
I look in the mirror to see if there are answers to the history written there, but I see nothing. If I stare at myself long enough my eyes will start to scare me. I believe there is something you can see in eyes, and that is what we see into other people, but myself? I keep seeing an attic room behind me filled with trunks and boxes, things of value peeping out: velvet, wooden, and silver, entire rooms, lifetimes of treasures, carried over from other places and other times, carried in the hold of ships, treasures stolen from the manor houses, traded in exchange for safe passage to another place. This room is full of stolen pickings.
I would have lost the house anyway; I am glad that the one peach tree still bears fruit. The new couple that lives there tore down the playhouse and built a fire pit. I drove through the alley just to see; it was dusk. They took the pear tree out too, and laid cement down. I stepped out of my car and I could hear laughing. I peered around the garage and the new bike shed. I smelled a strong odor of weed. They have painted over the graffiti on the garage, and the tall grass and the grape vines are gone. I wonder what would happen if I introduced myself to them. If I told them that they are standing on hallowed ground; it used to belong to us, and we to it. I know that this story has happened to people over and over again in history, that the owners will never see who I really am, through the smoke of their campfire. But there is a bigger universe than I can see, and what happens down here doesn’t alter that. The change has already happened, and there is enough to remind me of this under the moon, and in the morning below the day blind stars. But, I miss my home. I miss the baskets of peaches in the summer, and the long days on the back porch, when my children were small.
Mai’a Williams is a poet, editor, community journalist, a run-into-the-middle-of-the-fire-revolutionary, homeschooling single mama to a brilliant seven year old, backpacking traveler with a very messy passport, currently living in Quito, Ecuador. She’s a journalist for this latin american news agency, while doing the single mama thing, looking for a nanny, and she keeps coming back to writing and editing no matter what comes up.
What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
Most of my creative writing is in notebooks while sitting in restaurants with a glass of wine or a bottle or two of beer. There are plenty of days that I don’t want to write poetry after spending all day in a crowded news office writing about other peoples traumas. Like what more do I have to say after I’ve written about war in gaza, in syria, in iraq, in ferguson? And yet, there are days and nights when I still have ink and energy to spill on the page.
There are also plenty of days all I want to do is have a drink, curl up in bed and watch Netflix, when I just want a conversation that isnt about work. Plenty of days when I want to just lose myself because I feel so trapped inside my own head. My own skin.
So yeah I don’t have a regular routine. I am just trying to get it all done in a single day, a single week. Make it somewhat close to the latest deadlines. Let this writing be a prayer, be a balm, be a knife to cut the poison that still lingers inside of me.
My daughter just came in to the bedroom to give me a hug and show me her favorite timer, a plastic hourglass with blue sand. ‘It’s quicker than a minute!’ she exclaimed.
What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?
It seems to me that writing is the least tool intensive art form. Like paper and a pen. Sand and a stick.
But the writing that I most enjoy is honest, raw, simple, direct. Show me what it feels like to be inside this human skin. Show me how complex it is to keep breathing in a world being destroyed. Show me how there is still love in the midst of war. How there is anger in the beatific moments.
What motivates you to write?
I write for the girls like me. Like us. For the girls who are fighters and are too afraid to fight. For the girls who are strange and awkward and too observant for their own good. For the lonely girls, the angry girls who aren’t allowed to be angry. The good girls who are don’t feel so good inside. I just want to say, I see you. I see you and I will fight for you, so fight for yourselves, because I swear it may not get better, but you will get better at this fight. It may not get easier, but it will be worth it. And when you are down on the ground, once again, wiping the spit or tears off your face, remember that no one has the right to define your life, but you. You give it meaning. And no one else can do that, no matter how much others may tell you that they know what your life means.
Again and again I come back to the desire to tell the truth of my experience. To push back against the narratives that say that there is only way to have experienced this life. To say, yes, we can survive this too. And not only survive, but understand it and live through it and get stronger and more vulnerable to life. Sometimes I am walking down the street and I hear a line just drift across my head and I think that’s the beginning of a poem, that could go somewhere. Sometimes I even stop to write it down. Sometimes I hear a rhythm in my head and I think. Yes. That’s how that story should sound.
And I write to touch you. It’s that simple. I want to know that I am here. And that you are here.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
God, yes. It’s embarrassing, right? Because I have read so many writers say there is no such as writers block. Hell, I’ve said that before. Maybe its not writers block, its just that my mood doesn’t match the desire to write. Often times it really is because I don’t want to go there emotionally, you know? Like, do I want to spend the next couple of hours remembering how heartbreaking life is? To record these days of loneliness and uncertainty. The reason I want to write about those moments is because I want to give you the emotional truth of this life and at the same time, it’s fucking painful.
And all I can do is say to myself, okay, look, ten minutes. One page. One paragraph. You’ll get to the heart of it. Stand up and dance for a few minutes after you get that first page done. Just spill words on the page. You’ll go through it later and edit and make it work. Your readers, those girls who are like you and want to read the truth so they can know their lives are real, those girls are worth it.
Just tell the truth. Get it off your chest. It really is more painful to hold it in than it is to put it on the page. Once you write it, then you wont have to write it again. It will never be harder than it is right now. So just write. One more time, just get it down.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Dear writer, its not about you in the end. You are just writing. Think of it as taking dictation from some voice that happens to be in your brain. Just write the words. That’s your job. Don’t take it personal. They are just words, just images, just rhythms. They aren’t you. They barely describe you, because you are not words. You are life. So just write and let the words and sentences fall where they may.
What is/are the message(s) in your writing work? What are your readers’ reactions to it?
A couple of nights ago, I was hanging out with a friend, 2 o’clock in the morning. The night had grown chilly. He sang in Arabic for me, since singing is his first love. He was showing me how close Arabic music and prayer are in terms of melody and structure.
Then I recited the poem I wrote, a decade and a half ago, when I was 20 years old and it was spring in DC and the cherry blossoms had fallen to the grey sidewalks. It’s still my manifesto in many ways. In it I say, this life is an art form and this poem is a testimony to the survivors of suicide.
What I write is full of music and melody at its best. It comes out of jazz and blues and hip hop. And all I am asking the reader, to girls like me, to not give up or give in but to go on and live this one beautiful life, because in the end that is what we got. Do whatever gets you through the day. Make this survival meaningful.
Hold on, I have to run downstairs and run water through the washing machine. I washed laundry a few days ago, and then just let it sit in the machine for days, so now I have get that sour smell out, that smell of mildew, out of the clothes. I am running out of clean clothes and have to go to work tomorrow, so I have to run them through it the machine again…
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
It took me years to get to the place where I am now with these two little books of poetry.
First, I learned to keep writing. To keep editing. To keep reaching toward that sound or image that I had in my head when I first began. I have read those poems over so many times. I learned to keep reading them until I am sick of them. Put them aside and then come back to them a week or month or a year later and do it again. Tenacity.
And I learned the power of outside readers and writers. I had amazing readers and editors. As many times as I’ve read these poems, I almost couldn’t hear them any more. And then I had outside editors who read them and taught me what the poems really sounded like on the page, what they said to someone who wasn’t me, who hadn’t lived through them. Openness.
Trust my voice. Trust my ear. Trust my vision. Trust.
My daughter just looked up from her computer game to tell me that she has just passed all the levels in one stage! She jumped up and clapped for herself.
What are your current / future projects?
I just put the finishing touches on the two chapbooks of poetry. We, the editors, are in the last week of editing the Revolutionary Mothering anthology that has been five years in the making.
And for about a year I have been coming back to a book that is tentatively called 2011, which is about well, they year 2011, and the egyptian revolution and heartbreak and fighting for freedom no matter what.
There is a book on midwifery that is half way done.
What book(s) / author(s) have influenced you
Let me tell you what music has influenced my writing
Lately, it has been Sam Smith’s album on repeat in my headphones.
Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind
Lauryn Hill, especially everything she has produced since the Miseducation album
Angel Haze, especially the way she will take a Drake beat and kill it
Fairouz, which is the sound of dawn and smoke
Um Koulthoum, which is the sound of evening and dark coffee
Billie Holiday, for my father
Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, for his wordplay
Dead Prez, Hip Hop
Tupac, for embodying the many layers of Thug Life
Biggie, for telling us a million stories on a single album
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