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A Cup of Tea


Michael Dean Clark

March 10, 2020

Precautionary Tales

One of the strangest side-effects of fatherhood is this: I often find myself in an awkward space where memories of my own childhood injuries mingle uncomfortably with those of my children. Through the prism of memory, mine are anecdotes crafted around the humor of surviving the slings and arrows of games we can no longer play on the playground and the dangers we invented when the adults weren’t looking. Did we really cheat death as a pastime before there were video cameras and social media to document it? It sure felt like it at times.

Conversely, each time I experience the blood and bruises of my children, all I find is a mingled sense of culpability and secondhand pain that feels first and foremost like fault. As a child, I was only responsible for—though rarely with—my own choices. As an adult, my task is to help my kids discover the dual reality that they must be safe but also weather the pain life will inevitably bring or they will end up hiding from what makes that life worth living. Written out, this is such a weirdly impossible task, the finding of some balance between laughing at our pain while validating the tears it creates. And yet, it’s an expectation, one complicated by the fact that childhood injuries hurt everyone involved, not least parents.

I do wonder, though, if there is something to be learned from the laissez-faire child rearing of the 70s and 80s beyond the nostalgia-drenched memes of how much better being a kid felt in those days. Maybe there’s a way of figuring out how today’s model of childhood became so restrictive. Maybe we can see the origins of our self-fulfilling prophetic thinking that made us to create a world where our kids can’t leave the house without a GPS-enabled phone for fear of their being snatched while riding their bikes around the neighborhood.

Or, maybe we’ll discover that regardless of the era, hurt will happen no matter how padded we make the playgrounds and some of us are just more fortunate than others with the fallout when they do. Maybe parenting kids is just another frame of reference through which we experience injury. Maybe we need to learn how to better negotiate those injuries if we’re going to help our children do the same.


In the late 70s, my family lived in a double-wide, not-so-mobile home that played the part of a Jiffy Pop in the Southern California heat and was the site of my most singularly ridiculous, self-inflicted injury. Really, it’s quite insignificant, the stuff of limited spatial recognition and fuel for light-hearted family mockery in the years since; a big moment for a four-year-old that became a dinnertime story to remind me of my humanity when I’d get to feeling too good about myself.

Dad pastored a tiny desert church in a tiny desert town called Borrego Springs for those playing at home. Mom worked as a teacher’s aide and drove the school bus to bolster Dad’s salary. We didn’t have much in the way of the material, not even air conditioning, just a swamp cooler exhaling moist air into the narrow hallway running the spine of the trailer. On the hottest nights, my brother, sister, and I would lay like cord wood on the floor directly under the vent, only slightly cooler for having done so. We’d also sleep like this in the back of our enormous brown Ford Gran Torino station wagon on long nighttime car trips. Seat belts were for suckers.

What we did have was a surplus of disposable time and 70’s levels of parental supervision. A caveat: my parents weren’t at all neglectful. They were busy scraping together a living in a town that left us, really, nowhere to go. So, we roamed—a blonde-headed group of kids often assumed to be older than we were—and found ways to amuse ourselves.

By three, I was swimming in the deep end of the pool in our trailer park on my own because learning the heat stroke was my least favorite swimming lesson. Dirt clod fights were common, lasting until someone *accidentally* threw a dust-wrapped rock and *accidentally* hit another kid in the face. Some older kids made a fort out of a small pit just outside the fence line of the park by putting a sheet of plywood over the top of it. This was cool until one guy slid inside and found a snake curled up in the fort, avoiding the same sun he’d hoped to get out from under.

Speaking of snakes, a sidewinder once slithered onto the path I walked from the bus stop to the park’s back gate and chased me all the way there. At least, it felt like that to my kindergarten brain. I’m not sure I’ve ever Usain Bolted faster and I still hate snakes.

Speaking of running, a friend of ours would walk barefoot across the asphalt paths of the trailer park in the dead of summer. Actually, stroll is a better term for what she did, unaffected like her soles were asbestos-coated or layered in callouses so thick they rendered her nerve endings useless. I tried to imitate her once, only to end up sprinting from the shadow of one bush to the next, leaving pieces of skin stuck to the path until I fell into the pool and cried.

Speaking of pain and tears and indigenous desert plant life, that brings me back to my injury. If every rose had its thorn for Brett Michaels, I guess my radio ballad would focus on a metaphorical cactus and its quills. But there’s little love anywhere in this song. And, to quote White Goodman, it’s a metaphor, but it actually happened.


“The boy. He fell down.”

I turned to look at Bronwyn, the four-year-old niece of a former high school basketball player I’d coached, and stood up immediately. Her face was slack with terror and the boy she was talking about was Holden. When I looked up across the section of bleachers where they’d been playing tag, I couldn’t find him.

“Where did he fall?”

She pointed to the top corner of the stands and I was running before her arm dropped. The game—alumni players against the current team—went on behind me and the squeal of shoes against the court seemed incredibly loud. At the top row, I turned right and made my way along the cinder block wall, roughly 21 feet air.

I expected to see my son, a small-for-his-age kid given to bursts of uncoordinated daring, lying in the space between the rows. Instead, I found a hole in the bleachers just big enough for a three-and-a-half-year-old to drop through, but only if he didn’t see it coming. Because I didn’t see it coming.

I crouched down and peered into the dark space below, calling his name. I couldn’t see or hear him. He’d been swallowed whole.


They really don’t tell cautionary tales these days like they did when I was a kid. Viral hoaxes like eating detergent pods and threats of a school shooting become equally fictional product recalls and even faker congressional committee hearings. In my day, just one kid had to get brain damage from huffing rubber cement fumes or suffocate in a refrigerator while playing hide-and-go-seek and it became an after-school TV movie played at school as a “special presentation,” a “very special” episode of Emergency, and a pithily-sloganed anti-drug campaign triggering systematic mass incarceration disproportionately targeting people of color. Say what you want, but the helicopter parenting of the 70s and 80s was swift, decisive, and most likely done by the Man, man.

Conspicuously absent from those warnings, however, was one regarding the dangers of that unassuming desert porcupine, the dome-shaped cactus. Specifically, the fishhook barrel cactus—ferocactus wislizeni to serious cactus lovers—primarily found in Mexico and from Texas to Arizona. Luckily for me, at least one found the Anza Borrego desert soil outside our trailer hospitable enough to call it home.

Its name is not ironic. Layered in thick spines with a barb-like hook at the end of each, these little bastards are usually left alone by animals looking for the water cacti store inside themselves…animals with more sense than smaller me, it would seem. We had a young, dome-shaped version in our small cactus garden. Yeah, we had a garden of hostile plants. You didn’t? We also had a pet rock on the kitchen counter and a giant wooden fork and spoon hanging from the dining room wall because these things were required in the 70s, along with radar dish-shaped wicker chairs and macramé houseplant hangers. In that spirit, did you really live in the desert if you had no domesticated cacti? Our garden was surrounded by railroad ties that likely would require a warning sign for passers-by in today’s liability climate. Probably should have put one up for me too, not that I’d have paid it much attention.

For most of the time we lived in Borrego, I maintained a generally ambivalent relationship with the various cacti there. Sure, sometimes I grabbed a flat, ear-shaped piece of prickly pear (opuntia) or a spiny grenade-round bulb of jumping cholla (cylindropuntia bigelovii) and threw it at a friend. Jokes that stung were the best kind. But those moments were rare and usually ended in a spanking, so I generally chose to abide by a live and let live philosophy with all quilled plants. I wish that fishhook barrel had paid me the same courtesy.


The access panel for the bleachers wasn’t where I remembered. I coached some of the first games played in the that building, years earlier, and was sure I knew where to find it until I got to the bottom of the stands and didn’t. Add that to the list of my failures that night. The gym was almost silent by that point, the game halted, and everyone in the building forming human brackets around the middle of the stands.

“Where’s the panel?!” I shouted to no one in particular and found the answer myself in a gap in the seats 20 feet from me. I had just reached it when my best friend Will, who’d been coaching the current squad in the game, lifted Holden through the open panel and set him prone onto the closest surface. He was dazed and dissolved into tears immediately when I knelt down next to him.

“He’s ok,” Will said. “I think he’s ok.”

I looked Holden over, trying and failing to find any marks or cuts. His pupils looked ok, but I’m not that kind of doctor. His irises were dark enough that their usual difference in color—they are hazel with one greening toward sage and the other a browner shortbread—was washed out. I ruffled his brown hair to see if there were any hidden marks or softness and moved his arms and legs gently. In general, he looked ok, but he was still crying. Hard.

“What hurts?” I asked.

“My back. I hit it. And now everyone’s looking.”

I glanced up to find what felt like every eye in the building trained on us. I also saw the EMT’s pushing through the gym doors. Holden saw them too and cried harder.


The punchline: I sat on a cactus shaped, oddly, like the bowl-cut hairstyle my parents were fond of getting ours cut into. I wish there was a cooler set up. Like I was trying to ride our neighbors moped and fell into it. But falling off Dottie’s motorized bike wouldn’t happen until I was six. Maybe I’d feel better if I’d been launched onto it one of the times my eight-years-older brother made it seem like he was going to shove me into something. But Paul was gentler with me than I had any right to expect, especially given that we shared a tiny room and he was often the one who put me back into my top bunk when I’d fall out at night.

Naw. I just wasn’t paying attention. It was hot. I’d been aggressively throwing rocks out into the open desert just beyond our trailer park—excuse me, mobile estates—and was tired. As I remember the moments before touchdown, I was vacillating between getting a drink from the hose and collapsing in the mid-morning sun so I could yell for Mom to bring me one. It must have been a Saturday or late afternoon if she was there to get yelled for.

Collapse won out and I went to sit on one of the railroad ties around the garden, misjudging the distance between me, my intended seat, and my would-be assailant. I often did this as growth spurts and their accompanying spells of clumsiness were common throughout my childhood. Simpler version, I overshot and sat directly on top of that fishhook barrel cactus with all of my four-year-old weight.

The pain was searing and immediate and caused my second mistake, well, third if you count being born, which created the possibility of sitting on a cactus in the first place. In the moment, it felt like my ass was on fire and I stood straight up, tearing several of the hooked quills out of the cactus but not my skin when I did because combining two sharp edges pointing in the opposite directions is a very effective design for keeping fishhooks and cactus spines anchored in the flesh they pierce.


Heather picked up on the third ring. She was having coffee with a friend less than a mile from the gym. She was also six months pregnant.

“Holden had an accident. But the good news is he’s conscious.”

“He’s conscious? What happened? Wait, were those sirens I just heard for him?”

Fear crackled in her words. I gave her a quick summary while I held Holden’s hand and the EMTs looked him over. They were more concerned than they might normally have been because a young girl had fallen to her death from a luxury box at a Lakers game earlier that week. I tried to reassure Heather but mostly made things worse.

“I’m on my way.”

By the time she arrived, the paramedics had come to the same conclusion I had. Holden looked ok, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have sustained falling from a height equal to more than seven of him. They’d just finished strapping him to a back board and were discussing which hospital would be best for getting x-rays and a second opinion.

“I’m sorry. I should have watched him.”

I looked down and found my daughter next to me. It was the first I’d thought of her since the fall. She was crying, quietly, and I hugged her.

“Oh honey, this isn’t your fault.”

“I’m supposed to help.”

I hugged her again, but I felt the same futile sense of responsibility for his fall. And I’m sure she could tell I did. Not even eight years old yet, and I’d taught her to carry guilt that wasn’t really hers to pick up in the first place.

A few minutes later, an EMT pulled Heather and I aside to ask which one of us would ride with Holden in the helicopter to the hospital.

“A helicopter? Really? Why not an ambulance down the street to Whittier Presbyterian?”

“We need a pediatric trauma center. There are three: L.A. Children’s, Orange County Children’s, and King/Drew. It’ll take a couple hours to get to any of them tonight.”

He was right about the traffic. It was the night before Thanksgiving, which made every freeway a clogged artery. There wasn’t really a discussion. Heather followed his stretcher to an ambulance in front of the building and, for a mere $1,200, they were driven 300 yards to the football field where a life flight landed, scooped them up, and lifted off.

“Where are they being taken?” I asked the same EMT.


I thanked him, made a couple of brief calls to family members who were expecting us to arrive later that night, and then loaded my daughter in the van to head for a hospital known un-ironically as “Killer King,” a knot of dread in my throat.


On the list of best moments in my life, lying face down and pincushion up in warm bath water so my mother could pluck cactus quills from my body is conspicuously absent. The hurt and embarrassment merged in the way she kept shaking her head with a mixture of disapproval and lack of surprise at my finding a new and creative way to hurt myself. Every time she plucked out a quill, a shiver of pain ran up my spine and down the backs of my legs, drawing another head shake from her. At dinner that night, it hurt to sit, so I stood at the edge of the table while one of my siblings asked if I had hemorrhoids and everyone else laughed. It was the first of many jokes they’d pull out when the situation warranted, which was often if the frequency of their comments was any indicator.

The cactus, stripped slightly bald in one small section, was unmoved when I went out to look at it the next day. Within a week, I was able to laugh about it all, and in a couple more I’d moved on to only thinking of the episode with mild annoyance. Like most childhood injuries, the acuteness of the moment faded almost immediately while life presented perspective in new and unique pain. There isn’t even a scar to act as a memorial, just the story I’m the only one still telling because I’ve provided my family much better material in the years since.


When I was a young reporter just out of college, I carried a note in my wallet at all times. It read, “Under no circumstances am I to be taken to King/Drew for treatment.” As my daughter and I walked through the second set of metal detectors in the lobby of the hospital that night, I tried not to think about that note, or that County was where you went to have the wrong organ taken out or to be forgotten in a hallway while you waited for someone to come check on you. And yet, this is where they’d brought my son, whose condition was a complete unknown given the ban on cell phone use that prevented Heather from calling me.

By the time we reached the emergency room where they were treating Holden, he’d been examined, had an ultrasound that convinced him he was carrying a baby just like his mom, and was waiting for x-rays to confirm that, in fact, he had not been seriously injured in any of the many ways he might have been. A brief overview of those potential injuries avoided:

  • He fell straight down, missing every edge of a hole less than a foot wider than he was;
  • The section of steel bleacher skeleton under where he fell was the narrowest of the structure with bars on all sides creating a space about the size of the hole from fall to floor. He hit none;
  • He landed feet first without breaking a bone, tearing a ligament, or splitting his head open when he toppled over;
  • The fall was so surprising he didn’t tense up, his muscles and joints spreading the impact across his body and limiting damage to any specific place.

In essence, he dropped like a stone but landed like a pad had been placed beneath him, something so close to miraculous I often think of it that way. The kid fell 21 feet and walked away—literally—with a strained muscle in his back and a prescription for rest and painkiller. Of course, the trauma of that kind of fall isn’t always visible and can be more difficult to treat than physical pain.


If you look only at the bodily implications, these two incidents led to similar places, though only one had the potential to completely alter a life. This is why we don’t joke about Holden’s fall much, just remember the details and how thankful we are he wasn’t injured more severely. I also feel guilty. For his falling. For my failing.

Despite the fact that he was back to playing a few days after the accident, Holden was different, less sure and less quick to smile. Quieter and smaller, it seemed. Sometimes when I’d pick him up quickly, he’d stiffen against my arms and beg to be set down. I often wonder if his fall plays into the anxiety he carries to this day. Each time I do, the feeling of being unable to see him in the dark space under those bleachers wraps itself in the guilt I feel for all the ways I know I could have been a better parent for him in so many unrelated moments.

I wonder if my parents ever felt this way about my more serious mishaps as a kid. I assume they must have, but maybe not. It was a different time, after all, and parents had different scales to measure their adequacy against. Maybe someday I’ll ask. Holden’s almost 12 as I write this and when I ask him about falling, he tends to brush the subject off. But when he tells me the story, it always begins with these words:

“Do you remember when I fell?”

Those six words shift me from the self-centered act of keeping my own memories to validating some of his most important ones; to help hold present a concrete experience receding into the shadows of his past; to help him tell the story until it feels like it’s his to own. Maybe this is a part I can play in ushering him past the parts still lodged inside of him. Maybe I’m just lodging them more deeply. As a parent, I have no model for this. I’m the teller of my family’s stories and my folks were of the Walk It Off School when it came to getting hurt.

I can’t help but wonder what Holden’s story will include later in life. Will it be a key to his understanding himself or just a story he’s been told so many times he merely thinks he’s remembering it as his own? There’s really no way to know, even as these are the questions I think most parents end up asking themselves at one time or another.


Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction, literary essays, and occasionally poetry. Most recently his work has appeared in The Jabberwock Review, The Other Journal, Pleiades, Hoosier Lit, and Angel City Review, among others. Formerly an award-winning journalist, Clark is also the co-editor of the collections Creative Writing in the Digital Age and Creative Writing Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic). Follow him on Twitter at @MDeanClark or Instagram at @mdeanclark.


Paul Warmbier

May 28, 2019

A Sanctuary of Wood

My life has been shaped by wood. My ash workbench’s roots splay outward like a water-starvedsystembut fail to penetrate beyond the flat gray barrier. My woodshop embodies equal thirdchurch, museum, and ancestral repository. Each portion compliments the others; each portion creates tension within the whole. Still, the grain in the wooden legs sweepdownward, the wood for connection to the soil. 

My small, cramped shop is hardly long and wide enough to repurpose as a dog run, but I dare not extend it into my wife’s half of the garage. In the poor lighting the cold gray forms of power saws mark both flanks of my work area like sentinels. The tools cordon off an area that is neither a hobby shop nor a professional one but something else. 

I began woodworking in earnest only a few years ago, and since then I have attempted projects too advanced and failed, making joints that do not fit, squares that are not square, shapes that onlysort of resemble shapes. But I have also succeeded. Partially that success derives from the meaning I place on the pieces I have completed as well as the process from sapling to a life full of growth and a repurposing in death.

I read about a new tool I don’t own—be it a new jig for my saw, or a larger and more powerful jointer—and realize how much time and energy could be saved by not sticking to hand tools. I want it. My grandfather, who taught me the basics, scoffs at my tools and tells me to slow down, one thing at a time, build the fundamentals and so forth and so on in an old and tired repetition. What he doesn’t understand is passion supersedes reason and patience as well as pure functionality. Or perhaps he knows it too well and I am naive.


Along the cobwebbed wall adjacent to the garage door lie stacks of hard and soft woods in varying states of drying and preparation. A pile of slabbed black walnut oozes a hue of melted chocolate. After it is sanded and waxed, it will radiate a deep coffee stain of ringlets and waves of reflection like a rock thrown into a pond. Bleached white maple waits to be cleaned up and stained after which it will explode with tiger stripes and quilted grain, giving the surface a three-dimensional mirror-like grain patterncalled “figure.” Cedar boards warp and crack in the varying humidity of North Idaho, eventually turning caramel-linedwith uniform vertical grain stripes creating a story in all wood. Their rings and figure are clues to a life lived and a world in flux. 

Abbie, my wife, meets me in the doorway when I have been in the shop too long. I want her to understand why I do this. I want her to come in while I work and see the transformation, the love and meaning poured into each piece. Sometimes she does come in to inspect my progress, and my son toddles behind, wide-eyed, mouth open in wonder and excitement at this usually forbidden cave of dust and noise. I want her to blanket herself like I do in the wood dust that hangs in the air and smell the reclaimed fir oozing sap from old-growth Oregon forests, and Claro walnut from California, wafting its sweet, pungent, earthy rot. It suffocates me sweetly as I work, a profusion of exotic spices buoyantly suspended between two doors and a dais of ash. Each of my tools hanging on the pegboard is a reminder of another job waiting and hours spent under the cloudy haze of fluorescentlights flickering in the dust. Hours of sharpening chisels and plane irons mount in a backlog of work still to do. I want Abbie to see and to know. I want my son to see and to learn. I want others to understand and to love the dedication poured into each stroke of a hand plane and cut. 

When my grandpa wanders into the shop, I often see his eyes survey the projects in progress: a cedar stool without a seat, a huge Douglas fir post and panel bookshelf the height and breadth of a Japanese plum tree blossoming outward from tapered legs, an unfinished toolbox for my two-year-old niece, an inlay set in walnut of a cutthroat trout about to take a fly in redwood and mesquite. Does he judge them? Or is he simply happy to have another member of the family work with his hands? I inherited many of his tools, and I know he looks for them on the shelves. Does he also look at my woodpile and wonder why I have so much and if I will ever use it all before it turns to dust? Perhaps he just sees a kindred spirit, someone searching for hidden meaning and purpose buried in the grain. When I inherited his tools, I also inherited an understanding of my place within the tradition of an appreciation of the wood’s journey. 

My grandpa built scores of homes in his working life, ocean-going boats of bent oak and cedar, in the old Scandinavian fashion, with carefully fitted overlapping horizontal strakestacked to oak ribs like skin to the bone of some long-dead monster brought back to life. Or a recreation of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones waiting for the Lord to come and breathe new life into them. The boats excite me when he talks at length about them. “Two or three still float,” he says over his umpteenth cup of coffee around three in the afternoon—despite the fact that it is eighty outside and easily ten degrees hotter in the shop. “Last time I checked, they were in the marina at Garibaldi.” 

I know Garibaldi well. It’s a small bay town on the Oregon coast. Garibaldi is nestled in a break of Douglas fir and cedar, surrounded by the coastalbay on one side and the Tillamook mountains on the other. A series of small but deep tide water rivers moat the town in. Sea-run cutthroat and steelhead make their way into larger water systems through these streams providing great fly-fishing as well as roots a chance to dig deep in silty soil keeping trees growing tall and wide year round. 

There isa particular fish and chip shop on the wharf. It is rarely open,but its simple honesty makes it the best on the coast. It’s a place where the air hovers rank and vaguely pearlescent in a kind of perpetual mist of fish guts, and salt spray, and gulls scream overhead—or rest on the weather-beaten, scarred gunnels of a rowboat, or at one’s feet. The wind blows off the water and peppers the hunched-over souls with salt. On rare days when there is some sun breaking through the clouds, everyone gathers on salt-encrusted patios and strolls the main street full of glass blowers, and knickknack shops unique to the tourist economies of small coastal towns. The bay is scattered with boats, visible between the swells, most of them are crabbing. I love it there. 

My father and I made special detours to Garibaldi when we used to fly-fish the coastal streams cascading out of the Tillamook mountains or took the aluminum boat crabbing at Nehalem Bay, farther north along the perpetually economically depressed coast. When I visit, I search the marina for an old wooden hull that might have been made by my grandfather. I find myself longing to find one. I think I want to find proof positive that he did indeed build boats and that it’s possible and that the usefulness of something made by hand can outlast one generation, but I think I also want to find a little more justification for my work. I’ve come to understand that justification is everything, good or bad. I want to say, See! There! That is why I make furniture. Our handiwork can last

He built so he did not go without work. He fed the insatiable urge to work that tore at his generation. He was most certainly a workaholic, something I am not. Though I cannot say he built out of pure love for the craft, I am sure there was a deeplove for the process though it may have been masked by a burning urge to remain working and moving and not judged a lay-about and wastrel. I am a writer so already qualify as one of those if not both. I have never been worried to be a lay-about and dreamer. He seemed afraid of what would happen to mind and body if he stopped. 

When I was a child, perhaps around ten or eleven, I visited my grandparent’s home in the wet and ivy-covered town of Sherwood, Oregon, just south of Portland. I don’t have many memories of the place. Most of them revolve around rain, the beach, and oak trees whose branches drape elegantly to the ground as in a low bow, lastinga lifetime. In one memory I do have, my grandfather stood in a frame of boards. He was erecting his woodshop. I watched as he almost singlehandedly lifted the wall frames and secured them to giant vertical posts on a concrete pad. He let me help. At least, he let me stand beside him leaning my slight weight into the wall until it sat level, his hands far above mine. I was then charged to stand back and make sure it was levelas if I knew what level looked like at ten. Their backyard shrank, and a monastery rose. It was something I had a hand in until my sister stepped on a rusty nail in the construction site, and we were all excommunicated. The next year, I came back, and he showed me the shop filled with tools and hoses, nail guns of all sizes hanging on pegs, and innumerable screwdrivers hanging in little metal sheaves, all splattered off-white with primer and rust. A steel and cast iron table sawdominated the center of the shop, radiating outward were pine outfeed tables, so only the periphery of the shop was accessible. To him, rebirth meant repurpose. He had no spiritual connection with the lumber he used for house frames, but I imagine that was because he never gave himself time to stop and smell cedar dust or walnut. 


My shop has a single window to the backyard, and unlike my grandfather’s, everything stands outward, pushed to the border of my space. The only space I do have is in the middle. In the summer, with the side and garage door open, my son, Simon bounces around in the backyard, throwing a ball for our puppy. Abbie, her legs up on a chair, a book or glass of rose in her hand, looks at ease. In the winter, the snow piles up and partially coversthe window blocking me in, my kerosene heater next to the woodpile. 

I used to wonder why my grandfather spent hours sitting in the confines of his cloister in his backyard surrounded by blackberry bushes and apple trees. He was a general contractor, mason, electrician, and boat builder in Oregon the whole of his working life. He no longer has a shop to himself, but when he comes to visit, he stands and looks wistful, visibly missing his days in his shop. But he doesn’t allow himself to disturb my woodshop. I think he wants to though, and seems to lighten and stand straighter delivering a familiar homily on what should be going on with my projects, or pointing out flaws in my work seen only by a few with practiced eyes. 

Now, in his early eighties, he illuminates old techniques while rasping, and occasionally needing to sit, reluctant and grumbling, showing the pain from cancer destroying his lungs and his joints destroyed from work. He leans over my workbench with strong hands shaking, grasping for the edge, and he watches me sharpening a chisel or cleaning the long flat sole of a jointer plane. I clamp the chisel into an angled roller and grind it down alongmy Japanese water stone in quick staccato movements like a metronome set on Allegro. At times, I lift the blade to my eyes, looking for the growing mirror finish of honed steel extending the length of the blade. He smiles at my concentration. I feel bad at times because I don’t follow all of his old ways. I don’t find the angle of the chisel’s bevel by hand but by a predetermined marker on a clamp. 

I wonder if there are aspects of our existence burrowed into biological memory, the roots and desires creeping forth from sometimelong before us to snag and snare. At times, when I hear a hand saw scrape through wood, I feel something close to atavistic. At times I imagine this is one of the few ways I can rejoin my predecessors. Perhaps it was experimentation encoded into our DNA as well as the evolutionary actions of hundreds of generations of humanity from the dawn of tools that draws me toward the wood. When I was given my first jackknife around age eight, I picked up a stick and began to whittle. The shavings piled up at my feet until I shaved a bit off my finger. Despite the cut, I found a stick and began shaping it and never really stopped.

Under my grandfather’s calculated movements, retracing those masters before him, hulls of ships took shape. Under my hands,tables and bookshelves come into their own. Was it something planted in my DNA from the movements of the craftsmen in the Neolithic past, the Egyptians, Britain’s Tudor craftsmen, the Arts and Crafts masters, my grandfather and others that brought him to the craft, brought me also to wood? 


I took a walk through a local arboretum and began to see trees as upright boats or desks or chairs, irreverent as that may be. The grass is short and well-kept in our arboretum. We don’t pretend we’re in a forest but accept its artificiality. The array of tree and plant life in my local arboretum is staggering. There are trees from Asia and Europe, as well as the Eastern and western United States. I’ve walked this arboretum with Abbie many times over the years, and I enjoy bringing visiting friends, but I’ve rarely truly observed what was around me. The arboretum is on a softly sloping south facinghill, and as I progressed down the manicured hill toward a pair of willow-linedponds,I began to realize a real transformation had taken place in me. 

For the first time, I began to look at the trees as more than organisms and parts of the scenery. I don’t mean to say I looked at them lustily, wondering what their wood would resemble quarter sawn, sanded, oiled, and waxed. Well, I did do that, but it had more of a purpose than greed. It was an understanding of my place in the life of nature. I am a scavenger. No matter how I try to trick the goal into becoming some higher transcendental longing, I only feed off the corpses of dead things. 

I have friends in the business of chopping dead trees. One routinely calls when he is about to saw an old maple or elm after it dies or becomes a hazard in a park. “Come by quickly,” He says, “or we we’ll chip it, and chop up the rest for firewood.” In one instance, it was an elm. It sat in a park, and though not dead it had begun to show signs of an insect infestation compromising the roots.

 An elm had never shown up in my shop before. I have never even used it but figured I would try. I borrowed my grandpa’s truck and loaded up as many six-foot sections of the main tree trunkas possible. I drove home slow and heavy laden and unloaded, tipping the trees over the edge and onto the gravel. 

They are drying in my wood stack beside the house, and I hope to mill them soon. They are dead and only slightly resemble their cousins in the arboretum, but what they do resemble is a continuation of history. 


Milling wood to dimension is an act that is too often left out. Against the insulation of the garage door is my bandsaw. This tool is one of the few power tools that I consider essential, mostly because I don’t want to labor for hours with a long-crosscut saw ripping boards of wood lengthwise by hand. I’m not skilled enough for that.

My grandfather worked wood by hand when he was younger. I’ve seen his hands as nearly rheumatic claws from clasping a hand saw for hours attempting to rip wood. I don’t really mill with my bandsaw but I do prepare the wood for the planer, which cleans the surface like glass. I often was caugh­­­­t by my grandfather hand planing planks of wood with a long, thin hand plane. He would just sit there and shake his head. That’s what power tools are for now he would seem to say. I guess that’s the difference between generations where handwork was essential instead of a novelty. 

So many furniture makers I know are content with only buying the lumber from their lumber yard prefinished, but I love the surprise when I flatten the wood and the figure, the grain pattern, and the true color begin to show piecemeal. I get to know the wood. Its shell has been cracked, and the hopeless romantic in me delights in running my hand across the grain. I can almost see it as a chair or table as I feed the plane over the surface, one hand before the blade, flat, applying slight inward pressure to keep the wood securely against the fence, the other, pushing the lumber through in a slow and consistent way. I try not to be rough. Lumber, though no longer living, will react to abuse. If I move too rashly, my machines and the wood bite back. 

If I look at the end grain of the wood, a central drop radiates out with twenty or thirty rings an inch. This is good. There will be less sapwood in between the rings, possibly making the future boards less susceptible to warping and cupping. More than that, the rings indicate a long and interesting life. Hot summers, brutal winters, teenagers cutting into the sapwood with knives, and climbing the young tree, breaking off weaker branches, squirrels skittering around on all seasons, an arborist on a cherry-picker with a sharpened pair of sequiturs identifying good and weak branches, my grandfather and I inspecting it and wondering what it will become. The rings are a history of the earth. The future furniture will be a continuation of that history.


It is hard to look at wood and not see symbols. For my workbench, I chose ash. I did so for its strength and the aesthetic inherent in the light wood, which acts as a reenergizing presence after my day’s real work is finished, and my infant son is asleep. I step into the shop and run my hand along the grain. Ash is not an enjoyable wood to shape. There are no vermiculations of quilted waves or liquid illusion in the wood that trick the eye to see beyond it into the heart of the natural world. There is simply interwoven strength. It is unyielding. Where other woods bend and break, ash usually retains its strength. Ash is perfect for pounding and hammering and planing. Perhaps this natural unyielding quality drew me to it. Perhaps the ability to exude such strength and rigidity even in death makes me envy the wood.

 Centuries ago, my predecessors also chose ash for its capacity to absorb abuse as well as its direct connection to the spiritual world. Ash in some circles was directly associated with the world of the supernatural and gave some people an eye into creation itself. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, the world tree, is ash, which is portrayed holding and containing this and all other worlds. Its roots yearn deep into the cosmos to the underworld, the trunk reaching to the heavens holding the boughs that connect all the worlds. Likewise, of the five legendary guardian trees of Irish lore, three are ashes. Ash is enjoyed by many professions from archers, hunters, woodworkers even gods. 

The ash wood workbench sits directly in the center of my woodshop. It is the heart of my shop. Its ash boards receive all of my projects at some point. The strength of ash means it makes great tool handles, yet it also can bend without breaking and recover to its original position. If you were to look at the lengthwise cut section, peering down the grain, little dots, or tubes, show on the wood. These tubes are what provide the strength and bendability of the wood. When a tree is cut into flat sheets lengthwise down the board from top to bottom contrary to the grain, it is called flat sawing. This is the most common cutting technique and produces the least amount of waste. It’s how I cut with my chainsaw mill. When this flat sawn wood becomes furniture, the grain curls upward. The legs of my workbench are flat sawn. The wood flames up and the tongues lick the legs of the bench. The effect almost betrays an altar. The flames point to what is being made on the workbench’s surface. They seem to advocate meaning in the project, not merely support it. 

For many, rebirth is personified by growing and living forests surrounded by rot, animals, and fungus feeding on the old and fallen. When I don’t mill my own lumber, I like to visit my local specialty wood store. I enter his small storage shed and wander between trunks of hewn Douglas fir, dead and dried, ready to turn into an heirloom. I sometimes find a piece that I can break down and re-forge, the tight rings shining with new purpose. I find a piece by sight and feel. I look for grain direction and wood firmness and conjecture on its future beauty. In its rough form, even the slowest, most thoughtful eye misses what sanding and oiling may bring out. The grain patterns sometimes align to the initial picture in my head, but often the result is a complete surprise, despite sheets of hand-drawnplans and blueprints. 

My father is a Lutheran pastor. He has been his whole adult life. He never taught me to build with my hands because he worked with his mind. That is not to say he could not work with his hands. He helped his father build houses as a teenager. He owned the tools that adulthood required. He had chisels that were never sharpened, a circular saw, slightly rusted with age and changing humidity, an oiled miter box, ancient, a relic from my grandfather’s father, and a table saw. They sat on shelves, and the wood and metal boxes collected dust. The tools remained inanimate, rarely touched. My education came in the form of thinking and fishing in the mountains of Western Montana and Idaho. I could not do better for a classroom. Instead of moving lengths of wood, I measured hours in the sun on high mountain lakes, and I measured lengths of fly line or distance to a Mule deer buck. What this education taught me was patience and a love of woodcraft. I walked the forest and ran my hands along trees and explored dark and forlorn caverns recessed in the wood. 

As a pastor and outdoorsman, my father equated rebirth not only with Christmas, the sacrament, and the Easter story of Christ but with the welcome arrival of spring in northern Montana and high mountain Idaho. But after helping grandpa erect his shop, I slowly began to see more in the rounds of pine and fir I chopped continuously to feed the relentless appetite of the wood stove at home. I looked at the altar in the sanctuary of my father’s church and under the vestments and saw the symbols carved deep in oak. The Alpha and Omega were always present spiritually and physically. They were the cycle of death and birth in a continuum that I struggle to understand in any metaphysical way but to which I find a possible clue though the continual shaving and shaping of a corporeal lump into something new and reborn. I like to think I have found a tie between the spiritual and physical world in the work my hands do in cooperation with my mind. 

I find God in nature, I find God in wood and high mountain air, and through that, I find purpose and understanding. I discover that I want to surround myself in my woodcrafts, not just in my shop, but also in my home, my friend’s homes and businesses. 

Perhaps my wife is correct, and I have enough wood and furniture already built. Perhaps my excitement when I achieve a mirror finish on cherry, or walnut is reaching into the purview of my childhood and its simplistic pleasures. Perhaps it’s obsessive. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.


Our deep understanding of the world around us should both involve and be reshaped with an eye to the past. That is not to say that we should glorify the past in its faults and failures, and that we should not revise it to be more blameless, but that it should inform our future and the evolution of us and what we need individually and culturally to find sanctuary and rebirth. When we embark on the process of creation we need to make sure that we leave ourselves open to the natural changes in our world that will change our narrative. This essay has been in the form of evolution for five years. I have changed locations, had children, changed jobs and shifted my understanding of where I place meaning in the roots of my mind. The sanctuary of my woodshop and the act of creation out of death has evolved as well when new tools and practices come and go. These have formed a harmony between the cuts and shapes I make and the grain of the wood to make my work blend in with what is natural. 

I have come to think that all of us go through this evolution. We adapt and throw out the unnecessary to leave room for that which is germane to our task at hand. In 2017 my wife and I moved out of my home state to Oregon. I moved to a larger shop where I could adapt new tools and practices to my routine allowing me to extend my skills, but the Willamette valley is not home to many places where one can wander the high mountain lakes and ancient cedar groves within minutes of our old home in Idaho. I have floundered slightly. Oak and maple surrounded by other outdoor and wood enthusiasts does not excite me as much as long forgotten cedar off any trail. The old groves certainly exist, but generations of intense logging and an incessant press of people have taken their toll visibly on the landscape. 

I rarely earn a profit for my work. Often, I trade my services for goods, homemade beer, fine wine, or even restaurant gift certificates. In a way, this seems more meaningful than the unceremonious trading ofeffort and love for mere paper money. It may not be sound business practice but does make for loyal customers who allow me to experiment on their furniture. 

When I see a finished piece, I find something similar to what I imagine real understanding is. I can feel the grain patterns and see years of drought and others of plenty, years of pain in occlusions and cuts deep into the ordered parallel grains. The lives of trees are not much different than those of humans, we just are better at hiding what ails us. When I see something finished I have a connection to my past and that of the whole artisan community stretching deep into prehistory. A woodshopis a sanctuary where the veil between worlds is thin, where the connection as organisms rather than a hierarchy of human verses nature, and the spiritual and physical collaborate to become one single meaning through the singing of tools through wood.


Bio: Paul Warmbier lives, teaches, and writes in McMinnville, Oregon. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Idaho where he also served as Associate Nonfiction Editor for Fugue. He writes essays based on place, trauma, and the value of craftsmanship in our new world of replaceable throwaway objects. He is a writer, high school English teacher, custom furniture maker, and co-founder of the Dauntless Wine Company winery.


Mauri Pollard Johnson

May 28, 2019

On Not Eating

It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. . . . But it was a real experience.” —Virginia Woolf 

There are necessary evils that exist in everyone’s life. 

Here are a list of mine:

The ACT. Standardized testing. Mothers-in-law. Menstruation. Pregnancy. Morning sickness. Sidewalk cracks. Wearing a bra. Sleep. Taking a shower. Buying makeup. Haircuts and mowing the lawn (which are essentially the same thing). The government. Work. Welfare. Walmart. The middle console in my husband’s truck. Money. The stairs by the Smith Fieldhouse on BYU campus. Exercising an hour or more every day. 

Body Image and Eating Disorder Group therapy. Individual therapy. Dietitian meetings. Stepping onto a scale backwards. My dietitian. Meal logging. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. And all the balanced snacks they tell me to eat in between. Cooking. Deciding what to eat. Carbs. Sugar. Breads. Pastas. Any kind of sauce. Social events with free food. Eating at restaurants. Eating with people. Eating in general.

“Eating disorders can be recognized by a persistent pattern of unhealthy eating or dieting behavior that can cause health problems and/or emotional and social distress.”

I had a friend in high school who was as skinny as all of the cliché metaphors for skinniness. She never had to worry about eating vegetables and fruits and whole grains or going to the gym on a daily basis. One time, she told us that at a regular checkup the doctor told her that she needed to gain weight. 

What a mind blowing concept: being told that you need to gain weight. Who ever knew that being too skinny was unhealthy? Not me. The gluttonous being inside of me stirred with jealousy as I imagined what it would be like to need to gain weight. I conjured up images of gallons of my favorite ice cream flavors ready at my fingertips, warm gooey cookies and thick rich brownies decorating the table in front of me, cheese fries and onion rings and pizzas bigger than my head. I thought that needing to pack on some pounds sounded like the best thing in the world—

until it happened to me.

I never thought I had an eating disorder—that was some mythical disease that plagued dramatic high school girls who wanted to be small enough to fit into their cheer uniforms. Not me. Not a college student, return missionary, faithful church-goer, commandment keeping, God-fearing girl like me. 

Over the course of six months, I lost about twenty-five pounds. 

After she was diagnosed with “hysteria” and sent to a mental institution, Anne Sexton once said, “I thought psychotic was someone else, but I’m still me.” And two years ago, that’s how I felt (still feel). I didn’t realize how sick I was (am—and I still don’t see it most times). I thought my daily menu was something normal people (and by normal people I mean those who have not yet been broken by the chains of disordered eating) ate as well. 

My menu was as follows:

Breakfast: a single banana (no more)

Lunch: ½ a carrot and ½ a cucumber, both peeled and cut into slices; one apple, sliced; and, for my main course, a varying flavor of yogurt of my choice

Dinner: one whole bag of frozen broccoli and one grapefruit, peeled like an orange

Dessert: one spoonful of thick honey

Yes, I literally ate this same thing every. single. day. No, I did not have an eating disorder. People with eating disorders don’t eat, and I ate. 

“Even if a person does not meet the formal criteria for an eating disorder, he or she may be experiencing unhealthy eating behaviors that cause substantial distress and may be damaging to both physical and psychological health.”

But that mindset was my eating disorder thinking for me. Those who suffer from eating disorders have a hard time distinguishing themselves from their distressed and skewed mindsets. They think they are being healthy. They think they are safe. They think that they are not only normal, they are better than normal, and that nothing is wrong. 

I fell into this trap (and I still do). 

I didn’t know something was wrong with me and sometimes (usually) I still believe that there’s not. This comes partially from the blatant ignorance that exists in our world.

Eating disorders are a mental-health taboo. Depression and Anxiety reign the mental-illness kingdom; eating disorders are the deprived princess locked in the tower (ironically, starving). Depression and Anxiety are recognized as viable in the world of overall health. These two sicknesses inhibit normal behavior and the ability to function—something understood by most. It is a universal truth. There is a sense of empathy when it comes to anxiety and depression. They invoke in on-lookers’ compassion and a desire to understand and to draw closer to the one suffering so they feel supported and uplifted and never isolated or alone. Eating disorders generally provoke discomfort and awkwardness and misunderstanding. And the soul recoils back into the caves of comfort and normalcy, not this bizarre anomaly that rejects nourishment. There is no awareness (as in, being aware that they are common and actually exist) for anorexia or bulimia or binge eating or compulsive exorcising or orthorexia. In fact, the world praises individuals who skip meals or cut calories or spend two hours at the gym every day and never ever EVER eat sweets. And so patients of these illnesses live in confusion and the delusion that what they are doing is right and praiseworthy and healthy and even moral.

Lately, it seems like almost everyone admits to having some form of anxiety or depression. It comes up in church meetings, lunchtime discussions, get-to-know-you games and in a comment from someone in every single one of my university classes. But at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. So where are those 30 million people at church, lunch, get-to-know-you games, and university course discussions?

I don’t want to, by any means, demean the painfully real diseases of anxiety and depression. I understand the torture they inflict and I respect and appreciate the attention that they receive with open arms. I rejoice that our society treats mental-illnesses with a newfound seriousness and respects them as a reality instead of a psychotic mess to clean up and shove in a room and call it fixed. I only want the same for my own mental illness. It’s time to share the awareness. Time to divide up the sympathy. 

I realize there could potentially be a risk of victimizing myself throughout this essay. If it ever seems as if I am victimizing, know that I am only falling prey to myself. That is the only victimization I aim to draw attention to in this essay. 


Anorexia Nervosa: an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with their lives. Between 0.3 and 1% of young women have anorexia nervosa (which makes anorexia as common as autism).

Bulimia Nervosa: a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder. People with bulimia may secretly binge—eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over the eating—and then purge, trying to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way. Around 1 to 3% of young women have bulimia nervosa.

Binge Eating: a serious eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food and feel unable to stop eating. Almost everyone overeats on occasion . . . but for some people, excessive overeating that feels out of control and becomes a regular occurrence crosses the line to binge-eating disorder. Around 3% of the population has binge-eating disorder.

Orthorexia Nervosa: an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating; an inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure.’ People with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being.

Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified: an eating disorder that does not meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Individuals with EDNOS usually fall into one of three groups: sub-threshold symptoms of anorexia or bulimia, mixed features of both disorders, or extremely atypical eating behaviors that are not characterized by either of the other established disorders. Between 4% and 20% of young women practice unhealthy patterns of dieting, purging, and binge-eating.

Currently, about one in 20 young women in the community has an eating disorder.

Eating disorders, like most mental illnesses, are complicated. There are a heaping pile of combinations to be contracted—binge, restrict; binge, purge, restrict, repeat; restrict, exercise; binge, exercise, purge restrict; etc. I am impaired by restriction, over-exercise, and orthorexia—which means any food that I or the world deem “unhealthy,” I avoid, run from, condemn, purge, protect my precious body that I deprive so constantly. I thought I held a conglomeration of these different symptoms, rendering myself technically “undiagnosable.”

 But last week, in the office of my therapist that I thought I didn’t need anymore, I was diagnosed with anorexia.

My therapist always tells me there isn’t one sole reason that creates an eating disorder. She tells me it’s created from a myriad of different things, kind of like a recipe. I wonder what my recipe would be:

Prep time: 7 years
Baking time: 

2 cups of fear of gaining weight 
1 cup perfectionism*
1/3 cup of fear of losing control 
1 Tbl. of her sophomore health class that taught her about calories 
1 tsp. of that time her cousin Sadie called her fat 
2 tsp. of all the people who told her sister missionaries gain so much weight**
½ tsp. of when people comment on how much she is eating (“so much” or “so little”)
Restricting and purging to taste 

*Can substitute perfectionism with the feeling of being unable to do anything right except eating healthy and exercising. 

**Another tasty variation includes replacing this with all the people who talk about “wife-weight” (the weight women gain shortly after marriage).


  1. Combine all ingredients (if the batter tastes too bland, add a few pinches of over-exercise or orthorexia for flavor) and mix on speed 4. If this is being made after eating out or going to a social even with free food, increase speed to 5. 
  2. Pour into a pan (size of your choice) and bake at 350 F for 45 minutes (or as long as it takes for the anxiety to set in). Again, if this is being made after eating out or going to a social event surrounding food, increase temperature to 425 F. 
  3. Take out of oven, and let cool. (This may take overnight or even a couple of days).
  4. Cut into little pieces, put it in a storage container, and hide it in the fridge. 
  5. Buy a store bought dessert instead and show everyone that you are perfectly normal and nothing is wrong. 

(If the batter tastes too bland, add a few pinches of over-exercise or orthorexia for flavor.)

“Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest overall mortality rates and the highest suicide rate of any psychiatric disorder. The risk of death is three times higher than in depression, schizophrenia or alcoholism and 12 times higher than in the general population.”

The diagnosis, honestly, hit me like a bullet train. Thoughts paced around inside my brain, trying to logically cope with my new identity: But I don’t look like I have anorexia. But I eat. But I weigh more than a hundred pounds. But I eat. But I eat. I eat. But. Eat. But. And it made my sickness feel more serious, more real, more commonly understood than “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” And yet, the thing that still ran through my head while all the other thoughts took leisurely strolls was: don’t make me eat more, don’t make me gain weight, I don’t need to, I don’t want to. 

“Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents, after asthma and obesity.”

I remember the first time that I realized that food makes you fat. I mean, I always knew that it did—it’s pretty obvious, right?—but not for me. I always thought that I was safe from that slippery slope. But it was in my health class during my sophomore year that I began to become conscious of the ever controlling calories. My teacher (a gorgeous former cheerleader that all of the pimply boys in the class swooned over) pulled up pictures on a PowerPoint to show us how many calories were really in the popular dishes at all of my favorite local restaurants. I think it was when she showed us how many calories were in the chicken crisper dish at Chili’s that I realized that maybe my calorie intake was just too much. I ate out a lot, and when I ate out, I didn’t really care what it was I was eating- I just got what sounded delicious. With each slide I sunk lower and lower into my seat and guilt and shame began to sink their nails into my exposed mind. After that I went home and realized that the information I read on the cereal box when I was bored during breakfast in the morning was actually telling me how many of those pesky, fat building calories I was eating after my fourth bowl of Honeycomb or my third helping of Kraft mac and cheese. This sparked my obsession with counting calories. I let it consume me anything labeled over 200 calories I slowly put back on the shelf and turned for something else. 

“Before the nineteenth century, behaviors now considered to be symptoms of eating disorders were socially accepted, perceived as a manifestation of holy behavior. In medieval Europe, a large number of nuns adopted ascetical practices, including strict starvation, in order to reach unity with Christ. Similarly, in the pre-Victorian and the Victorian era, so-called ‘fasting women’ were admired by the rest of society and considered to be an object of curiosity by doctors and scientists.”

But I never thought that I would ever cower at even the thought of food. Yet here I am—on date nights with my husband taking thirty minutes to look over the menu and decide what to order, constantly touching my stomach to see if there’s been any added bulge or sneakily googling calories on  my iPhone to make sure I hit under 1,200. I usually fly right past the appetizers, entrees, pastas, pizzas, sandwiches, soups, and aim straight for the salads. Anything that won’t stick, ED tells me.

Sometimes deciding takes longer, though. Usually that’s when I’m battling in my head between what I actually want and what actually sounds delicious, and what I won’t regret later. Once, on a date with my now husband at Malawi’s, I stood in line staring up at the menu for twenty minutes going back and forth between the pizza I was eyeing and the salad that sounded okay, but would save me from the guilt and shame I knew I would later feel. The girl at the cash register stared at me like I was a freak. I even walked up to order once and second guessed myself as I was speaking. Literally twenty minutes and I finally gave in.

I ordered the salad. 

My family, similar to most families, likes to revolve life around food. At family gatherings, food is a constant conversation—delicious food, disgusting food, buffets and foreign food, food memories, food traumas, food discoveries, food, food, food. Every first Sunday of the month we gather for an extended family dinner and the more food, the better. Funerals are followed by food. Weddings are followed by food. Gatherings are better attended depending on the food that is served. 

At a family gathering a few years ago, my aunt sat at a table with my cousins and me and, as we returned to our seats with plates toppling over from the weight of salads and meats and desserts, she asked us, jokingly, “So, no problems with eating disorders in this family then, huh?” 

I shook my head, stuffing my face full of Doritos and pasta salad and said, “No way.” 

Sometimes I can’t help but think God has an ironic sense of humor.  

I remember that same aunt telling me once about the clients she had previously worked with. For ten years, she worked at a counseling center for people who have eating disorders. Sometimes, she said, they would have to teach those who had eating disorders how to eat again. I remember not understanding exactly what she meant, and imagining a comical scene of a grown adult relearning how to use a fork and spoon and knife: explaining how their hand should wrap around the thin, metal neck of the fork, how their hand should pull the knife backward and forward with the correct amount of pressure to slowly descend through the food, how the spoon must be balances so precariously as it is brought to the mouth so as not to spill the precious contents on the way. 

I laughed to myself, quietly and humorously judging those that have gone through this school of learning. 

But learning how to eat again has nothing to do with how to properly use utensils. And there is nothing humorous about it. 

The mind is a complicated vessel. Because I could eat more and, yes, that would solve the bruises I get when my husband puts his hand on my knee or the brittleness of my bones or the way my hair falls out in clumps each time I touch it, but that doesn’t heal my mind. In fact, it only feeds the desire to not, not, not eat. 

I feel like the woman in the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She has been locked up and isolated, as if that would solve her insanity, and by the end of her quarantine she is in a frenzied hysteria ripping, tearing, biting, scratching the yellow wallpaper from the suffocating walls to free the trapped woman imprisoned behind the yellow, flaking skin. I think of this story and then and I’m back. Back to the day I was sitting on the floor in my bathroom scratching viciously at my stomach until red blood began to drip like water from the rivets I plowed into my own yellow, flaking skin. I felt there was a monster writhing inside of me and I had to get it out, dig it out, claw it out. That was the only way to calm the pressure in my head and rid myself of the collapsing and blackening world around me. 

When I am in the throes of my anxiety and food is too much to handle or I’ve eaten too much or free food holds me hostage or I haven’t been as physically active as I prefer or I’ve tasted the forbidden fruit and feel the anguish of Adam and Eve as they hid behind the bush . . . I am not myself. I am someone completely different. And yet, it is me. It is my hands clawing at the parts of me that itch after I eat. It is my tears that break the surface trying to release some of the anguish festering inside of me. It is my brain that feels it might explode if I don’t run, jump, complain, move, hit, restrict, restrict, restrict. I never thought that would be me. 

“Up to 10% of women with anorexia nervosa may die due to anorexia-related causes. Early recognition of symptoms and proper treatment can reduce the risk of death. Deaths in anorexia nervosa mainly result from complications of starvation or from suicide.”


  • Constipation: I was once constipated for two weeks. I spent painful hours in the bathroom pushing so hard I worried about blood vessels bursting in my neck or brain or eyes. 
  • Slowed digestion: Adds to the constipation problem 
  • Dry skin: It itches around my belly button and arms and makes me want to scratch off all my skin and hope that some fat comes off with it. 
  • Hair becomes brittle and falls out: I can draw pictures on the shower wall with how many strands of my hair fall out: stick figures the size of what I want to be. 
  • Memory loss: Lately, I can’t remember the new things I learn or details about days that should stick permanently in my mind. Although I have a great memory when it comes to anything food related. Like how I can’t forget when I first found out how many calories existed in the foods at my favorite restaurants or when my boyfriend told me how much sugar was actually in grapes, a food I felt was so safe, or when my mom told me carbs were my kryptonite and I shouldn’t eat so much cereal, or when I found out that not only do I need to look at calories on nutrition facts, but also grams of fat and sugar. 
  • Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots): This one shocked me when I read it. Because at first, it seems so silly and absurd and too specific to be a consequence of eating disorders. But mostly because I go through at least two two-pound bags of baby carrots a week. 
  • Feeling cold all the time: I started wearing sweaters and tights in August.
  • Difficulties concentrating: Never start a new job when you have an eating disorder (I would know).
  • Menstrual irregularities: I’ve had two periods in the past year. 
  • Dental issues: I chew probably a pack of gum a day. I tell people it’s because I don’t like the taste of food sitting in my mouth or morning breath, but really it’s because I can trick my brain into thinking I’m actually eating and then my stomach doesn’t feel the sharp aches that come from starving. I’m sure my teeth are painted with grey holes. Also my body doesn’t trust me anymore. 

I am falling apart, and yet I still fear healing more than I fear my current state. 


  • Difficulty feeling emotion
  • Feeling too much emotion
  • Loss of libido 
  • Anxiety when eating out at restaurants
  • Anxiety at potluck parties
  • Anxiety when grocery shopping
  • Anxiety when forced to quickly choose what to eat 
  • Achy knees 
  • An increased focus on exercise 
  • Packing your own food that you actually allow yourself to eat 
  • Constantly checking how much your waist/thighs/legs have grown
  • Irritation toward others 

My body is eating itself. I know it, and I know I could stop it, but I never know what to eat for dinner and food always lasts longer than I want it to and so my body must eat itself. It feasts upon my memory—the first course is served with the things I learn at my new job, during the main course are all the midterms I try to study for, and there’s a plethora of sweet desserts to choose from: my wedding day, game nights with my family, girls nights out, late night conversations with my mom and football games with my dad. My muscles feed my body protein and the fat around my stomach does for my body whatever fat is supposed to (I never really learned because I figured whatever it does it’s not what I want). My body eats my heart with a fork and knife—devouring my tears and empathy and sympathy and the part of me that makes me want to spend less time actually sleeping with my new husband. So my body is eating itself (myself) and, for some reason, I don’t really care. 

Well, maybe I do care. At least a little bit. Because if at least a Part of me didn’t care, then I wouldn’t be writing this essay and wanting you to read it. So yes, I guess a Part of me cares. The Part that shows up to group therapy and keeps making appointments with my dietician and lets my therapist bring in my husband and parents to tell them that I’m slowly and apathetically killing myself (or at least that’s how my therapist said it). 

“Quality of life is severely impaired in all eating disorders.”

It seems like since life began—whether you believe stars and planets exploded or that God took his hands and worked molding clay with his life-breathing fingers—there has been a battle. A battle of will, a battle of carnal and spirit, a battle inside the soul. I have always had a strong sense of will and self-restraint (hence anorexia). I have (almost) always favored the spiritual side of my soul. My life has been a constant rejection of anything carnal and devilish and natural-man-esque. And so, this will of iron that resides within me has forever protected me, kept me safe, kept me pure and clean and good. But not now. Not now, when I need this iron will of mine to melt or soften or at least bend just a little bit. Now it is stronger, tighter, more solid than ever. It might suffocate me, but I can’t allow myself to want to stop it. I don’t know how. I don’t know how to want to know how. 

“Over 70 percent of those who suffer with eating disorders will not seek treatment due to stigma, misconceptions, lack of education, diagnosis and lack of access to care.”


With treatment, 60% of eating disorder sufferers make a full recovery.

Without treatment 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from eating disorder related health complications, including suicide and heart problems.

As I read these statistics, and reread them, and read them again as I edit and organize and fix the mess that is this essay, these facts don’t really register inside of me. I still feel distanced from the results of my disorder—like these statistics and facts and consequences and fatalities could be about anyone, but surely not about me. 

Maybe how I view recovery is a bit like how many Christians view repentance. It is petrifying, paralyzing, and torturous. It is painful and gruesome and practically impossible. The end result is not worth the time spent in the process. And yet, there’s that Part of me that keeps pushing toward this end result—this imaginary space that therapists and dietitians and the internet call “recovery.” Is it real? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out. One day.  

Eating disorders research has been hampered by very low US federal funding levels (approximately $28 million/year), compared with research on other conditions:

Alcoholism: 18 x more funding ($505 million)
Schizophrenia: 13 x more funding ($352 million)
Depression: 12 x more funding ($328 million)
Food safety: 12 x more funding ($333 million)
Sleep disorders: 7 x more funding ($187 million)
ADHD: 4 x more funding ($105 million)

I am writing this essay for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons—a big one—is to heal. I know putting words on a page or computer screen won’t thicken my bone density or stop my hair from falling out or calm the anxiety that floods me when I eat out at a restaurant. But I feel like writing helps me shove out all of the unbearable feelings—like taking a band aid off a cut to give it oxygen . . . to let it breathe. It is literally the figurative fingers scratching at my stomach. It hurts to eat, but it hurts a little less when I can scribble it out—even if messily.

Another reason I am writing this is for others . . . others who also struggle with disordered eating. Think for a moment, how many people you know in your life who struggle with anxiety. How about depression? Was it hard to conjure up minds of family, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, teachers, colleagues, coworkers, classmates, neighbors, celebrities, etc. who have anxiety or depression? What about eating disorders? Maybe not as hard as you thought it might be, but regardless. Before I was diagnosed (which sounds way more terminal and fatal than I really think it ought to be), I didn’t know anyone. Not really. Or, at least, it took me a while to draw them from the recesses of my mind. But we exist, and we are more common than you might expect. We just lurk in the halls, on the streets, in the apartments surrounding you, in silence. Because no one knows what to do with the oddity that doesn’t know how to eat. 

But maybe, I’m also writing this to bring awareness to myself . . . to knock it into me with each finger that pounds the keyboard. Because even though I understand what I am doing to myself, I don’t really understand it. It isn’t internalized in me quite yet. It is distanced from me in some far off world or universe or Hollywood movie about somebody else. Maybe I’m writing this so I can go back and edit it enough times that finally the facts will sink into me. Maybe they will stick. Maybe they will finally help me understand the seriousness of the moments when my mom tells me she hopes I can make it on my own to the end of this year or when my husband holds me close as he tells me how worried he is and there are tears in his eyes that haven’t been around in years. Maybe I will read this essay again and again and finally comprehend what I am doing to my body, my mind, the people around me whom I love, to my soul. Maybe. Maybe.

But for now, I can only hope. 

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/ May who ne’er hung there.” —Gerard Manley Hopkins 



Bio: Mauri Pollard Johnson is studying English Teaching at Brigham Young University and minoring in Creative Writing with an emphasis in non-fiction. She enjoys baking new recipes, spending hours in Barnes & Noble, and watching The Office with her new husband. She is currently working on a collection of essays about her journey with an eating disorder, and hopes to use her writing to make a difference in the world of mental health, especially for teens. 


Punctuate in Conversation with Ken Krimstein, Author and Illustrator of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth

September 18, 2018

Ken Krimstein has published cartoons in the New Yorker, Punch, the Wall Street Journal, and more. He has written for New York Observer’s “New Yorker’s Diary” and has published pieces on websites including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Yankee Pot Roast, and Mr Beller’s Neighborhood. He is the author of Kvetch as Kvetch Can and teaches at De Paul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

In a lively email exchange, Ken Krimstein communicated with Punctuate Managing Editor Ian Morris recently about his new book The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth, a graphic memoir of Hannah Arendt and the philosophy and history of her age.

Punctuate; Fans of your New Yorker cartoons will likely be surprised that The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt is a graphic history of twentieth-century European philosophy. What inspired you to undertake this project?

Krimstein: In addition to loving what we in the cartooning business refer to as “gag” cartoons, single panel “jokes,” with or without words (think Charles Addams, S. Gross, George Booth), I’ve always loved longer form comics. Sure, it started with Superman and Batman when I was a kid, but I also inherited from my great uncle many comics in a series entitled Classics Illustrated. You can imagine what they were—definitely not comics about men in tights. Comics of Moby Dick to The History of World War I. I loved them all. As I got older, I discovered the wonders of R. Crumb, and of course Maus, Persepolis, and on and on. In addition, I’ve always been a huge fan of both biographies and of philosophy.

One question has always intrigued me—how does a person’s life affect their art or thinking?

Now, add Hannah Arendt to the equation. She was always on my radar. I think I first tried reading The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was in middle school. And her later idea of “the banality of evil” seemed fresh and unexpected and important. I wanted to wrestle with it.

While working on my weekly New Yorker submissions, my agent said a publisher was interested in seeing “anything,” from me, whatever I wanted to do. I thought, “Aha! I’ll do that long-form comic treatment of the enigmatic Hannah Arendt.” And when I actually opened the biographies, I found at every turn the events of her life were completely compelling. Her character and her thinking always impacted me in a powerful way— I felt like I knew her. I couldn’t not do it.

Punctuate: You describe Arendt as “arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.” Did you see it as a personal mission to call more attention to her life and her work?

 Krimstein: I really believe her thinking is profound. Now, understand, I am not a licensed professional philosopher, though some of my best friends . . .

In any case, as I dug deep into her work I saw how she took ideas in Continental Philosophy— phenomenology, existentialism, the inspired mélange of thinking that poured out of her great friend Walter Benjamin—and gave them a totally unique interpretation. In the place of living “unto death,” which was fairly widespread, she saw much of life’s meaning as arising “from birth—births.” She celebrated the creative force. What’s more, she questioned the contemplative life of the philosopher, and energized, if you will, the thinking I’d read from the likes of Sartre (and even Camus), and made it all very present, action oriented. These bold turns did completely new things with thinking. So much of what she lived and thought has been understood in headlines, often headlines people don’t really understand (truth be told, I’m not sure I understand all their nuances either, but what I get is powerful). I wanted to get beyond the headlines and follow her thinking wherever it led. And it led to some very thrilling places.

So, yes, in my opinion, she needs to be read and discussed and learned. A lot. Continue Reading


Liz Rose

September 18, 2018

While He Was Stopped by Soldiers

The first hour of the drive to Eilat, the resort town in Israel three hours south of Jerusalem was, in a way that I remember now, like a road trip movie: my feet propped up on the dashboard, my tanned toes sticking out the window as Khalil drove. The wind blew our hair back. We had Diet Coke and potato chips. A week before, when Khalil asked me to drive to Eilat with him, I wondered if we’d hook up. Going to stay in a hotel could only mean one thing. But I didn’t ask.  I said yes, and packed one pink dress, a red skirt, one pair of brown sandals, and my teal bathing suit. I was young and confident. I had recently mastered the mass transit bus system in Jerusalem. I could get anywhere anytime and never had to ask anyone for directions. If, on the rare occasion I didn’t know, I’d use my Hebrew to ask. When strangers on the street asked me for directions, they asked me in Hebrew—a sure sign that I was looking less American and more Israeli.  I was twenty-one, living abroad in Jerusalem as a graduate student, and I sported an attitude of bravado about things I knew nothing about.

Khalil was twenty-one, too, and we had met at a cafe near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem months before we drove to Eilat. The cafe served mostly tourists, but Khalil and I had been in Jerusalem almost a year already, and we began talking by scoffing at those we could tell were visiting for just a week or so. We sat at white plastic tables on red round plastic chairs. The smells of zaatar and sumac wafted around us as we spoke. The first thing I noticed about him was his necklace, a gold state of Palestine. It was the first time I saw what I was taught was the map of Israel, with city names in Arabic. I looked at his necklace against his brown skin, and then clutched my own necklace, a modern gold chai, the Hebrew word for “life,” and the lucky number eighteen, too, the legs bowed at the top and then narrowed. Khalil is a Palestinian-American, the youngest and only child of seven to be born in the U.S. All the others were born in Palestine. After growing up in the United States and graduating college, he had come to Palestine to live in Ramallah with an older brother for a year. For Khalil, hanging out in Jerusalem came to be a Westernized respite from living with his family under occupation in Ramallah. For me, going to cafes and bars in Jerusalem were small breaks from my evening graduate seminars at Hebrew University. At first, we ran into each other at the cafe a few times. After several weeks, we started to hang out more. A month later, he asked me to drive to Eilat for the weekend. I didn’t bother to ask if we’d have separate hotel rooms. We’d just figure it out.

Once we had been on the road for a while, I noticed a siren behind us. I figured—in my naivete—that Khalil must have been speeding. He wasn’t. We were pulled over by a car full of Israeli soldiers. They told Khalil to step out, forcing him to place his arms over his head and pushing him against the car. Using his knee, one of the soldiers spread Khalil’s legs wide. The soldiers were handsome. One winked at me and flirted, while he looked through my US passport as the others accosted Khalil. I smiled and clutched my chai. Khalil’s passport was American, too, but that didn’t help him as they searched his body. From inside the car, I watched them lift Khalil’s shirt and look down his pants. While he was being frisked, I sat in the car wondering if we would have sex that weekend. Continue Reading


Marie Harris

July 24, 2018

Bruised Hearts

On the Day Before Something Happened

Nothing much happened.

August morning on the Parker River Refuge. Shorebirds working the salt pannes. Tree swallows staging for the journey south. Harrier hunting low over the marsh. The last osprey of summer. My first least tern.

Nothing more happened.
And something terrible didn’t happen
until it did.


Close Calls

 The first: my daughter-in-law,
her voice from the ambulance
speeding her away from the crumpled car
back to their home town.
Their son is with her, unhurt.
The last she saw of her husband
he was still trapped
and a helicopter on the way
racing to beat the storm.

The second:
We’re there for you.
Four words that can mean less than nothing.
Except they are there. Understudies. Two friends
who simply walked out into the soft Carolina night,
turned the key in the ignition and sped down from the mountains
to his hospital bedside in another city
to watch and wait the long night
until we could get there.

Holly gave me a cotton throw that looked just
like a receiving blanket, printed as it was with little flowers.



He remembered everything. He told me everything. In exquisite detail. The impact. The noise and the fire. The suffocating cloud of extinguisher foam. His wife without breath for an eternity. His pinned legs. And he told me that a man and a woman and their son tried to help them. But there was nothing to be done short of spiriting their backseat carseat boy far enough away from the wreck that he could still see but not see. Then, he said, they talked and talked at them until the EMTs arrived.

 Months later, I found the woman’s name through the newspaper that had carried a paragraph about the accident. On the way across the road to help your family, she told me over the phone, my husband and I passed by the other car, the one that hit them head-on. And we glimpsed the driver slumped over the wheel. He had a long gash on his forehead. Then I saw. And then I knew. His heart had died before. Because all there was on his shirt . . . all there was were five drops of blood.

 Like the Shroud of Turin, I thought.
A white shirt that kept a kind of image of those moments.

Continue Reading


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