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Essays

Nancy McCabe

September 26, 2016

mccabe-imageBreathing on Your Own: Tips for Breaking That Nasal Spray Addiction

Maybe it starts with a cold, allergies, hay fever—at any rate, you’re stuffy and congested, and maybe all night you sniffle and snort and toss and turn and bounce off the bed to pace, hoping that gravity will clear your sinuses. Let’s say that you’re twenty years old, newly married, though probably it’s just a coincidence that your inability to breathe kicked in right after the wedding.

Maybe your new husband, the son of a pharmacist, compares your nighttime breathing patterns to the rumble of a Mack truck (affectionately, of course). And maybe he offers you a topical nasal decongestant and says, “Try this.” Maybe you’re dubious, but he assures you that he has it on his dad’s good authority that you should ignore the warnings on the container, the ones that caution you not to use it for more than three days.

So now, you’re twenty years old and you’re hooked. Say that not too long ago you were a girl who went to church every Sunday and never swore, a girl whose biggest rebellion was memorizing the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack after your youth minister warned you away from it. And now the beginning of your marriage has handed you disillusionment after disillusionment. It was little things, like the Jesus shower room at Rosalea’s Hotel, the tulip red building in Harper, Kansas, where you spent your honeymoon. You stood there among paintings of bearded, wounded Jesuses mounted all over the walls, warping from the steam and seemingly mocking your entire foundation. Back at home, you fixed your husband a glass of grape Koolaid, and he poured it down the drain and got himself a beer. 

Not long after, you find yourself with him at a strip club, a dark and smoky place that has no name, just a flashing sign that says, “Adult Entertainment.” Miserably, you sit, not quite sure where to look, while bored women sway to music and peel off sparkly costumes. Every garment is like a piece of your innocence, stripped away, hitting the dirty mirror that backs the stage and slumping to the floor.

And now you’re an addict. You don’t even drink and you’ve never smoked. You’ve always been an advocate of natural highs, the kind you get from stroking a purring cat or watching snow fall or listening to music or reading a great poem, but now here you are, dependent on a little plastic bottle, unable to breathe without it. You always thought that addiction required a high, but now you know that sometimes all it takes is the blessed absence of pain or struggle. And it’s such a relief to sleep deeply through the night. It’s such a relief not to toss and turn or start awake, face to face with your regrets.

With proper rest, you feel less despair about this whole mess you’ve gotten yourself into, this short-term cure, this escape that might be a bigger trap after all—the marriage, not the nasal spray.  Maybe you entered this marriage with deliberate recklessness, sad and lost and scared of your bleak, blank future when the boy you’d grown up with and loved for six years broke up with you abruptly and disappeared, moving away. Maybe you’d foolishly believed that marriage would provide a refuge from your anxiety, that somehow it would allow you to breathe again.  But no.  Here you are, and every time you inhale a squirt of medicine and feel a rush of fresh air through your open passages, you know that you’re just delaying the inevitable, that time is closing in on you. At first, you just need it once a day, but soon it’s twice, three times. You push down panic but still it’s like you’re inhaling and exhaling to the same refrain: what will you do?  What will you do?  What are you going to do?

What follows are some guidelines for breaking that addiction gradually but effectively.

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Essays

Taylor St. Ogne

September 26, 2016

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Drowning Inside the Self

My Norwegian grandmother tells me that I have “Viking blood” within me. She says it makes me stubborn and it makes me strong. When she tells me this I fidget uncomfortably in the wooden chair I am sitting on in her dining room because I do not know how to tell her that I rarely feel strong so I sit back and nod my head and tuck a falling strand of hair behind my ear.

For as long as I can remember my grandmother has always had one health issue or another. Her stroke risk. Her high blood pressure. Her poor kidneys. Her balance. Her memory. Within the past year, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Viking blood was definitely pumping through her veins at a very high velocity when she locked her pale blue eyes onto mine and said that she would “rather die than eat a low salt diet.”

God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she twisted her head back to watch Sodom as it burned to the ground.

If you eat too much salt, your body begins to retain water. This is why cardiac patients oftentimes have swollen ankles.

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Essays

Barbara Churchill

August 19, 2016

Churchill imageA Thousand Words

Sitting on a trunk under the basement stairs, I slit through duct tape with my Swiss Army knife, boxes of albums sealed since I mailed them to myself ten years ago when I cleared out my mother’s apartment. She saved our memories. I worked years to erase them and could have just chucked them out with all the other garbage she’d accumulated. But still. The only thing I couldn’t throw away: her chronology of our past, yellowed pictures, pages falling out. Now, the unwilling keeper of memories, I’ve promised my sister’s husband to find pictures of her as a child, a young girl. At fifty-seven, she’s dying. We sit beside her bed in the nursing home and he thinks of the pieces of her past he never knew. I think of the present. How many more days will she suffer? Why am I drawn to fly between D.C. and Colorado every week for almost four months now to witness as she moves out of her life?  She’s all I can think about. Back home for a few days, I open boxes to fill a promise I made to Gary.

I slip pictures out, imagine my mother carefully dating them before she licks the black picture holder corners and slots photos in.  Did she cry at the pictures of Janis, a moment preserved of her child who was so sick?  I slip pictures out, leave black gaps.  Gary asked, what did she look like fifty years ago, as a teenager, before the diabetes took over completely?  His birthday is soon though Janis won’t be there and I’m the only one who can give him an answer, complete his memories.  She was pretty.  She was beautiful.  Back in the nursing home, I sit on Janis’s bed, turn pages in the tiny album of pilfered pictures for Gary, tell her again it’s for his birthday.  She stares past the pictures, gazing through the muck of dementia.  She’s lost her past, soon, her present. Continue Reading

Essays

Emery Ross

August 19, 2016

Bloodletting

 

Ross_author_photo croppedHypergraphia: The opposite of writer’s block. An overwhelming compulsion or urge to write. Hypergraphics will keep rambling journals, jot thoughts on scraps of paper, draft long letters, compile dictionaries, and often write on any available surface. Some alleged famous hypergraphics: Sylvia Plath, Steven King, Joyce Carol Oates, Dostoevsky.

Have mercy so that I may find words.
— St. Augustine

Monday

I’m reading through old poems, diaries, and journals.

The oak box my mother called my Hope Chest is full of papers. Yellow legal pads held together by staples and scotch tape, edges curled up, pages full of bleeding teenage angst and broken heartedness, typewritten poems meant to convey the unbearable pain of being me, fragments and letters and stories.

I don’t know why I’ve kept them all. Reading them results in an over-heated mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia. I would’ve said that diary keeping disappeared in my years between 18 and 30, but I just found some journals from my late teens and early twenties. They are particularly difficult to read. Remnants of a tumultuous relationship that resulted in a nine-month-long marriage and broken doors and dishes. Months and months of starving myself; pages upon pages of proud meditations on my shrinking body.

My journals became disjointed and unpredictable between 30 and 34. This year, I opened up the soft black cover of my Moleskine notebook and re-read the lovely inscription written by a woman I greatly admire. Here’s to looking back to move forward, she wrote.

I took that to heart. I began writing.

It’s not quite full yet, and it’s front-loaded with negotiations about suicide. Ramblings and affirmations that would embarrass me if it weren’t for the fact that they were intended to help me find reasons to not die. You can trace my path from madness to wellness through the pages, though not without the occasional backward slide. My writing is not contained only in between the covers of my journal, but it all exists in places I can find it, religiously categorized and transferred to appropriate electronic homes if needed. I write, constantly, feverishly sometimes.

Two pieces dominate my time right now: one on time and liminality, and one on beauty and pain.

I just want understanding. That’s why I write, I tell myself. Truthfully, I just can’t stop.

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Essays

F. Daniel Rzicznek

August 19, 2016

from Leafmold

rzicznek author photo cropped finalThe yard and driveway maintained through all seasons. Leak above drop in ceiling causing obvious damage. The saints of fire dance sideways through the scene. Toilet in front bath leaks into basement. The subject of every love song is actually the self. Basement recently cleaned but foundation leaks beneath the stairs and at west and east walls. Hole in buckling wall along stairway. A lit, wooden face on the horizon. Smile of fieldstones. Kitchen fan cover removed and never replaced. Planted flowers, back and front yards. In the culture of getting, all is negated by crows and ravens, who get and get and get. Recently extinguished weed patch out front where pine perished in May. There is something about the future, its lack of certain flaws to be replaced invisibly by a lack of others. Peeling paint. More peeling paint. Gutter leaks above mailbox. What needs to be done versus what was given. Time to dream the long dreamless night of the soon-to-be-dead.

 

A shot of vodka, a squeeze of lemon, a drop of agave—stir it with a sharp knife. It is impossible for God to speak to “no one in particular” just as it is impossible for the sun not to bleed through the chained gates at the end of the wooded lane, the family hunting ground now sold and denied. Someone on our street leaves for the night, leaves a door unlatched to bang and shudder. This is the sound of light hitting a planet, the sound of stones in the ocean, or blood mingling with sand. It’s all surface until something in the middle of the deepest swirl starts to pull—the glassy edge outside the rush is just as furious underneath though there is no stone to show it, no footnote to the wet thrashing you’ll earn yourself unless you turn back. This happened yesterday. I wrote about it then. I suppose I’ll write about it again when the time comes: the genuine always ends up as a crutch, the meaning found is the meaning sought; if it’s not, then why return to anywhere at all? Why call out? Why return a call? The river calls out. I could say it is calling now, but would you hear it? Would you call back? Who am I to say: you wouldn’t.

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Essays

Sandy Feinstein 

July 8, 2016

cortland_bridge (1)Walking it Off

Walking in Manhattan and DC is a point-to-point experience. You walk to the train, subway in one, metro in the other, then from the station to work, to a sale, to a concert, in short to get somewhere. I can’t recall ever thinking about my health, not about the carbon monoxide or how many pounds I must be shedding. I wish I could say I always hated driving, sitting in traffic dead stopped on the Cross Bronx Expressway or at a green light in the theater district while masses of pedestrians block all vehicular turns, or the crazy weaving drivers. I suspect, though, were my parents alive, they might find some stray example from my adolescence to contradict me. I can hear my sister, now living in Japan, say, “But I thought you loved driving at night listening to baseball on AM stations?” My brother probably would not throw in my face the job he got me as a taxi driver, the first woman driver in the now defunct New Mall taxi company where he worked. It was certainly better money than most summer jobs I’d had: plucking the pin feathers of chickens and rolling pigs in blankets at a kosher catering service; mother’s helper for three kids in upstate New York, jobs that would be touchstones of the traditional spheres of grown-up womanhood that I would forever reject: cooking, housekeeping, and raising a child.

I’ve always liked city walking, partly because it’s not productive—to keep from being trampled, you have to be constantly aware, not think much about anything else, or even get lost in a daydream. I’m still shocked when I see pedestrians in New York on cell phones or hooked into music. Could they really be from THE CITY? Were I not involved in the practice of quickly moving around people without touching so much as a flaring sleeve, I’d probably try to guess from where. That blond? Iowa. The super tall guy? Illinois. Accents make it easy. Not to mention all the different languages. Tourist? Diplomat? First Generation? Light change. Keep moving.

DC is more complicated as a walking city. The patterns are different. The streets are wider. The lights countdown how many seconds left to cross legally. Cars make right turns on red. Really?!

Mind you, DC is supposed to be one of the most walking friendly cities in America. How that can be with cars creeping into the cross walk, drivers thinking there’s only one direction to consider—the one from where other drivers are coming into their intended merge lane—and the illuminated second timer for crossing the widest streets being half those of the smallest ones.

What probably makes DC a walker’s paradise are the areas specifically set aside for recreational walking, not the sidewalks of the city itself. It’s a place where people go to walk: the C&O Canal nudging Georgetown, Rock Creek’s up and downs with views of the Zoo entrance and the Kennedy Center, Sligo Creek Trail sliding downhill from Montgomery County to Prince George’s and down the Anacostia to DC. Manhattan has closed off streets to cars—even in Midtown, thank you Mayor Bloomberg—but walking is no stroll in the Park, unless perhaps you have a key to Gramercy.

Not even Central Park is really for those looking to stretch their legs mindlessly. The slow will be trampled on the West Side trail from the Battery and over the GW bridge (I know: I’ve had to dodge bikes and runners with time enough to sneer, even when I jogged, never mind the reaction when I walked, even at my New Yorker’s pace). Everyone knows Central Park’s closed roads have not slowed the pace—not even the famous can keep up, being mowed down is an equal opportunity experience for those with a slower-than-native pace (maybe David Byrne wasn’t fast enough?).

I should, therefore, appreciate the slower pace of DC, and I do, but I still haven’t been able to shake a disinclination to walk just for the heck of it. And when I do find myself walking on one of the trails, usually because I’m too tired to jog round trip, I start imagining things.

Until I moved to the DC area, I appreciated, from afar, those who went for a walk. I knew someone who made the same three mile circuit twice a day every day in one of the college towns where I taught. She picked up trash and stray change. I admired her. Ditto my spouse’s parents who walked with plastic bags in their really, really small Pennsylvania town. Unlike their son and me, they didn’t rant about what slobs people are. They just cleaned up after them. When I’m jogging, I have a special appreciation for such people, and I give them a nod or pant of thanks as I pass.

But something happens when I make the turn, as yesterday, and my not-so-fast jogging pace slows further, to a not-very-fast walk. I have walked New York’s High Line in August faster than I seem able to walk post-run in DC, even when I’m surprised the super-humid air and high temperature doesn’t seem nearly as hot as the forecasters make it sound.

Aware that my legs feel stiff and that the sunblock is dripping into my eyes, I am more conscious than I might be. All my senses are on alert. I welcome the plaintive pewee’s call, growl at the non-stop endless churning of pipes in the creek, and eye each passerby. Usually, the ones in front of me are my goal when I’m walking: pass the strollers, the dog walkers, the mooning couples, those determinedly following doctor’s orders—no competition for a walker trained in NYC to look straight ahead and keep moving.

Lately, this last week of August, I have been passing fewer people. But the grounds for concern are what has replaced that mindless game of person passing.

I noticed this yesterday. An old man—oh, probably my age, in his sixties—with shampoo shiny thin gray hair was walking toward me with a plastic bag. Most people with plastic bags are dog walkers. But he had no dog.

I found myself looking back more than usual since typically I don’t look back at all. I had a sense of his creeping up behind me with that plastic bag and putting it over my face. I hadn’t stopped to consider that most plastic grocery bags, at least the ones I try to use for garbage, have little holes in them, making suffocation unlikely. I didn’t think about the cost-benefit either: Montgomery County and DC now charge people who want to use one of those plastic bags, for whatever purpose. I just thought, huh, he could be my father-in-law, were my father-in-law alive and thirty years younger—not out to kill me, but to pick up trash.

Having stifled that image, another took its place: of a dog walker flinging his plastic bag filled with doggy do and catching me square in my sweaty face.

Like dreams that won’t be redirected, I wonder about the limits of control. Out on the trail, not what I’ll do, but what others could do. After all, I remind myself, the news is full of DC’s rising crime rate and the homegrown terrorist under every bush. Not to mention all the angry people sweating in August while Congress takes a break.

Sometimes these paranoid scenarios make me smile. As they dissolve with each step toward my final destination, and the distance between me and would be assailants widens, I am reminded of my father-in-law. I think of what he might say. He was a shrink, and he died maintaining his admiration of Freud. Me, I didn’t think much of the theories; but I thought this particularly expounder of them was terrific. In his honor, I think I may be having a field day of neuroses. Whether he would have agreed, I’ll never know.

 


Sandy Feinstein has ridden the El, walked along the Lake, and wandered Hyde Park, though it has been many years. In the meantime, she has published poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, the latter, most recently, forthcoming from Isle.

 

Essays

Rebecca Bustamante

July 1, 2016

The Average Family

Bustamante_image_1 webPhotography is a way for me to interact with all of the things that happen in my life that are just plain average and will one day be forgotten. No one overly cares about this average life I live, ten thousand other people are living a similar one. What do I have to say that two million people haven’t already hash-tagged on Instagram? A bike, a couch, some kid, so what?

But I think there’s more. The subtle small nuances that our “thousand images a day” exposed minds don’t catch. I like those things. It’s old news, but maybe it’ll be new if you stop missing it. I write and photograph because I don’t want to miss the small. I don’t want to forget the way his thumb looked when he was four, or the shade of blue from her favorite sweater. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that these things are all piled up and dumped into giant holes labeled “the average day when I was five” or “the color blue.”

It just can’t be true. So I take the images and write down the stories that are going to get lumped all together one day; in honor of the forgotten importance, the vast similarities that somehow make us all slightly different. I aim to capture all things lost, all things average, the boring things that make people them.


Rebecca Bustamante has her BA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago where she developed her documentary eye for the visual narrative and strengthened her voice for the written narrative. Fascinated in memory preservation, distortion, and loss, story telling had become the perfect avenue to explore these ideas; photography and writing are her main tools. She’s a mom of two tiny humans and wife to a fancy head of hair.