Browsing Category

Essays

Essays

Leila Philip

July 24, 2018

Venous Lake

It all began with a little black spot on my lower lip. “You should get that looked at,” said the woman at the Aveda store, handing me the rhubarb lipstick I had picked out to cover it. As she stared at my face, I felt panic rising. I was fair skinned and blue-eyed and of the generation that had coated our teenage bodies in baby oil while roasting in the sun. Although I knew to wear sunscreen now, I often didn’t. “I don’t have a dermatologist,” I blurted out. She quickly wrote down the name of a doctor she recommended highly.

Two weeks later, after my HMO cleared the visit, I was sitting in the doctor’s office, wondering just how many hours of unprotected sun exposure it took to get skin cancer. Continue Reading

Essays

Courtney Kiehm

July 22, 2018

Fort Myers Beach, Florida

I walked along the plastic white boardwalk. My feet were sizzling, and I could hear the boards rubbing together. It sounded like someone was twisting a disposable water bottle.

I look down at the water, waves crashing up against the boats, causing them to rock back and forth. The water has a grayish-blueish-green color, making it murky so I cannot see very deep. I was always searching for a shark fin to be sticking out of the water.

Ma is like a storm nowadays. Her doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, but she doesn’t think anything is wrong, so she refuses medication. Sometimes she calls my mom crying. Sometimes she calls my mom yelling, asking where Pa went. I’ve called my grandma and grandpa Ma and Pa since I was a baby, and that’s the way it stayed. Continue Reading

Essays

Joan Connor

July 22, 2018

Flying to New Zealand

Thirty hours in the air to spend forty on the ground.

The flight attendants feed us every ten minutes to try to make us forget that our knees are setting off our ears like scare quotes, that we are hurtling through the sky in a modified tin can.

I am going to Wellington to present a conference paper. The fat girls are going up and down the airplane to do what, I do not know. Limited diversions on a plane. How many times can one use the stinky bathroom? To bump the snack carts inconveniently out of the way?  Why is it always the fat girls—up they go and back they come, jostling everyone as they make their passages. Up and back. I am being mean. Sorry, fat girls.  But, of course, they cannot hear me.

I watch a super creepy movie The Counselor Cormac McCarthy wrote, in which Brad Pitt gets garroted. I consider garroting the current fat girl butting into the snack cart. I am not a nice person.

For months I have been reading histories of New Zealand to prepare a paper for my audience.  As an American, I am deeply aware of my cultural ignorance. Due to its remoteness, New Zealand was settled late by Europeans.  But the Maori were there well before the time James Cook arrived, likely migrating from Eastern Polynesia. Although a minority today, the Maori consider New Zealand a bicultural rather than a multicultural country. The Maori name for their country is Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud.  The impact of the Pākehā, white New Zealanders, on the Māori is not dissimilar to the impact of the white population on Native Americans. Devastating. Sinful. For its short history, the United States has a long history of sins.

I try to recline my seat that does not recline. Sleepless, I consider garroting a first-class passenger. They have beds. I watch Gravity. Actually, I watch my neighbor’s movie, Gravity, a movie which requires no soundtrack.

Aoteroa by way of Australia. I wander the airport seeking real food. It does not exist in airports any more than it exists on airplanes where they serve you mystery meat—no, worse than mystery meat—Koan meat. With mystery meat, you ask what?  With beef stroganoff served on a plane, you ask why? Airports sound like hospitals; they always make me sad.

En route New Zealand, I cross the International Dateline and the equator. No longer a Pollywog.

No jet lag either since we have moved just a day. I will celebrate Valentine’s Day twice, which means that I can twice be miserable about my lovelessness.

Australia to New Zealand. It is farther than I thought. Maps are deceptive as, in my experience, are lovers.

Wellington is on the water and very beautiful, pristine. I have too long been far from the sea. My taxi driver is benevolent, obliging and tours the city for me, chatting and pointing. Norfolk Pines line the streets.

My hotel is on Cuba Street, which apparently never sleeps, and neither will I. Rod Stewart and Springsteen blare simultaneously. Hipster girls and tat faces hit the clubs and used-clothing stores, coffee bars. Drink your coffee flat and white. I give my cigarettes to a homeless man. Cheers. No worries.

 

I have packed all the wrong clothes; it is cold and windy. I left cold behind expecting summer. Cold to cold. In a used-clothing store, I buy jeans, flat shoes, socks, and a hat.

 

The hobbit is king in Wellington. Gollumses, hobbits, Gandalfs abound. On the screen in the airplane, in the airport, in the Weta Workshop. More than a little unnerving.  I feel them watching me.  I may well be the only person alive who did not see the movie.  Nonetheless they watch me.

I cannot sleep. Technopop is playing on Cuba Street. Somewhere a car alarm is bleating. Finally, I surrender to sleeplessness and head for the lobby. On the sidewalk below the balcony, a man and a woman make out on a heated sofa. It is four a.m.

In the morning I drink my coffee flat and white and decide to hike to Katherine Mansfield’s girlhood home. It is in Thorndon, a long walk along the water, Jervois Quay to Customhouse, across the motorway. The wind tears at my raincoat. My eyes tear.

Eventually I find the little Victorian house with the lovely garden. A charming neighborhood. Restored and furnished with period pieces, the home is cozy, kind. It would be a lovely place to write. Mansfield compared it to a piggery. She had edges, more edges than a dodecahedron. I buy some postcards and thank the docent.

The conference opens with a mihimihi, a song of welcome and introduction, sung by a Maori woman. The song is beautiful, and I am so tired, so emotionally thin that I near tears.

The writers are Maori and Pākeā, mainly from Australia and New Zealand. Some seem to be jockeying for position, what New Zealanders call Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I stand to present the keynote paper and suddenly feel as if I am reading a paper that I  have never seen before like finding a dress in my closet that I do not recall buying, the when and the where. My jokes are not going over—and then I know—I am the fat girl in the aisle. I bumble and stumble through it, jokes and all.

Later my peers want to meet for a drink. I enter a long deco, arched hall that looks like the entry to the Wizard of Oz’s receiving room. A surreal architectural approach for a glass of wine.

Only later will I learn that it is actually the Embassy Theater, designed by Llewelyn Williams in 1924 and recently renovated for the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings.

For dinner, we meet at the Ortega Fish Shack where I have Panzanella and chocolate sorbet.

My sense of time is further warped by wine. In Maori myth, Maūi and his brothers slow Tamanuiterā, the sun. They twist ropes of flax and wait in the East for the sleeping sun to stir from its bed in the pit. They net the sun and thereby slow time.

Time feels either slow or fast; I am uncertain which. At my age, I sometimes wonder if I had it to do over again, would I? No. But might I slow what remains me? I do not yet know.

At the conference’s open reading, Tim Upperton read this poem:

Spring

is coming. This is a poem about spring

which is too much. Everything is too much.

This is a poem about everything.

I ruin everything I touch.

I ruin the jonquils, the daffodils.

I ruin the I love you.

I ruin the blue remembered hills.

The apple trees vomit blossom. I ruin the morning dew.

Which is to say, I am terrified.

Meanwhile the grassy goodness, the lengthening day.

It’s not as if you died.

You come closer and closer away.

            (from The Night We Ate the Baby, Hanunui Press, 2014)

 

Everything is too much.

 

In the morning I head for the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa to find gifts for my family. There is a stunning view of the bay from the top of the museum, but my vertigo prevents me from walking to the edge. From afar, I admire the ships with gratitude, then head to the gift shop. Mainly Kiwis, lots and lots of Kiwis, Kiwi key chains, Kiwi pillows, carved Kiwis, stuffed animal Kiwis, and I have, of course, never seen a Kiwi except the fruit.

 

On the wall in Te Papa, it says, Titiro whakamuri. Embrace the past. I do not know if I embrace the past, but I certainly have trouble letting go of it—places I have lived, failed loves. Closer and closer away. If I need to learn anything it is to embrace the present. And maybe that is what was this trip is finally about. I am too old to have made this trip, the brutal sixty hours in the air. The exhaustion and consequent confusion. And yet how could I not? I will return and rise and teach and still not have fully recovered who I am. But maybe that is the point—to make a trip and become someone else—if only for a little while. But it is all for a little while. Just a little while after all.


Joan Connor is a professor at Ohio University and a professor in Fairfield University’s low residency MFA program. She is a recipient of the AWP award for her short story collection History Lessons, and of the River Teeth Award for her collection of essays, The World Before Mirrors. Her two earlier collections are We Who Live Apart and Here On Old Route 7. How to Stop Loving Someone won the 2010 Leapfrog Fiction Contest, adult category.

 

 

 

 

 

Essays

Joe Mackall

May 24, 2018

Yesterday’s Noise

On a winter day in the early part of the twentieth century, my great-grandfather Casey walked carefully and quietly through the Pennsylvania woods. An avid hunter his entire life, on this day his quarry was deer. Not long into his hunt he saw something he’d never seen in his life. He froze, raised his rifle, pulled the trigger. The deer bounded briefly away, and then dropped. When my great-grandfather, still a young man on this day, spotted the deer again, he moved toward it until he felt that he could come no closer. He could do nothing but stare. What he observed at that moment was what had only seconds before been a perfect—and perfectly alive—albino doe. He then did what he’d always done; gutted it where it lay, skillfully tearing into its ivory hide with his hunting knife, leaving the entrails where they landed. When he’d finished dressing out his kill, the story goes, he could see nothing save patches of dark red blood on the deer and in the suddenly too white snow. The rest of it—sky and trees, ground and mountains, weapons and woods—fell away. Now all he witnessed was red death where there had been white life. He regretted the kill for the remainder of his days. For me the deer became a familial symbol. I believe on that day in the mountains of western Pennsylvania our genetic code shifted to accommodate the ugly truth that one of us had annihilated beauty.

Perhaps his kill nearly a century ago is the reason I’m becoming a believer in epigenetics, a theory espousing the idea that genes have memories and that the daily lives of our ancestors affect us today in myriad ways. Some psychologists even say we carry ancestral experiences within us, somewhere in our evolutionary subconscious. French psychologist Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger has written of what she calls the “ancestor syndrome.” She believes we often have to acknowledge the suffering of our ancestors because we’ve been affected by it in our genetic memory. Just as our appearance and propensity for certain diseases have been passed down to us from ancestors we’ve never met, perhaps so too can experience, including suffering, for instance, and fear. Continue Reading

Essays

Kelle Groom

May 24, 2018

Live Music

 The white rose is for remembrance, the death of a child. Lilies, chrysanthemums for sorrow. It could be a bouquet, a basket, an altar covered in flowers. But I can’t see it from here. The surprise of the lie blanketing.

I thought it was only live music in churches that I couldn’t stand. Since that day in church with the flowers. The Sunday after my son died, and the flowers were for him. My surprise when the minister said my father’s nephew had died. Instead of his grandson. As if I were not my son’s mother. Reduced to a cousin. Invisible. My uncle’s family had kept it a secret, where Tommy came from. Even now, after he’d died. Even three thousand miles away. The surprise, and then my disappearance. Empty dress in a pew. Everyone rose and sang.

In between there was a moment for the congregation to acknowledge my “cousin’s” (son’s) death. Even if it was just the moment/breath between the minister saying, “these flowers are for him” and “let us sing.” Before we rise. I don’t know if the hymn was for my son, in his memory, or in recognition of his loss.

I don’t even know for sure if I cried as they sang, but I remember having to push everything down. Later, in my gray Corolla, switching the stations on Orlando radio, the Christian music songs—church songs—would come on. I’d turn the dial, find a different song. But all those songs were for my son who we lied about in church. Even there, the disguise. In the car I was undisguised. The music all for him, and I am his mother.

ucross, wy, may 2012

At the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming, tonight there is live bluegrass, folk. I’m not even sure what bluegrass is, a kind of country music, cheerful. The last time I almost heard live music was with my son’s adoptive parents, my aunt and uncle. November 2009, an Irish pub in Falmouth, and they were so happy. My aunt especially pleased there would be Irish songs, and everyone would sing along. I was petrified—knew I couldn’t sing anymore. That place of being able to sing was too far down, too buried. To sing aloud would leave me ridiculously vulnerable. When I’d think of those people rising beside me, singing in church, it was as if they’d all knifed themselves open, throat to belly. Chests open like cupboards, dark crested, each slick heart a little cake on a shelf. All believed they were loved. Even the memory almost unbearable. Their trust made them children. Innocent. Foolish. I would never be a child like that again.

For a while, I’ve been turning to stone. The woman in the Vegas airport bathroom telling me that life is short. Have fun, she said. And I’d been surprised at the idea, that it could still be allowed. That everyone isn’t boarded up. In Falmouth, when I’d visited my son’s parents, I’d been so relieved when the Irish band hadn’t shown up. We left without singing, my aunt disappointed.

I don’t know what would have happened if they started singing around me, my son’s parents. Years of departing my body yet still hauling it around. Maybe my lips moved that Sunday in the Florida church after my son died. I did that sometimes, pretended to sing.

 

Calamity Jane drove freight wagons on the Bozeman Trail, stayed at the Occidental. It’s near the Bozeman at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains.  In 1887, she began writing letters to her four-year-old daughter Janey, who she’d given away to her friend Jim in New York. Calamity had paid him for all the expense of raising her daughter. In 1903, after years of alcoholism and depression, her beauty gone, she

buffalo, sheridan, wy, may 2012

boarded a train for South Dakota. Calamity drinking a lot, going blind, dying. The same age as me. The train conductor “carried her off the train and to a cabin.” After she died, they found a packet of letters, all the letters that she’d written to her daughter and never sent. April 1902: All I have left are these little pictures of you . . .

 

Moyra Davey, the photographer and filmmaker who made Les Goddesses, said she likes live music. Her room down the hall from mine in a house on the Wyoming ranch where I’ve kindly been invited to spend a month. I once rode in a van from Orlando to Tampa to hear Neil Young live. We traveled in driving rain to get there. I ate bran muffins with too much honey, sat high up in the front seat of the van. Sugar made me dizzier and dizzier as we drove toward Tampa. Rain so hard, in sheets, my boyfriend had to just stop the van on a street in St. Petersburg. Out my streaming passenger window, a fancy hotel glistened. Gold glow, quiet. Like an underwater castle. The hotel off-season and affordable. Claw tub, nineteenth-century wallpaper—tiny flowers, that old rose pink. My boyfriend like a servant who would do anything.

The next day in the sun, I saw a statue of Jesus with a missing arm and went in a quiet church with no people. Was it the first time that I’d been in a church since that Sunday in disguise against my will? If I had a will? So unvoiced, just the way I was. Still a surprise to be that invisible. In St. Petersburg, I didn’t hold my breath. I was alone, I could breathe. Look around. Sat there and breathed a chant of plain music with the air. Dearly beloved, it was white, and no other person entered. All that quiet sewing stitched across the gap.

In Les Goddesses, Moyra Davey narrates a story about Mary Wollstonecraft: “Five months after her first suicide attempt, on confirmation that Imlay (Gilbert Imlay, her daughter’s father) had a lover, Mary jumped from a bridge in rain-soaked clothing, to hasten her descent. She was saved by a boatman and briefly consoled by Imlay. But MW was lucky to find a friend in the person of William Godwin, a sage man who, according to MW biographer Lyndall Gordon, counseled: ‘A disappointed woman should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach.’”

A disappointed woman should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach. I had been in Rome, NY, not Italy. A town where all the work had left. Darkness came early on all the big old houses, built when things were brighter. I wasn’t betrayed by M. with another woman. I don’t even know you’re here. I can’t even see you, he said as I walked to his right in the dim house.

After I’d left him, I felt the desire for him lift, like the desire for a drink. Can’t you see he’s like the bottle? Terri asked. The bottle—a time pre-dating mine, 1950s. Like someone not an alcoholic describing addiction. But I could see him tall like a bottle, my extremes of happiness and despair.

Before the desire lifted, I kept wanting to walk to his house. Even though it was over a thousand miles, twenty-four hours door to door in a car. As if my soul kept making a break for him. Found itself caught inside my body. But then the desire was gone. All that was left was disappointment. During those long-distance, phone years, after I’d left him and come back to Orlando, I sat in one spot and didn’t want to move. Freezing in place. Like those women who turn to stone or salt, I turned into a person who sat and read and didn’t want to move. Once it got a little dark, I’d walk around the lake, but I didn’t want anyone to see me. The dark helped me hide.

I really hadn’t wanted anyone to know I was back in Orlando. When I’d left for New York, for marriage with M, I’d walked around the lake for what I thought was one last time. And I sang. Out loud. By myself. I thought, who cares, I’ll never be here again. I think I sang “Any Major Dude,” Steely Dan, or maybe something else happy, something goodbye to this place of sadness and invisibility, the closed houses. Goodbye to hearing that a friend who lived on the lake said he felt sorry for me walking alone all the time.

A disappointed woman should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach.  Okay, okay.

 

Guillermo Kuitca’s theater painting, Plano del Teatro Colón could be a spine, with all the white bones. One October in Florida, when I nervously asked Guillermo a question, he stood. Held his hand to my shoulder as if to both balance and comfort. His theaters are seen from the stage.  When I worked for the opera, sometimes I’d stand on the stage before a performance, look out at the empty seats, waiting. Dizzy, as if I might fly. Or transform.

After the lights dimmed, Janean and I would leave the high seats to get on the floor, somehow her darkness made me invisible. I didn’t like the first opera I’d seen years earlier with Frank and Nikki. But after I was hired, they did Faust again.

Backstage the little boy who played the part of the dead baby recognized me. He left the curtain. Came toward me before he came back from the

ucross, WY, May 2012

dead. After the performance one night, an old man thought I was Marguerite. He complimented my singing when I hadn’t sung. Marguerite corn silk beautiful, unhinged, everything lost. Then she sang as if climbing the ladder of my body, rungs flooded. Heaven is in the balcony. Night after night, I watch her son come down in white. The sheet to show he’s a ghost, but really it’s that he shines. As if her song—not sheets of rain, but rolling waves, white caps that rise until there’s nothing else—calls him back to her.

That first time I’d seen Faust, I’d gone with Frank and Nikki. At his house on Hillcrest, Frank had shown me the room at the top of stairs, and I’d wondered how did he get the body down? His partner, Patrick, had died up there. Then Nikki died from AIDS too. Her sisters came to Orlando, made a circle around me in the health food store where I worked. I was always surprised that her beauty went so unremarked upon, really unseen or mis-seen, a coworker casting some unkind remark as Nikki went out the door, and I’d thought can you really not see her? Her red hair cut short and spiky like a crown, small-featured as a little girl. Tiny. A high voice. Stomach swollen.

Kuitca’s theater painting could be the image the dead leave on cloth burning their way out, cloudy phosphorescence of fish in dark water. Or it could be a place to land with space for everyone numbered in a red sea. Nikki left us in the balcony, saying, I can’t be this far away from the music. Short like Janean, her red hair a small fire moving down the aisle toward the stage.

So sick by then she looked pregnant. And though I’d only listened to Frank talk about Nikki coming over Sundays to watch the opera at the Met on his TV. Heard how she’d fall backwards on his couch from the music. Had only rung up her groceries and gone with her that one night to the theater. After she’d spent all day sewing her black dress. Her hair glued in little arrows like a broken crown, and we got caught in a storm, shoes rainy. After she died, when her sisters came into the store looking for food, I said to them, I knew her. They circled me then, and the sisters said Nikki had been swimming. She’d gotten tired and had to lie down. In Boston, I told Frank, who had left Florida, that Nikki had died. His cats slept under the blankets with me on the floor. Each named when his lover was still alive, Patrick asleep at the top of the stairs the night we all went to the theater.

 

In the Santa Cruz mountains, a hummingbird will fly over my head in the near dark. L sends me an essay: Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today . . . a brilliant music stilled.

 

Note: “Consider for a moment those hummingbirds . . .” from Brian Doyle’s essay, “Joyas Voladoras,” The American Scholar.


Kelle Groom is a poet and memoirist. Her memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl(Simon & Schuster), is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, a Library Journal Best Memoir, Oprah O Magazine selection, and Oxford American Editor’s Pick. She is the author of four poetry collections, including the just published Spill (Anhinga Press). Her work has appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, and Poetry. An NEA Fellow in Prose, Groom is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe and Director of the Summer Workshops & Collaborative Residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She has recently completed her second nonfiction manuscript,Black Maps: Essays on Home.

 

Essays

Zoe Raines

April 25, 2018

The Desk

I moved into my first apartment in Chicago, and became a real writer. Being a writer had certain conditions that absolutely had to be met. I needed a place—secured. I needed a desk and a chair. The desk I wanted flat and long, like a workbench. I know what I’m looking for before I see it, and I know that it’s right when I find it.

This desk was in Logan Square for twenty dollars. I needed a ride and asked Ricky, a comedian that I had been seeing, but not dating. I was seeing several guys at the time. Ricky drove me to the stranger’s apartment across from Palmer Park. The man couldn’t have been older than mid thirties. Attractive, wearing a green t-shirt. I always save the numbers of people I buy things from on Craigslist and I don’t know why. His name was Rob—Rob (desk) in my contacts.

I also have the number of a guy I bought liquor from once back when I lived in Ann Arbor, another member of metal frat, the anti-frat fraternity where I sometimes went to house shows—Joe Laser (koo), someone named Emily—Emily (goldfish mom), and someone simply named—plant.

Rob and Ricky carried the desk down three flights of stairs while I followed behind uselessly. They put the desk in the trunk of Ricky’s car. While Ricky and I sat in the front seat, the desk in the back, I took a photo of Ricky while he wasn’t looking. He was wearing a green quilt-print shirt, his hair was still buzzed to a three, and his hand looks long and spidery. I posted the picture on my Instagram with the caption my favorite cutie even though I had told him we were nothing to each other and would insist so for weeks after.

He carried the desk up to my apartment in the cold back stairway all by himself, on his back.

Continue Reading

Essays

Ayla Maisey

April 25, 2018

Paint Songs

There I am: a child, a century after the final painting in Monet’s bridge series is finished, coloring butterfly masks with my mom and my brother on the cement front porch of my childhood home. My mother had printed and cut out stencils for us to scribble on in the June mountain afternoon, and we were huddled between plastic totes of crayons and faded markers. I don’t remember what mine or my brother’s mask looked like, only that my mother’s was clean and purple and well-blended, and that I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

I never used a lot of paint when I was little. Don’t misunderstand me: I painted all the time. But some pressing minimalism or frugality—really, when I think about it: a fear of using too much— kept my art sparing and seemingly sun-faded. My strokes were light, my colors always cool. I came to prefer watercolors because of how unobtrusive they were. The pastels and gradients soothed me. I understood that I could layer what I was trying to tell someone, but I couldn’t fix spilled paint. I was coloring lightly while my brother and friends broke crayons and pencil nibs to cover fridge doors with fearless saturation. I was holding my breath. I only realized this much later. You have to remember—the impressionists tell you to look at things from a distance.

Continue Reading