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A Cup of Tea


Catherine Young

February 15, 2017

A Cup of Tea

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Catherine Young Essays

Photo credit: Celeste Thahammer

I take the thick-walled porcelain cup into my hands. Words from my childhood spin inside it—Grandma’s words:

“But for the blink of an eye, you wouldn’t be here.”

The tea cup is a scrying bowl. When I peer in, memory takes me through a veil of sulfurous smoke to Pennsylvania’s anthracite country in the 1960s—a place of uncertain ground, collapsing and emptied of coal. Fires burning beneath streets; flames flickering on mountains of coal waste; sad and sick people sitting helpless in each grimy house; Grandma in her house, waiting for my visit.

A train rims the mountainside as I make my way through the cindered alley in our hollow. Above the soot-covered houses, coal cars rattle and screech. White letters on black cars pass, Erie, Erie, Lackawanna . . . All day, the trains take our coal away and come back for more.

I pass through a blackberry patch, walk along the creek and willows, and shuffle through the grasses to an empty lot. There I climb the field of rocks that jut out from the grasses like steps and pass the blooming wild apple trees to the last alley behind Grandma’s garage.

I push the unpainted gate open and step down into her yard. The arbor frame, which held the grapevine is falling down, and the coop and the dovecote are simply piles of wood. Old wooden barrels rot in the yard among the wild and untrimmed bushes and fruit trees. Over and over Dad told me about how it used to be.

“During the Great Depression, we had grapes and apples, a garden, and chickens, and even pigeons.”


“Budacoo, budacoo,” Dad cooed deep in his throat, guttural like rolling the German r’s. “That’s the female call. Budacoo, budacoo-wonk-wonk. That’s the male. You try it.”

Grandma always tells me, “He felt so bad about killing those birds. He always had a soft heart.”

Grandma’s yard is a terrible mess, and so sad looking, but today in spring, the yard has flowers everywhere: mock orange, lilac, apple, and the bright red of quince along the fence. The gray, worn wood of the garage is hidden. Now everything seems happy.

Grandma’s house, like nearly everyone’s, has peeling paint from the coal smoke. Her back porch stands much higher than I do, and it has nothing but skeleton railings on it—nothing to keep us from slipping off. It stands above ground because our rocky hillside does not let us sink our basements in—sometimes the coal mines under us collapse and do that for us. At least in our hollow, there are no mine fires below us as there are in Minooka, but we breathe the smoke from their neighborhood anyway. At the back door, I freeze. I don’t want to turn around in case I might be sucked backward off the edge. Continue Reading


20 Questions for Eula Biss

December 15, 2016

Photo credit: John Bresland

Asked by David Trinidad 

Editor’s note: This is the first in what will be a series of twenty-question interviews conducted by David Trinidad.

What is your first memory?

My memory is very visual, very dependent on sight, and I remember even abstract things, like facts that I’ve read, by their position on the page of the book where I first read them.  (Many hours of my life have been spent paging back through a book to find something that I know I read on the third to last line of the left-hand side of one of the 300 pages of that book.)  I have a jumble of blurry memories from before I was five, including the birth of my sister, the most significant event of my early life, but when I was five I had surgery on my eyes and that’s where my most vivid memories begin.  The first of those is really a memory of seeing clearly, a very bright memory of the experience of sight.  The content of the memory itself isn’t very interesting.  I remember riding on my father’s shoulders, eye-level with a decorative band of triangles, circles, and squares that ran across the top of the hallway of what was probably the children’s wing of the hospital.  That’s it—basic shapes in primary colors that looked, to my new eyes, utterly fascinating.

What was your childhood like?

It was a great, aimless childhood.  I spent a lot of time wandering through the woods and fields where I grew up, examining mosses and smelling the bark of trees.  Those woods and fields felt endless at the time, but they were just slim tracts of wasteland under the flight path of the Albany airport by the Mohawk River in upstate New York.  I was a weird kid and I had a Bartleby attitude toward elementary school—I preferred not to go.  My mother indulged this preference fairly generously.  She diagnosed me as an artist, so I was given lessons in calligraphy and sculpture and drawing and painting, starting in first grade.  There were some years of chaos and bewilderment, too, but I was a lucky kid.

About On Immunity: An Inoculation, you once told me, “I feel like I came up to the edge of my abilities with that book.”  Can you say more about this?

When writing is going well for me, I think that might just be what it feels like!  But, yes, I was handling a lot of information in that book, much more than I’d ever tried to handle before.  And I was learning immunology from the ground up, reading textbooks while trying to refuse technical terminology in my prose.  I was also writing the longest continuous work that I’ve written so far, which really isn’t saying much, as On Immunity isn’t very long or very continuous.  But the length of the essay was challenging.  And the structure of that book demanded that I understand not only what I was saying at any given moment, but also how it related to what I had already said and what I was going to say.  But maybe it wasn’t the edge of my abilities that I arrived at so much as the edge of my comfort.  In writing On Immunity, I discovered that the loose, associative, highly intuitive approach that had served me in the past needed to be, to some extent, abandoned.

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A. Molotkov

May 16, 2020



Growing up in the USSR, I’m used to the scarcity of choice in clothes. I live in Leningrad, Soviet Union’s second largest city. Nothing sold in the stores has any aesthetic appeal. Shapeless pants – half denim, half dirt – cling together in the middle, a clump of awful pink blouses floating nearby, the entire space occupied by dreadful alternatives to what a normal person might consider good-looking. Even the sadly shaped pants are available only in XXL. We keep successful finds for years, patching them as long as possible. Once a year or two, Mom hires a seamstress to sew an outfit.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I’m reduced to a pair of gray pants and beige shoes. A few boring dark shirts and a pastel-colored T-shirt or two are all I own. I won’t impress anyone as a sharp dresser.

From the occasional foreign films shown in Leningrad, we have an idea of the apparel diversity in the West. I’m envious of the classmates whose parents have money or connections, allowing them to dress them in what we call feermennye clothes, which literally translates as firm-produced. Any firm is better than the rotting Soviet economy, where everyone supposedly owns it all, but owns nothing in real life.


It’s 1982. I’m fourteen. Dad spent a month in Prague collaborating with Czech scientists, resulting in a book, Ray Methods in Seismology. He brings a coat and a dress for Mom – and for me, a red waterproof jacket with detachable sleeves, a detachable liner, but an utterly undetachable cool factor. Its many pockets, its strange lines and inventive attributes, its small sections of black, its hood – all these features make the jacket immediately recognizable as a foreign item, even if it was manufactured in another country of the communist block. Apparently, their communists hadn’t managed to mess it up as thoroughly as in the USSR.

For the first time, I feel special on my way to school, at least inasmuch as my looks are concerned.

“Molotkov, where did you get that jacket?”

I explain.

“Sell it to me,” a classmate says. “I’ll give you 300 roubles.” He’s not a close friend, but I respect him for his sense of humor and his moderation in interpersonal interactions.

“I can’t. It’s a present.”

I wouldn’t sell it in any case.


Out in town, I carry my things in a Marlboro plastic bag. Mom received it as a gift from a colleague who’d traveled abroad. It’s a sturdy design with handles that snap together – something one might call disposable in the West, as I will discover much later in life. On the bag, the sinister man smokes a cigarette, smiling at the legs of the passersby.

I don’t care – it’s a feermennye bag.


The gray world is sad but familiar. My two years in the Soviet Military, 1986 through ‘88, raise the stakes in terms of homogeneity. We are disallowed to supplement the shapeless, poopy beige uniform – called HB, after the Russian term for cotton – even with invisible items of attire, like socks. In winter, a long, awkward overcoat completes the deal. It would suffice elsewhere, but Siberia’s temperatures range between -40 and 90°F.

“Molotkov, what is it under your HB?” The officer’s hand digs under my shirt like a rude lover’s.

“It’s a sweater, Comrade Senior Lieutenant.”

“Not allowed.”

“But it’s too cold without it.”

“No arguments, private Molotkov. Take it off and destroy it.”

Tahk tochno,” I say, that way exactly, the Russian equivalent of Yes, sir.

I’m four thousand miles east of home. I despise the mentality that seeks to turn unique individuals into identical puppets, in look and in thought.


In 1988, I’m back in Leningrad. At twenty, I’m more than ever convinced that looking like everyone else is unacceptable. Mom passes on a pair of red shorts she wore in her youth. They fit just right. Shorts are rather infrequent in the Soviet Union, particularly on men. I enjoy walking about so dressed, especially considering the choice of color – the communist red on my ass.


By the time 1990 rolls in, I’m sick of the USSR, where lofty ideas are supposed to explain and excuse brutality. I’m tired of the sad outfits my country wears. More importantly, I’m tired of uniform thoughts. I can’t spend my life in this kind of isolation.

I decide to move to the United States.


In 1991, I’m in Albany, New York. I have a job and can afford a few brightly colored T-shirts, a fitting pair of jeans, shorts to replace my mother’s aging pair. This bundle costs me $45 at Ross – now I’m better dressed than ever in my life. It’s nice to be able to buy good-looking clothes, I mention in a letter to my friend Boris.

Before I know, this becomes a trope. Molotkov likes good-looking clothes. Molotkov wants to dress well. Ha-ha. The new American intellectual.

I’m not mad at my friends back in Russia for ridiculing my desire to elude the black-and-white-and-beige paradigm. They live in a world trained to think of such niceties as excesses.

As far as my future is concerned, the least desirable outcome is wearing a uniform again, such as a suit to a formal office job. I won’t be getting a job that requires suits.


In 1996, I move to San Francisco and expose myself to a broader range of lifestyles. To a person from the gray USSR, this place is both an imperative and an offering. I love the freedom – I might as well use it. Hair dyes enter my life.

Many people sport blue, pink or purple hair. By the late ‘90s, this is as much of a cliché as earrings in one ear, per George Carlin. I shouldn’t think conservatively. Rainbow hair is the only reasonable choice.

I feel vindicated as I walk about, my hair in the wind. It’s a slap on the face of my past in the USSR. It’s a symbol of freedom. But I’m a little embarrassed too, and it takes some practice to face the passing strangers in the same way as I would otherwise: neither seeking, nor obsessively avoiding, eye contact. Many people smile; I smile back. The occasional strangers make compliments. The truth is, I’m not doing this to show off, nor for anyone’s approval.

Or am I?


After a few months, hair alone seems a puny gesture. Why be conformist with 97% of my body surface? My full-color commitment begins. I hire a seamstress to sew two pairs of pants from four different sections of multicolored fabric. As I explain my order, the frown on her forehead keeps deepening until I’m ready to fall into it.

With rainbow pants and rainbow shirts to supplement my rainbow hair, I finally feel far enough from a uniform. Can I relax yet?

Wait a minute. Fingernails.

I stock up on nail polish.

I could say I don’t care what people think, but that would be simplistic. I’d rather not offend anyone needlessly. If no one were around, I wouldn’t bother with my appearance. The closest I can trap this in logic: I want to prove to myself, and signal to others, that I can live on my own terms inasmuch as appearance is concerned – and beyond appearance.

Whether I want it or not, my looks send a message. I hope no part of it is negative. I hope it encourages others to treat me, from the start, as an authentic person. I hope it inspires the occasional stranger to loosen up in their own life – not in color per se, but in somepersonal sort of freedom.

As months go by, I stop noticing others’ noticing. I feel transparent again.


In 2005, I’m in St. Petersburg, the city of my birth, no longer named after the mass murderer. Following my mother’s death last December, I’m going through the family apartment.

In one of the closets, I dig up the strange and stylish black shirt I wore in the 1980s. It boasts pockets on the sides and the front, along with an unusual collar that buttons up against the wind. It was Mom’s present, an item of elegance in the gray world. She’d spent hours in line to get it. I wore it to all the school dances; I wore it so much it developed an archipelago of minor holes. I bring it back to the States with me.


Laurie and I meet in 2007, via a now defunct slightly hi-brow dating site. It doesn’t take long for the topic of color to arise.

“I looked at your picture for a while before I decided to contact you,” she says.


“I wasn’t sure I could deal with the colors. The thing is, I cropped off your hair, and your face is so cute without all this craziness.”

“Why did you decide to go for it after all?”

“What you wrote in your profile was so compelling.”

As winter approaches and I don my rainbow pants instead of the rainbow shorts, I see distress on Laurie’s face.

“I can’t believe I’m going out with a rainbow astronaut. I really like you, you know. But this is just too much.”

“What did you expect?”

We don’t reach a solution. We’ve been dating only a couple of months; neither is ready to commit to big changes.

Several months later, I’m at Blockbuster. I’m picking up the next DVD of Six Feet Under when Laurie calls.

“Hello.” I assume she wants me to rent another film or show.

“We have to talk.” Her voice is stern on the other end.

“We do?”

“Yes. I spoke to my mom, and she says I have the right to bring this up with you, because it concerns me deeply. I can’t commit to being with someone who always insists on wearing colors head to toe. I need to ask you to reconsider or soften your position on that.”

“You had to call me to tell me this, even though I’ll see you in ten minutes?”

“Yes. It couldn’t wait.”

“Why is it so important what look like? It’s not like I’m trying to make youwear colors or dye your hair.”

“I don’t have an ideological problem with it. It’s just that I don’t want to be the center of attention every time you and I go out. And besides, it’s such a shame; you’d look much more attractive without all these colors.”

“What exactly are you asking me to change?”

“The pants are the worst part. If you could wear a normal pair of pants or jeans, I think I could deal with the shirt and the hair.”

“And if I don’t agree?”

“Then I don’t think I can commit to a future together.”

I’m deeply threatened. I can’t allow this attack on my right to choose my appearance. On a formal level, I should be able to wear whatever colors I want – this right seems inalienable.            Yet, almost instantly, my defensive inner voice hushes. I’m almost forty. Being stubborn is no longer interesting or important. Making compromises for a shared project makes much more sense.

“Fair enough,” I say into my small pre-smart-phone device. “If it upsets you so much, I should listen.”

“Phew. Thank you.” Laurie’s voice lightens. “I didn’t expect you to agree.”

I didn’t either.

Over the months and years, we negotiate. After a decade, I’m ready for a less drastic attitude. I wear my rainbow pants only when giving poetry readings. The hair remains the only constant. I bleach it every couple of months and dye it every few weeks. Fortunately, the dyeing routine is performed with a paintbrush and takes only a few minutes, with Laurie’s assistance.


In 2018, I hit fifty. I still don’t own a suit. I tend to wear shirts with a special touch: a slant, a pattern that contrasts positive and negative space, a decorative hood or zipper. These shirts are not rainbow-colored – just colorful. I wear normal jeans or pants. I prefer brightly colored shoes, but I choose them to match the rest of my attire – not to clash with it.

My hair has been surrendering in a radiating pattern. I don’t care about growing bald. And I realize: I no longer care that much about my rainbow hair.

It has become a cliché, like Carlin’s earring a quarter century ago. I see enough people around with beautiful rainbow hair to render me an old dude trying to look hip. Who cares if no one did this in the ‘90s when I first started? I feel mildly melancholy as with all trends that have caught up with us. But mostly, I feel indifferent. My life has never been about my looks, although some of it has been about my right to choose them. I must be more comfortable in my role as a writer, artist, immigrant, a person with unique thoughts – so comfortable I don’t need to show it, or to prove it, even to myself.

I might dye my hair again someday, if any is left. I’m keeping my extensive set of hair dyes.

It’s never too late to change colors.



A. Molotkov immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1990, at age 22, and switched to writing in English in 1993. “Colorful” is a part of A Broken Russia Inside Me, a memoir currently in search of a publisher. Molotkov’s poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows and Synonyms for Silence; his prose is represented by Laura Strachan at Strachan Lit. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Please visit him at


Richard Klin

May 16, 2020

Vanishing Point


My father died in 2017 at the age of eighty-five. The death of a parent is a pivotal experience. A natural impulse is to try and put that parent’s life into some sort of recognizable context. It is a time of mourning, as well as summing up.

By the time my father died, he was a Holocaust survivor. This may sound paradoxical, because he was, in fact, that very thing: A Holocaust survivor who had hidden out the war in Belgium. Those are the plain facts. He was born in Brussels in 1931 to two Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to Belgium the previous year.

In the late 1930s, his father—my grandfather—in a case of lethally bad timing, emigrated to New York City, intending to send for his wife, son, and daughter. The advent of the Second World War made this impossible; in 1940 Belgium was under Nazi occupation. Those are more plain facts, but these facts become plagued with ambiguity almost immediately. What was the nature of my grandfather’s relocation to the United States, just before Europe burst into flames? After the war, he did send for his son and daughter. Was it pure abandonment, as my father came to believe? Or something else? There’s no answer. My father’s wartime narrative, from the outset, becomes muddied.

As the German knot tightened, my father and his sister were among a group of Jewish children who were hidden—basically in plain sight—as pupils in a Catholic school, where they all passed as gentiles. My grandmother was caught, transported to Auschwitz, and perished.

Holocaust commemorations rely on bare facts and narratives that have a beginning, middle, and an ending. These narratives are often presented as examples of good triumphing over evil, or lessons in moral instruction. Nuance, ambiguity, and contradiction are banished. There is no room for the horrible murkiness of trauma, grief, mourning. My father’s own chronicle—the way he recounted it– did not have much in the way of a linear progression.

It was only in the last decade of his life, really, that he identified himself as a Holocaust survivor. To the best of my recollection, the word Holocaust never passed his lips during my upbringing. References, when they did come, were to “the war,” which needed no additional amplification. Belgium itself was almost a secondary factor; he had been raised in Brussels, which was absent any elaboration: Simply the name of a city, a place. Just Brussels.

My father’s account of his mother’s fate was this: She would visit him every day. One day she simply stopped coming and was never heard of again. End of story. It is a child’s tale of wishful thinking. The mother simply vanishes. She is not loaded into a cattle car to meet her death in an extermination camp. She is not beaten, starved, or gassed.

One of the greatest joys of my life was, when my daughter was little, engaging in the ritual of bedtime reading, seeing these magical books through her eyes. It was during this period when I suddenly realized I knew not a single one of my father’s favorite childhood books or tales. He was nine when the Nazi regime began. Nine is a fairly well-developed age, full of preferences and interests. I don’t know the name of any of his friends, teachers he liked or didn’t, favorite movies, songs. I have no idea if his mother read to him every night. Not a single one of his childhood books or toys is extant. There are almost no photos of him as a young person.

Scattered anecdotes, when I was growing up, did creep in. He loved Tintin and went to the movies regularly. He had the first bicycle on the block, imperiously meting out the length of time that the other children had to try it out. There were regular family trips to the beach. The beach, in fact, is the only photograph we have of my grandmother where she is posed with her two young children.

One could deduce that the beach was in Belgium, but it had no specific name or locale. It was only during that last decade of my father’s life that it occurred to me to ask where this beach was, exactly. I then learned the name was Blankenberge, where pasty-faced British vacationers also sojourned. I had not known any of this; not the name, not the composition of its visitors.

His stories from the war would sometimes make their brief, unsettling appearance, popping up and disappearing: spare and strange, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Once, while lying in bed, he had heard a man being shot and the subsequent cries of pain. During the period when he was in hiding he subsisted on leeks. These were stories related to me when I was younger. Perhaps the intervening years have diluted my own accuracy, although I tend to doubt it. Those are the sort of jolting details a kid would remember.

He also mentioned—once and only once, sans any sort of detail—some person who had a special, extrasensory ability to identify Jews by sight alone, this deadly presence who went around with the Germans. This also, in retrospect, seems like a children’s tale or rumor. It is horrifying, of course, but also, I imagine, comforting in those nightmarish circumstances: If you could stay out of this mythical person’s way, you could perhaps survive. The reality was that there was no formula whatsoever to survive.


My father came to this country as a teenager, but still maintained strong linguistic and cultural ties to Europe. I remember copies of Paris Match, for example, all during my childhood. These ties were all culled from France, not Belgium. That was to be expected. The infrastructure of the Francophone world is, obviously, not heavily tilted toward Belgium. Yet I remember nothing of Belgium penetrating our home.

A cordon sanitaire is defined as “a protective barrier (as of buffer states) against a potentially aggressive nation or a dangerous influence. . . .” He had constructed a cordon sanitaire around his past. Our house was permeated with his presence of absence.

As my father began to decline physically and mentally, he began to suffer from war-related hallucinations. The Germans were breaking into his house, for one. My visceral, utterly illogical reaction was one of relief. He really had gone through the Holocaust. His trauma was codified, identifiable. Again, this is completely illogical on my part.


It all boils down to the mother, doesn’t it? The mother makes everything bearable. When there are bullies, the mother is your recourse. The mother protects you, not just from bullies, but from all manner of bad things. In my father’s case, these particular bullies are shockingly malevolent. As it turns out, they want to do more than bully; they want to inflict great, enormous harm. And then it escalates: They actually want to kill you. The mother is powerless to stop this, to save you. She can do nothing. And then the bullies mean to inflict great harm on your mother as well. It is more than great harm: They want to kill your mother. And they do. They kill your mother.


The painter Arshile Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, a witness to his mother’s death from starvation. His extraordinarily moving The Artist and His Mother depicts the young painter side-by-side with his mother, who is looking out into the distance. I can think of nothing that illustrates my father’s experience with such tragic, wrenching accuracy.

The young boy in the painting is gazing out as well. Mother and son are juxtaposed close to each other, their sleeves almost touching. They are not looking at each other, but the figure of the mother looms large. She is so tangible, but not quite there. It is as if Gorky painted The Artist and His Mother fully cognizant of my father’s story.

Next to the mother is a boy. Just a boy. And that is all, ultimately, there is to say.


Richard Klin is a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley and the author of (among other things) the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer (Underground Voices). His work has been featured on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and has appeared in the Atlantic, the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, Akashic Books’ “Thursdaze” series, Flyover Country Review, and others. He has recently completed a new novel.


Tomie Anne Bitton

May 16, 2020

Hormone Horoscope


Day 17

After working all day, you pick the kids up from school, come home, sit on the couch and notice tension in your shoulders. Why? It wasn’t a particularly stressful day. You play Chutes and Ladders with your six-year-old son, a Curious George cartoon chatters in the background. When your eight-year-old daughter belts out, “Could somebody get me some more TP?” from the bathroom, you lose focus, but only for a second. She perches on the porcelain, toes dangling, not touching the tile floor as you walk in and; hand her a roll.

What day is it? You check your phone, specifically the new app you downloaded just over two weeks ago when you began your last period. Ah. You’re sliding down now. No wonder you’ve harnessed Wonder Woman powers around the house, in the bedroom. You’ve had energy to work a full day, do laundry, clean the shower, and make dinner. Even had some leftover oomph to read before bed. You haven’t wanted to snack all day long. Haven’t opened those Oreos on the shelf in the pantry.

You’ve wanted to talk with your mother on the phone, run through the sprinklers at the park as you chase your kids toward the playground monkey bars.


Day 18

You wake a little sluggish, make your daily coffee—two scoops Maxwell House to 4 cups water. In place of your 2%, you reach for the mocha-flavored creamer. You take your Super B Complex, C and D vitamins while the brew steams. Think to yourself that cream cheese on a bagel sounds good. But then decide to grab a yogurton the way out the door, instead. In the next week or so, you’ll need all the fiber and probiotics you can get.

As you head to the bathroom for a shower, you kiss your daughter on the cheek and whisper, “Wake up, Sleepyhead.” Look closer in the magnifying mirror, say hello to your crow’s feet. They’re getting deeper. Inhale slowly. Hold your breath. Sigh as you exhale through your nose, relaxing your jaw and clenched teeth.


Day 19

You notice fingertips beneath the bathroom door as you step into the shower. Tell your little boy in a raised voice it’s time to get dressed and ready for school. You don’t want to cover up and hide, but realize he’s getting older, may start remembering things like your silhouette. Lately he’s gazed at your chest a tad bit longer than usual, reaching for your breasts when you wear a low-cut blouse or swimsuit. You hear him whine about his sleepiness as he walks away.

Decide not to wash your hair for one more day, requires too much energy. You twist it in the back and clamp the strands with the claw, the one you hate, the one missing a tooth.

Your husband walks in. Asks if he can join you, which you know in his language means more than just a backwash swap. You agree, neither upset nor excited. You tell him you’re not washing your hair today. He’s careful not to splash.


Day 20

Remove your wedding ring before bed, notice the indentation left behind on your finger. Look down at your swollen ankles and feel your feet pulsate. Start to doze off, roll over to your stomach and feel tenderness in your breasts. Think back to your pregnant body, how large and sore your breasts became. How you couldn’t walk downstairs without the reminder of your boobs, cradling them, especially when bra-less. You can do without the extra cup size, and certainly the ache, but you know your husband will enjoy the look of your naked, swelling body in the upcoming week, as he did during your pregnancies.

Maneuver onto your side to face the window to see the moonlight creeping through the slats of the blinds. You cherish the sound of cicadas chirping.


Day 21

Your mother was plagued with migraines. When you were a girl, she retreated to her dark bedroom several times a month to sleep with a wet washcloth over her eyes. You tiptoed up the stairs to check on her, but she’d yell for you to leave her alone before you got close. How did she hear you?

When you got your period for the first time, it was a sad thing in her mind because of the cramps and mess, extra effort and time to get through the day. Every month, she repeated, “Oh, no, you’re not on your period, are you?” Even though she asked, it remained a secret, something hidden like the package of Always beneath the sink.


Day 22

When your mother video chats with your daughter, you join the call briefly to say hello. You notice your mom has no makeup on, can tell she has a headache because of the slow way she’s talking. Your neck tightens. You arch your back, stretch your neck from one side to the other, and she asks if you feel alright. You say, “Of course,” lying a little, smile with pursed lips.

You go to another room to check your email. Notice spam in your Inbox with the subject line “Check out your Hormone Horoscope!” You don’t take the bait but, make a mental note to Google it tomorrow. Is there such a thing as a horoscope for your hormones? With only a week to go, you really don’t need someone to tell you what’s about to happen.


Day 23

You blow your nose as you do every morning when you sit on the toilet to pee and sense a lighter, runnier substance in your nostril. Know without looking you have a nosebleed. Recall having one about a month ago. Could these nosebleeds connect to your cycle? You doubt it. Tell yourself to check it out later. Stuff a cotton ball up your nose.

As you’re putting on a little foundation and eye makeup, your daughter walks in and asks if she can wear some of your lipstick. She seems oblivious to the fuzz protruding from your nose. Standing next to you in front of the mirror, she opens the tube and dabs on a little fuchsia, smacking her lips together. She places her hands under her chin, tilts her head and smiles as she bats her long, dark eyelashes at her reflection.


Day 24

Vicarious menstruation. Who knew there was such a thing? You discover from an internet search and blog post that it’s common to have nosebleeds as estrogen rises. Even at your age, you can learn something new about your body.

Think back to your teenage years, how often you had nosebleeds. Along with them and your period, you wonder if you suffered from anemia. You used to hate that time of the month, wondered about the curse of girlhood. You remember running to the bathroom every chance you got at school, hoping you hadn’t leaked, hoping you didn’t have a glaring red spot on your pants. You would die if the kids at school to knew it was that time of the month for you, a sanitary napkin lining your underwear.

At the age of sixteen you figured out you could wear biking shorts under your jeans during your period to feel more secure. It was one way to feel confident. Other girls used tampons, but you felt scared to. You remember wishing you could talk to your mom.


Day 25

You have no desire to get out of bed. No desire to shower. The kids make their way into your room to wake you up. They ask who finished of the Chocolate Malted Crunch ice cream. They noticed the container in the trash, next to the sink full of dishes. You honestly cannot remember if you ate it. It’s possible you got up in the middle of the night. Sleep eating? Something else to look up.

Realize you forgot about Running Club after school. Tell your daughter her team shirt didn’t get washed. Apologize. She storms off, beginning to cry. Drag yourself up, the anger inside you spills over. Where is your husband? Why can’t he get the kids fed, dressed, and to school?

You tell yourself to take a deep breath. You are just tired. You are just hungry. You are just bloated and hot and . . . A reminder on your phone alerts you your period prowls three days away. As if you didn’t know.

Get out of bed. Open the blinds. Notice one coot on the fence and another searching for worms in the grass.


Day 26

You wake from an erotic dream sequence. Feel frustrated. Snuggle up next to your snoring husband. Watch him flip over onto his stomach as you untangle from the sheets. Note how peaceful he looks, even in his over-washed sweatpants.

You undress, look at your naked body in the bathroom mirror. The extra trundles of skin around your waist and backside seem to say: I’m not ready for this day; let’s go back to bed. Remember your son has an award assembly at school later. Take a deep breath of steam clouding from the shower spout and wonder how you got here. Glance at the ledge of the tub and spot your dull razor purchased last summer. Realize you haven’t used it for months. Remember the last time you wore a bikini, years earlier on your honeymoon, before the babies branded you with stretch marks and bulges.

Grabbing your acne face wash from the shower rack, you think about last evening, your out-of-the-blue outburst toward your son because he didn’t finish the peas. You know now your hormones do affect your mood.


Day 27

Read the back of the Excedrin bottle for the fourth time while eating a Lemonzest Luna bar at lunchtime. Don’t take more than six caplets in 24 hours. Wonder how you will survive the day with only two left to take. Wonder what else you can do to get rid of a headache. WebMD suggests drinking more water. You imagine drinking fountains calling out your name each time you pass by. Your jeans too tight to even think about sipping water. Recall your image in the mirror this morning—a water balloon about to burst.

Pick the kids up from school. Tell them Mommy doesn’t feel well today. Tell them to talk quieter. Tell yourself to relax. Your husband can take over in two hours. Relax. Feel your head pound. Feel anger bubble up as they run off screaming, leaving you behind to park, carry all the bags into the house.


Day 28

Skip bedtime stories with the kids. Tuck them into bed early. Shield your chest as you lean over to kiss them. Wish you had kept your bra on a little longer for support, padding. Hugs hurt.

Walk past the piled-up dishes in the sink. Walk past your husband sitting on the couch watching football. Tell him you’re going to bed. Pretend not to hear him when he asks to join you.


Day 29

At 3:00 A.M., wake to find your nightshirt soaked through. Beads of sweat between your breasts and on your thighs. You have damp hair beneath your ponytail. Move onto your side and feel a tightening in your gut, a twinge of a cramp. Get up to use the bathroom and hear the rush of fluid mix with toilet water. Lean forward to expel more urine. You are not surprised to have more pee come out. Walk back to bed and fall asleep with a grateful sigh as you move your head to a dry part of the pillow.

At 6:00 A.M. wake to a full bladder, even more pee. Notice a dark streak on the TP after you wipe. Notice in the mirror that your boobs, though less full, remain larger than usual. Remove your menstrual cup from a drawer and place it on the counter for tomorrow. Wrapped in its tiny, bright pink drawstring bag, one might think a pair of priceless earrings nestle inside.

Before driving the kids to school, you make scrambled eggs and do the dishes. Sing songs loudly on the way. “Have an awesome day!” you say as they slam the car door and skip into school. They look back to you, and you wave wildly. You notice the cloudless sky. The radio DJ predicts warmer temps ahead.

Before retiring for the night, you make sure to put new sheets on the bed. Take a long Epsom salt, coconut oil bath. You lie back completely, submerge your head, envision all the yuck swirling down the drain with the bubbles.


Day 1

You wake from a hard sleep. Tell the kids at breakfast: “Last night felt like a snap,” which you know in their language means it was a fast, really good night’s rest. Linger as you kiss your husband good morning.

You are alert. You have more energy than you’ve had in weeks.

Swallow Ibuprofen with your coffee to stave off cramps until lunch and help keep your flow as light as possible for the first day. Think back to the days when you wore diaper-like pads. Think about the panic you felt when you had to wear skin tight, shorter than short, white basketball shorts for your first varsity home game. The fight you had with your mother beforehand because the tampon wouldn’t work.

When your daughter asks for more milk in her cereal, think how empowered, worry free you feel with your menstrual cup in place. How sexy you feel wearing the period panties you ordered online after you saw an ad shared by a friend on Facebook. Look forward to reading Cara Natterson’s The Care and Keeping of You to your daughter. You hope she’ll cultivate excitement, not worry, and you want her to know all her options. When she’s 13 you will celebrate her first period. You’ll have a girl’s day, pick out training bras, and get your toes painted red at the spa.


Day 2

In the hours ahead you’ll have to empty your menstrual cup at least two times. It’s your heaviest day. A dull ache lingers inside despite your continued Ibuprofen gulping. You’ll take three at a time instead of the two recommended, but just for today. You honestly feel good.

As you shed blood, and what feels like 10 pounds of excess fluid, you experience relief. Your breathing slows down. Your shoulders relax without you telling them to do so. Your mind so sharp you surprise yourself with what you can recall: It’s your great grandmother’s birthday today. Your skin glows.

Before getting dressed, while looking in the mirror to do your monthly self-breast exam, you feel perky. Your boobs look soft, almost teen-like.


Day 3

You feel like you could run a marathon and you don’t even like to run. You feel like you could skip your coffee and still have enough energy to work, clean the house, clean the shower, make dinner, and read an entire book, or even make it a date night.

You finally check your hormone horoscope at, just for fun. Realize everything it says, you already know. The rhythm of your body no longer a mystery to you. As you pick up your cell to call your mother, you pause to delete the period app from your phone.


Day 4

Take your kids to the pool, notice how your blue boy-shorts shimmer underwater as you float on your back next to your daughter. Later, you feel your wet and curly hair rest on the curve of your breast as your lounge, sunbathe, read your favorite book. You hear your son’s splash off in the distance as he plays Marco Polo.

You close your eyes. Think about your husband and the two of you honeymooning on a sandy, beige beach many years ago. You don’t feel anything but the sun.


Tomie Anne Bitton is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at Oklahoma State University, and is from Oakdale, California. Tomie received her MA in nonfiction creative writing from California State University, Chico, in 2015. Although she used to clean offices and vacuum around lazy house pets, Tomie is much happier now cleaning up after her two children. Her favorite moments include reading a book or losing her feet at the beach.


Julie Levinson

March 10, 2020

Lost Soles

Wily ghost that she is, she haunts me in odd ways. Improbably, the Moroccan slippers are one of the things that most often evoke memories of her.  I had bought them in the Arab bazaar in Grenada, a city I first heard about decades earlier in her wistful accounts of the one trip to Europe she took with my father.  My sisters and I were delighted when, after her death, we found her red leather travel diary from that trip.  It was comprised of brief lists of each day’s conscientiously visited tourist sites followed by pages of lovingly thorough accounts of what they ate for dinner that night.  Our favorite of her stories was the one about the waiter in Italy who, when my mother scarfed down roll after roll of what she described as the best bread she had ever eaten, gently slapped her hand and warned her not to get full before the actual meal arrived.  Food was the only thing she enjoyed with uncharacteristic abandon.  As a no-nonsense child of the Depression, she shunned excess or self-indulgence.  Whether by inclination, habit or history, she was more dutiful than desiring.  Or so I always thought. In her last decades, her hiatal hernia forced a reluctant self-restraint toward eating: the one activity she had reveled in unstintingly.

Longevity without pleasure was one of the many cruel ironies of living into her nineties.  Like Tithonus, the prince of Troy to whom the gods granted eternal life but not eternal youth, she felt that she had outlived whatever joys she had known.  Although my mother had been a professional musician, she no longer wanted to listen to music because she said it just made her sad.  The only old song she still liked, no doubt because it was elegiac and therefore apt, was “September Song” which begins, “Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December/But the days grow short when you reach September.”  But that song’s refrain – “And the days dwindle down to a precious few” – didn’t quite do it for her since “precious” was far from the first adjective that she would use to describe her dwindling days.

The conventional wisdom is that grief works in strange ways but I have nonetheless been caught off guard by the talismanic power of seemingly inconsequential things.  It was only after I had gotten back from Spain and began wearing the tan leather slippers daily that I discovered there was a word for them: babouches. Although that sounds like the surname of a Groucho Marx character, the word is, reportedly, a French derivation of an Arabic rendition of a Persian term meaning “foot covering.” I discovered that not only did my slippers have an etymologically migrant name but they also had a history, detailed in several websites that described their provenance.  “The traditional babouche hails from the Middle East, where Bedouins and monarchs have been shuffling around in them for centuries,” explains one. “They were fashionable amongst 17th-century French courtiers, possibly because their ultra-soft soles were suggestive of a devil-may-care attitude to dressing,” it continues.  Although, being my mother’s daughter, I could never lay claim to a devil-may-care attitude toward anything, those ultra-soft soles were, indeed, the stand-out feature of my babouches.  The simply designed slipper consists of three pieces of supple leather stitched together.   No sole, to speak of: just that smooth leather bottom made for shuffling and a back folded down under the wearer’s heel to facilitate said shuffling.  It was those smooth bottoms that led to the mysterious disappearance of my beloved babouches.

During her last years, she spent most of her time reading on her bed.  She had lived with us for upwards of two decades by then: an arrangement that bemused my American friends but seemed familiar and right to those from cultures in which the distance travelled from one’s family in adulthood was not necessarily a point of pride.  Mostly, our cohabitation worked although she did, on occasion, elicit a tetchy eye roll from me.  That happened most often in response to her incessant worrying.  Any sign from me of illness or sadness or disappointment would preoccupy her.  Ever conscientious as a parent, she was an inveterate advice giver, notwithstanding my own by-then advanced age.  So one day when, from her bed, she heard me lose my footing and fall on the stairs while wearing those evidently slippery slippers, she urged me to get rid of them.

As similar as we were, we parted ways on our opinion of the value of divesting oneself of belongings.   She was a minimalist who knew few greater pleasures than throwing things out, whisking away half-finished glasses of water or winnowing down items in the refrigerator.  I am a pack rat, saving things that I haven’t worn or used for years in the dim hope that I may want them again someday.  If I couldn’t bear to part with pieces of clothing long since unworn or with books never again to be read, I certainly had no intention of relinquishing my cherished, if ever slicker-bottomed, babouches.  Although she imbued in me her predilection for prudence, the peril of soft-soled shoes be damned!

When, some time later, I couldn’t find them, I went on an epic search, certain that I had shuffled out of them somewhere in our large house and would happen upon them in some unexpected place.  It did not occur to me until well after her death that she had, out of an excess of concern and caution, taken them from my bedroom and thrown them out.  It wasn’t the first time that she had taken it upon herself to toss out something that I held dear.  When I came home from college one year, I went on a tear trying to find an old muumuu that someone had given me when I was in middle school.  To me, it was a sacred, if tattered, object; to her, it was a rag that offended her sense of sartorial decorum and her self-appointed role as curator of the chest of drawers in my childhood bedroom.

A month after she died, and several months before it finally dawned on me what had happened to my babouches, I gave up the search and bought another pair on Etsy: bright red ones.  Their vivid color makes me think of her with aching amusement. When my aging grandmother lived with our family, as my mother later would with mine, she had her heart set on a pair of red shoes.  But my mother considered red shoes garish and unbefitting for an old lady, so she put the kibosh on their purchase. In her own old age, she told me that she regretted having done that, emblematic as it was of her lifelong penchant for saying no rather than yes to sybaritic pleasures.  I suppose my choice of color, along with my insistence on reupping for another pair of what my mother considered death-defying footwear, could be understood as an emphatic blow against discretion and caution, or perhaps as my “yes” to living large on behalf of my sadly sensibly-shoed grandmother. My mother and I would have laughed together at the grandiosity of that claim. Still, I can’t help suspecting that, had she lived to see them, those red babouches might, like their predecessors, disappear one day without a trace.

Once she died, I felt instantly old. Until then, I permitted myself the illusion, viable only through the happenstance of good health, that I remained part of that catchall category of the middle-aged.  I considered her endurance a sort of life assurance for me; while she was alive, I was out of reach of old age and death. But her passing made me admit, if not accept, that I had advanced one step forward in the queue of the mortal, with no parent up ahead of me to stave off that last footfall.  And so I shuffle along toward my own senescence, babouche-shod but orphaned and dispossessed.  Shambling onward, I hum my own September song under my breath because I am too wary of the walk to sing it out loud.


Julie Levinson is Professor of Film at Babson College.  She is the author of The American Success Myth on Film, editor of Alexander Payne: Interviews and co-editor of Acting: Behind the Silver Screen. Her publications in journals and edited collections focus on a wide range of topics including cultural history, genre and gender, documentary film, and metafiction.​​​ She has been a film curator for museums, film festivals and other arts organizations.

Book Reviews

Jeffrey Barbieri Reviews Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s On Our Way Home from the Revolution

March 10, 2020

NOTE:  Opinions and political views expressed by reviewing contributors are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent the view of Punctuate.


On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine
Sonya Bilocerkowycz
21st Century Essays, $15.96

On January 8th, 2020, I awoke to the news that a Boeing 737 operated by Ukraine International Airlines and bound for Kiev had crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 on board. In the aftermath of the crash, aviation officials stated that their working theory was that the plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a theory which was corroborated three days later when Iran admitted that its military, on high alert in the wake of the US assassination of its top general, had indeed shot down the passenger plane because it mistook the craft for an American cruise missile being fired at an Iranian military target.

As these events were unfolding, I experienced an unsettling symmetry, having just finished reading the essay collection On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine. I recalled the way in which Sonya Bilocerkowycz describes an eerily similar incident from 2014 in her eponymous essay:

MALAYSIA AIRLINES MH17 FLIGHT CRASH: 20 FAMILIES GONE IN ONE SHOT. While we were up on a mountain in Montana, kissing the cool air, an airplane was falling from the sky in Eastern Ukraine. Rebel fighters in the Donbass shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a Russian-made Buk missile. The plane fell into a sunflower field.

Though the two events are separate conflicts and happened years apart, it struck me that they are both symptoms of imperial meddling: Russia in Ukraine and the US in the Middle East. For both countries the game has been on for decades and has been played using a full arsenal of creative strategies. In considering this, it also struck me that if even one American had been on the flight Iran shot down, our government would most likely have used it as a “shock doctrine” pretext for further escalation. We’ve seen it all before, many times over.

I think that is why another quote from Bilocerkowycz’s book has been ping-ponging back and forth in my head. It comes from the essay “Samizdat:” “History is on fast-forward, or maybe on replay.” Emblematic of one of her book’s major assertions, she uses this logic as an attempt to rationalize how Ukraine is struggling to free itself of occupation, a fight it’s been having for centuries against Russian forces or otherwise. Variations of this idea echo throughout her essays as the author situates herself as a Ukrainian-American seeking to disentangle the complicated histories of her family’s, and her country’s, struggle for survival and self-determination.

“I feel as if I am looking backward and forward at once, as if history is on a loop,” she writes in the essay “Swing State,” while regarding President Trump’s cozying up to Vladimir Putin; and later, in “The Village (Reprise),” while reading a pamphlet from 1950 meant to help Ukrainians fight the Bolsheviks: “as I read the first instruction (‘Explain to children that Russians are not our older brothers’), a hundred headlines from the current war shoot through my brain.” Her country’s long-standing suffering under Russia’s imperial zeal has created similar headlines, and similar traumas, across decades and generations of Ukrainians, like scars that still bleed.

This slippery relationship to time that Bilocerkowycz describes feels uncannily current, like an essential method of reckoning with the déjà-vu-inducing global events of the 21st century. There is a popular internet meme that comes from the television show True Detective (via Nietzsche, I should clarify, lest I invoke the wrath of any philosophers reading this) that is captioned with the quote “Time is a flat circle.” It is often deployed as a reaction to news that seems to indicate we are in the process of rehashing an idiotic strain of discourse, a deleterious cultural trend, or a particularly calamitous policy decision by one or another of our elected leaders. So, when the United States began the decade with an extrajudicial assassination of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most popular and influential figures, thereby dragging us closer to yet another war of aggression in the Middle East, I felt quite like Bilocerkowycz feels when regarding the Ukraine/Russia dynamic—that time is indeed a flat circle.

The structure of the essay collection as a whole keeps us keenly aware of this dynamic, circling back again and again to the pastoral setting of Bilocerkowycz’s ancestral Ukrainian village. The village, and its attendant history, is invoked in named interludes, but also breaks into other essays that otherwise take place in the present, creating through-lines that link events decades apart and cause the timeline to crease and warp. One of Bilocerkowycz’s central investigations is a recurring dive into the circumstances that forced her family to fight for survival as the land on which they lived was occupied by Poland, the Soviets, the Nazis, and eventually the Soviets again in the span of five years during World War II.

This is her family’s origin story, one that eventually leads to refuge in the Midwestern United States. We catch glimpses of the village through stories told by her grandmother from her Chicagoland kitchen as the smell of frying onions permeates the scene. We peer over her shoulder as she examines records from that tumultuous World War II era, trying to decipher what exactly happened when the Soviets had her great-grandfather, who was a leader in the village, disappear. And eventually, importantly, we see the village through her eyes as she visits her remaining relatives in search of some further connection to this place that seemingly will not retire quietly to the musty bookshelves of the past.

There is an admirable grappling here, as we see so often in books which invest time trying to describe a mixed heritage or immigrant mindset. Bilocerkowycz is not quite Ukrainian enough, having been born stateside, but still not quite American enough, evident in the way her childhood classmates would riddle her with questions about her unwieldy surname. This grappling is reminiscent in some ways of Aleksandar Hemon’s Book of My Lives, although it lacks the firsthand ties to “the old country” he gained growing up in Soviet Yugoslavia. This lack might have made Bilocerkowcyz’s collection seem disingenuous—like a way of inserting herself into a history she never truly experienced—were she not so upfront in her discomfort with this very fact.

In describing her time in Ukraine in 2013, during which she went to the Maidan protests that earned the country a new President, she writes: “I was a tourist. I left the revolution with a headache, and that’s all.” This discomfort persists—a nagging little notion that Ukraine is indifferent toward her, if not outright hostile. On one of her return trips to the village, her grandmother’s elderly cousin, Marina, forgets who she is and begins reprimanding her for being there: “Who are you? I don’t know who you are … Did you come here just to laugh at me? … I don’t know who you are, but you need to leave.” She does indeed leave, feeling guilty and rejected. But this does not stop her from continuing her search for answers.

While this discomfort is artfully portrayed, it is frankly expected that a collection whose subject feels split between two identities take pains to explore this difficulty. What I found myself truly enthralled by, what felt most urgent about On Our Way Home from the Revolution was Bilocerkowycz’s investment in dissent, in saying what is difficult, unpopular, or even downright dangerous to say. The essay “Samizdat” (a term referring to the dissident practice of copying and distributing literature banned by the Soviet state) is the collection’s best, weaving the author’s own experience being censured for an essay she wrote while teaching in authoritarian Belarus around the texts of other notable dissident journalists and novelists. Bilocerkowycz has an incredible talent for smuggling crystalline prose poems into her lucid analytical essaying—a bit like the act of distributing samizdat:

After classes, I gorge myself on experience: A bombing in the metro. The worst inflation rates in the world. Cookies with worms in them. Women tricked into ballerina bodies and sex tourism. Radiation fallout, blowing north with the wind, full of state secrets. Co-workers pointing to the ceiling when what they mean to say is our president. Jokes told over cognac.

Channeling the Romanian dissident author Herta Müller, she writes: “Grass grows inside your brain. It gets cut when you decide to speak.” After being suspended from (and subsequently reinstated to) her teaching job in Belarus for her essay critical of the dictatorship, she riffs on this line, writing that she is “an average sort of troublemaker, reckless with the lawnmower.”

This exploration of dissent segues into the essay “Swing State” which offers a scathing critique of the way many Americans—especially those in power—interpret ourselves and our partners in foreign relations. Characteristic of the collection, the essay builds a motif around a specific word: “thug,” using repetition with a difference to build an understanding bit by bit. Here the word is first uttered by an utterly sloshed Speaker of the House John Boehner, who Bilocerkowycz runs into while out to dinner with her mother and sisters in a nondescript Italian restaurant in South Dakota. When she volunteers that she’s moving to Ukraine in a few days, Boehner retorts: “Their president’s a thug … Putin’s a thug, too, he continues. All those guys are.”

This encounter forces Bilocerkowycz to consider what the word really means, and how readily it is applied to foreign entities, notably Vladimir Putin, by high-powered government slugs like Boehner. She draws quotes from Senators Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, both mentioning Putin as a KGB Thug, with the former adding: “I do think America is exceptional, America is different.” This begs the question: If being in the KGB makes someone a thug, how should we regard members of our CIA, with its laundry list of inciting coups and carrying out killings and abuses both foreign and domestic? And if Putin is such a thug, does that make our current president, who is so fond of him and his methods for quelling dissent, an aspiring thug? Bilocerkowycz quotes the journalist Anne Garrels, whose answer to the question seems conclusive: “The thing is, Vladimir Putin is a thug…But he’s their thug.”

Once again, this episode with John Boehner (now five years set out to pasture to drink all the Chianti he can handle) and his buddies tossing the word “thug” around to describe foreign leaders seems to grotesquely echo current events, perhaps because the present cannot be adequately distinguished from the past anymore. Consider how quickly American National Security officials, politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike, with the notable exception of Senator Bernie Sanders), and media rushed to label the freshly-assassinated General Soleimani a “terrorist” who was “threatening American lives and interests” in order to justify this sharp escalation toward further conflict with Iran. Consider that the second most powerful man in Iran was killed by a drone strike while on a diplomatic trip to Iraq, simply for defending his country’s interests against the power vacuum (created by American intervention and filled by ISIS) in his country’s backyard. If a man is a “terrorist” simply for overseeing the killing of enemy combatants by his troops, then how can our generals and their armies in the Middle East, having overseen an occupation of Iraq during which more than 200,000 civilians have been killed, be anything but terrorist forces? Consider that CIA “thugs” have been conspiring to meddle with Iran’s sovereignty since 1953, and how that still shapes relations between our country and Iran. Consider that Iran can’t attack American troops if there are no American troops blundering about the Middle East to attack. But now the political establishment, fresh off arming Trump with a new, bigger military budget, once again bays for war against the “terrorists.” “History is on a loop” once again as George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, New York Times Iraq War propagandist Judith Miller, and a parade of other journalists, pundits, and Bush administration figures complicit in engineering the 2003 invasion appear on our tv screens to give us their enlightened takes on why Iran is an even bigger threat than Iraq was. We seem chronically unable to counter our own disastrous inertia, to see ourselves as anything but high-minded good guys, wronged when all we are trying to do is help. Bilocerkowycz writes: “As Americans, we like to accomplish things—make phone calls, write checks—and then move on with our day. We don’t have time to wallow over old ideology. We don’t have time to be reminded.” An image of President George W. Bush, standing at a podium aboard an aircraft carrier in 2003, making a speech in front of a giant star-spangled banner reading “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” comes to mind. Is this future, or is it past?

On Our Way Home from the Revolution bids us to seek to understand the past, ultimately so that we forge a way out of the disorienting omni-present that defines our age. It bids us to have the courage to speak out against powerful interests that wish to keep us stuck in that deleterious loop. That being the case, we should count ourselves lucky that Bilocerkowycz’s book is not considered samizdat, that we can use that sliver of intellectual freedom to kick the door in, to hope for a tomorrow that seems increasingly less guaranteed. “I have heard that hope is a trap,” she writes, “but what if we choose it, knowingly? Is that not also our agency?” Not only is it our agency, but our responsibility as well.


Jeffrey Barbieri is an essayist and an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. He is originally from Rhode Island and carries that brusque New England cynicism with him wherever he goes.  He can be found on Twitter.