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Timothy Parfitt reviews Rachel Z. Arndt’s book, Beyond Measure

October 30, 2019

 

Beyond Measure
Rachel Z. Arndt
Sarabande, $15.95
190 pages

 

It might be fitting, given Beyond Measure’s subject matter, to critique it by ascribing a point value (ignoring for a moment that Punctuate. doesn’t employ a Pitchfork-style rating system). For Rachel Z. Arndt’s debut essay collection concerns itself with measurement: how we as modern citizens quantify our own desires, how society determines our worth, how numbers do and don’t capture the nuances of lived experience. Oh, how we burden our measurements with so much meaning.

The collection kicks off with “Sleep,” which covers Arndt’s sleep studies she had to undergo to “prove” her narcolepsy to doctors and insurance companies. Except that in Arndt’s experience, the results of these studies never settled anything. If the results did not mirror her experience, does the fault then lie with the tests, or with her perception? This question provides the springboard for an incisive and frequently profound collection of essays, one that pulls apart how modern personae depend on frequent self-measurement using evolving and sometimes suspect criteria. In this way, much of the collection acts as a riff on Eulas Biss’s classic “Pain Scale,” another essay concerned with how we quantify and communicate individual experiences.

In “Elliptical,” Arndt elevates the well-covered subject of exercise by probing its contradictions of utility and progress. Gyms offer machines to keep oneself in place while promising individualized progress. “We measure ourselves so we can compare who we are now not with other people but with previous and future versions of ourselves.” This sentence goes to the heart of what Arndt finds fascinating about the landscapes of gyms, where rows of machines make the user both the worker and the product. In her hands, the drab gym becomes a post-modern dance in which personal meaning is only available through endless measuring.

Arndt builds and deploys her sentences with great care, and many unfold in surprising ways. Consider how she describes her experience taking Xyrem, a narcolepsy medication that moonlights as GHB, colloquially known as the club and date rape drug:

The lack of control while under its effects seemed sickeningly fitting, as if the only way to treat a disorder is with more disorder, entry against entropy, all control wrested from the patient’s hands and given over to pharmaceuticals that tempt with the sweet waft of warm chocolate chip cookies.

As the clauses progress, Arndt captures the bind narcolepsy puts her in, one in which pharmaceuticals promise both relief and also a further loss of control.

The best essays use the rituals and yardsticks of today to probe existential and eternal questions. In “Match,” Arndt deftly articulates the ways in which the merry-go-round of available options can often ultimately compound loneliness. The measurement in this case is one of comparing every current or potential mate against the theoretical ones offered up by gamified apps. But for me, not all of the essays wrenched insight and texture out of their subjects. Arndt’s essay on Bed, Bath and Beyond, for example, attempts to tease out the narrator’s feelings about becoming an adult by analyzing her habit of endlessly exchanging cooking and houseware. There’s no shortage of wit at play, but Arndt couldn’t quite manage to make her toothbrush purchasing decisions interesting to me.

As a whole, Beyond Measure pulls off the surprisingly powerful trick of articulating and then undermining our current metrics for living. Without a point or star value to lean on, I’ll simply say that days after finishing it, Arndt’s collection of essays has me reassessing the world through her eyes.

 

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Timothy Parfitt is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Contrary, X-R-A-Y, riverbabble, Thread and Newcity.

Essays

Daniel Uncapher

May 28, 2019

Nancy Ave.

After my parents got married they purchased a mobile home on a gravel road called Nancy Ave in southern Maine, where I met Zack, who showed me what circumcision was.

My parents had always dreamed of becoming landlords, and when they’d finally saved up enough money for a bigger house down by the river they decided to rent out Nancy Ave. They offered it to a woman named Sue, a former friend from work with four dogs, a nicotine addiction, and depression.

No one is more sympathetic towards mental illness than my parents. So we spent a lot of time on Nancy Ave trying to help Sue out, which I hated. She made me sad. Her dogs smelled like cigarette smoke and her cookies tasted like tar, so I gave them to Zack unless he didn’t want them, and then I threw them in a ravine.

 One afternoon my parents picked me up from school on their way to Nancy Ave to collect rent. I decided to wait in the car while my parents went inside. No one answered the bell but the door was unlocked so they let themselves in, stepping in full view of the bodies: after hanging all four of her dogs, Sue had hanged herself.

Zack had all kinds of questions about it for me but I couldn’t answer any of them. I wished that I’d gone inside and seen the bodies just so I’d have something to tell Zack about. I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to know that I knew things.

A family of bikers from New Hampshire moved in shortly after. They had two daughters, even younger than me, towards whom my parents were deeply sympathetic, but they didn’t like to pay rent, with which my parents didn’t sympathize. They fell three months behind and then skipped town overnight, ripping out everything they could carry and leaving the rest for us to clean up.

This time I was happy to help. The bikers had left behind all kinds of valuable loot for an 11-year-old boy: I found a boombox, which my parents let me keep even though I didn’t have any tapes or CDs for it, and a Playboy, which I took straight to Zack’s and didn’t tell them about at all. After all, my parents had their own interests to protect. They took the bikers to small claims court and won, but couldn’t actually collect any damages, and had already moved on to higher-profile projects anyway.

So they decided to wash their hands of Nancy Ave.

The mobile home sold quickly, and after the closing we went to Applebee’s as a family to celebrate. My parents gave my sister and me two checks, small in the scheme of things but astronomical at the time, to compensate us for all our work at Nancy Ave, especially because they knew I’d been eyeing a Gameboy Advance.

My sister bought a Gameboy Advance, but after studying my options I decided to get a Playstation 2 instead, which lived next to the boombox at the foot of my bed. No one else I knew had one yet, and Zack was so impressed that he’d come over almost every day to play. We’d walk home together after school and play games together with our pants down, the Playboy open on the floor, taking turns on each other while the other one tried not to die.

Zack tasted like cigarettes, too, and I tried not to touch him with my tongue, although I did everything else he asked me to do. This is how gay people live, he said, trying to impress me. One day we’ll go to college and live together and it’ll be like this all the time. Let me sleep over tonight and I’ll show you.

But I didn’t let Zack sleep over that night, and I never went back to Nancy Ave again. I didn’t know what Zack knew or how he’d learned it, and even as it was happening I didn’t understand what exactly it was that he wanted—from me, from my friendship, from my body, which was ever so slightly different than his. I’d never heard the word gay before; I didn’t know two men could do that kind of thing together.

Had I understood it then like I understand it now, however, I would’ve let him stay the night.

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Bio: Daniel Uncapher is an incoming PhD in Creative Writing student at the University of Utah and a 2018-2019 Sparks Fellow at Notre Dame, where they received their MFA. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, The Carolina Quarterly, Penn Review, and others. www.danieluncapher.com

Essays

Mallika Mitra

May 28, 2019

The Houses

The living room is made of sticks. Moss as the carpet, shreds of bark as the roof. 

“Where will they sleep?” my sister asks, crouched beside me at the foot of a maple tree. I run my hands through the dirt in response, pushing together a bed. Grass as the pillow. 

From the road, we must look so small. Two girls with wood chips pressed into our knees making a tiny home out of Mother Nature’s offerings. Behind us, a two-story house raises into the sky. Our mother’s silhouette visible through the front window, setting the table, making a home. 

“When will they come?” 

I glance up while twisting blades of grass between my thumb and pointer finger, making them into stairs. 

“They come at night.” 

I don’t know this for sure, but it would make sense. I never see fairies during the day. 

A twig snaps beneath my foot as I lean across my sister to pick up a dead leaf. 

I never see fairies at all. 

I found them illustrated in a book a few days earlier. Their wings looked too big for their bodies. Their bodies looked like they could be snapped like the twig beneath my foot. I wondered where they rested when their wings stopped fluttering. My mother cooks my food each evening, humming as she leans over her pots and pans. She wakes me up every morning, pulling up the curtain, her outline the first thing I see. She runs the bath for my sister and I, dipping a finger to make sure it’s not too hot or too cold. The fairies didn’t have a home in the book. 

So I decided to make one. I wanted to make a home like my mother. 

When I recruited my sister she didn’t ask if fairies were real. 

The dead leaf is now a blanket, draped over the bed and pillow. My sister puts her pinky into the ground and spins it briefly, making a small hole. She places the stem of a weed into the hole and gently fills in the dirt around it. The beginnings of a fence. She repeats this over and over, her breath heavy as she concentrates. 

It didn’t matter if they were real. 

Inside, my mother wipes down the tables. I pull off the top of an acorn, making it a footstool. My mother rearranges the books on our shelves. My sister rips a flower petal into a square, a table cloth. My mother makes the beds. My sister and I make candles out of stems. How else will they see what we’ve made? 

Until dusk falls, we mold tiny homes for creatures neither of us know if we believe in.

___________________________

Bio: Mallika Mitra is a New York City-based writer. She is currently a master’s candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York where she is studying business journalism. She received her bachelor’s in English from Kalamazoo College.  Mallika has previously been published in Entropy and The Cauldron.  

Essays

Whitney Jacobson

May 28, 2019

Racking-up Signposts

Grandma Walters’s souvenir spoons hung on a three-tiered spoon rack in a nook next to her kitchen hutch while I was growing up. The spoon rack consisted of three horizontal 1x1x15 inch pieces of wood on a 15×15 inch back panel with additional wood framing each side. 

When I visited the farm as a child and wasn’t busy playing with my cousins and sisters, I’d occasionally climb on top of the Z-shaped metal stool with an orange vinyl-covered cushion stored underneath the spoon rack to order the spoons alphabetically by state. I apparently had no concern about whether my grandma had arranged them in a particular way, though if she had, she never scolded me for rearranging them to my liking. However, given that I remember organizing the spoons multiple times, someone else must have rearranged them too.

My process was straightforward and logic-driven: take all the spoons off the spoon rack, lay them out on the nearby kitchen table to sort them alphabetically, and then place them back on the spoon rack. The final step became an issue when I realized the spoon rack didn’t have fifty slots for all fifty states—it only had thirty slots (ten cavities per row), and though she didn’t have a spoon for every state, she did have multiples of some states. I compromised by pairing spoons from the same state and pairing similarly sized/shaped spoons ordered next to one another as needed. 

One time, after finally arranging the souvenirs to a standard I could live with, I announced, “There, Grandma! Your spoons are organized!”

As she walked over from the stove, to survey my handiwork I assumed, she off-handedly remarked, “Oh, I have some more in here, honey-girl!” and pulled a glass filled with additional souvenir spoons out of the hutch.

I sighed and resigned myself to the work ahead. 

My compulsive organization has a long history. When I was as young as eight, I’d pull out the fresh laundry my dad had put in my dresser drawers, refold them, and arrange them in the drawer to my liking. To this day, I am particular about having things organized—my husband, Ben, curses my knowingness: “You can tell if a cereal box is moved two inches to the right!”—and my spoon rack today follows the same ordering system I implemented on my grandmother’s.

I started collecting state souvenir spoons when I was 21. Ben and I had decided to go camping at Itasca State Park after he had been horrified to learn that I had never been camping: “How can you call yourself a Minnesotan?” 

“My grandparents have a cabin on a lake in a tiny town in northern Minnesota that I’ve visited multiple times nearly every year of my life” I huffed. “It doesn’t get much more Minnesotan than that!” 

Indeed, the summer I was born, my parents dipped me in the cabin’s lake off the side of the boat. The cabin itself is around 450 square-feet that we cram ten or more people into for sleeping purposes each summer. The furnishings are all odd cast-offs from various home updates and garage sales. Many are still the originals placed there when my grandparents bought the cabin in 1970, including the heavy, yellow Formica and chrome chairs and expandable table from the 50s. It is not a lake house.

Acknowledging my experience, but still unsatisfied I had never slept outdoors, Ben borrowed a tent from his parents, and we gathered food, bug spray, outdoor clothing, sleeping bags, and other essentials before setting off to our remote campsite. 

While biking around the trails at the park, we stopped in the Jacob V. Bower Visitor Center to view the displays and considered the souvenirs available in the gift shop as we were leaving. As I rotated a rack of magnets, pens, keychains, and postcards, a flash of silver caught my eye. 

“What’d you find?” Ben asked when I walked up to the cash register.

“A souvenir spoon!” I replied as I handed him the five inches of detailed metal with an Itasca State Park sticker on the handle.

Seven years later, my souvenir collection contains 22 spoons, but I hope to collect one from all fifty states. Twenty spoons are from states I have travelled to—I am particular on this point. I only collect them for places I have visited and done something significant in, i.e., around five years ago, Ben and I road-tripped from Minnesota to Colorado and back. Spoons from Iowa (my parents lived there), Missouri (my parents now live there), Kansas (my parents lived there), Colorado (we visited a variety of places near Denver), South Dakota (we visited the Black Hills), North Dakota (Fargo is the sister-city of Moorhead where Ben and I met), and Minnesota (hello, Itasca State Park) hang on my spoon rack. However, I didn’t buy a spoon in Wyoming since we merely drove through a corner of it.

Two spoons were kindly gifted to me by my sister, Amanda, after she travelled to Texas and Oklahoma on a Students Today Leaders Forever trip in college. But, as I have not yet travelled to those states, they are separated from the rest of the collection by a 45thwedding anniversary spoon passed down to me by a great-grandmother. Ben and I haven’t quite hit that mark as we got married just last year, so it serves as a clear boundary between the two sets of state souvenir spoons. 

As I look at my collection, the similarities and the differences among them draw my attention. The spoons are usually silver colored, though two of mine (Illinois and South Dakota) are gold colored and the exception to the rule. They typically come in two lengths: three inches or five inches, plus any additional adornment on the finial (the end of the handle). Most commonly, the finial denotes the state or a specific location within the state via a sticker or a plate within a metal design, though the bowl of the spoon may also have words, images, or an outline of the state etched into it. Some spoons have unique finials, such as my Missouri spoon that is shaped like the skyline of Kansas City or my Hawai’i spoon with silver sea turtles and the Hawaiian Islands raised in a painted blue circle with silver trim. Additionally, some have a charm that dangles in a circle underneath the top decal, such as the Space Needle charm on my Washington spoon. 

Some of my most unique spoons include my North Dakota spoon, which is real plated silver and quite tarnished. It has the state name engraved along the neck and the years 1889-1989 engraved diagonally in the bowl to commemorate the centennial denoted in its finial. I inherited it from a great-grandmother, who obtained it while visiting relatives there. I bought my Colorado spoon at the Denver Mint’s gift shop, and it has a blackened paisley print along the neck and clear crystals around the circular plate of the finial. 

My Massachusetts spoon was purchased quickly at Boston’s airport in a gift shop, and it may be my most disappointing piece. The finial is ovular with the Old North Church emerging, while Paul Revere riding a horse along with the word Boston are raised from the bowl. Despite common and satisfactory features, the metal is what disappoints me—it is a matte metal that looks handmade and as if it is painted silver. Some may argue that the metal makes the souvenir unique among my collection, but I prefer uniform, stamped shiny metal among my spoons, despite their individual distinctive features. As I recall, I could not find a spoon fitting my preferences in Boston, so I purchased the one I now have to avoid the risk of not buying one at all—and indeed, I didn’t see any others on our short trip. So, I have a spoon from Massachusetts. 

I’m keen to only purchase spoons from places I’ve been because I see them as a figurative map on the wall with colored pins inserted where the owner has visited. They are tokens that invoke stories about travels. They are tangible evidence of memories. As I’ve asked my grandpa, dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins about Grandma’s spoons, their faces have lit up in remembrance of the trips they were part of and stories they were told about the travels. 

“Your grandpa drove their motorhome through Times Square!” my dad laughed. 

“You know they drove that motorhome up where they weren’t supposed to in Yellowstone,” my aunt, Betty, snickered. “He had to back that motorhome down the edge of a mountain.”

“I remember looking through Grandpa’s eight-tracks when we went with them out west,” my cousin, Jason, grinned. “Country-western and gospel—nothing I was interested in.”

I look at my spoon from Oregon and remember renting a car with two friends and driving from Portland, where we were presenting at a conference, to Cannon Beach to put our feet in the Pacific Ocean and see Haystack Rock. I pick up my Kentucky spoon and recall the grind of a long week of contract work, but also the pleasure of making new friends, trying new food, and visiting Churchill Downs.

Sure, some I have bought in retrospect from an initial visit, like my Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin spoons, but they still represent a life lived and a continent explored. I couldn’t place the first time I travelled to Wisconsin and Iowa if I tried, given that I grew up in southeastern Minnesota, approximately eleven miles from the Iowa border and 125 miles from Wisconsin. But I do remember going to Lake Okoboji in Iowa on a boating trip with my family when I was around ten, just as I recall driving to Madison, Wisconsin to buy a car with Ben in my twenties and anxiously watching the grey-green sky for hail as we drove home. My Wisconsin spoon was bought in an antique shop in Duluth. I purchased my Iowa and South Dakota spoons when Ben and I visited the states on a road trip, though I had visited the Black Hills in my teens with my family. So, ideally, I buy the spoons when I initially visit, but when that’s not possible, or not considered, I look for new adventures to obtain them.

When Ben and I recently visited New Hampshire for a friend’s wedding, we didn’t encounter any gift shops or gas stations selling the spoons. I was so disappointed we hadn’t found a spoon that I ordered one off of Amazon when we arrived home. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked my friend to find one for me, but not wanting to be a bother, I took the easy route. The spoon’s arrival was anti-climactic and disappointing. There’s something about the hunt of finding them that is essential to my collecting experience.

One may ask, how did my grandma accumulate all of her spoons if she and my grandpa were farmers? Well, when my grandpa retired from farming and the local bar he subsequently bought and sold in his late forties, he and my grandma bought a 1977 GMC Midas motorhome that they used to travel around the continental United States. Along the way, my grandma, a perpetual collector of antiques and dishes, bought her spoons. They took a three-week trip out to the East Coast to see the monuments and museums, in addition to trips to Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Las Vegas, California, and Yellowstone. Their travels were helped by my family living in Nebraska for a few years and my uncle, Jeff, moving to Colorado. After living on a farm in southern Minnesota for her whole life, my grandma wanted to see as much of the United States as she could, and my grandpa went everywhere my grandma did after they got married when she was 19 and he was 21. They didn’t see all 50 states, but I’d like to think they saw enough for my grandma’s liking before nestling down on the farm again, my grandpa’s favorite place. 

My sentiments and desires toward collecting the souvenir spoons are certainly grounded in the fact that my grandmother collected them. My grandma was rarely out of the kitchen for long, so as I organized her spoons as a child, I’d ask her about when she got certain ones, and she’d tell me about the trip to that state. Sometimes they were labeled with a place I couldn’t connect to a state (for example, my Itasca State Park spoon has no mention of Minnesota on it), so I’d ask her where the spoon came from. Occasionally, she’d have to come over and look at the souvenir herself before closing her eyes, as if to place herself at the location in her mind’s eye, before telling me where she bought it.

Her kitchen was the location of endless conversations and card games, as well as numerous memorable meals. Along with the traditional fixings, Thanksgiving meant her signature, slightly lumpy mashed potatoes; pumpkin pie doused in whipped cream; raspberry Jell-O with garden raspberries immersed; and two dozen or more devilled eggs. Christmas Eve meant chili and oyster stew with aunts, uncles, and cousins crammed around the kitchen and random card tables. Afterward, as we digested, we’d play rummy, tic, 500, or if you could partner off from the large group, cribbage.

In early November, during my senior year of high school, my family found out that Grandma Walters had colon cancer, and the prognosis wasn’t good. She started the process of chemotherapy but stopped and moved to hospice after deciding she didn’t want to live the remainder of her life in misery from its effects. I was conscious of the necessity to record the recipes that she used no recipe cards for. However, my anticipatory grief and need for hope prevented me from acting on that awareness. She died in May, two weeks before I graduated. Her death left me searching for ways to recreate that kitchen, both in taste and feeling.

In the past year, I inherited my grandmother’s spoon rack due in large part to my grandpa moving off the farm and into assisted living after he fell multiple times. Since my grandpa’s move, my dad and his siblings have been organizing, dispersing, and throwing out 100 years’ worth of possessions collected on the farm. My sister, Makayla, was there one weekend when they were sorting through items in the garage and out buildings, and when she saw grandma’s spoon rack in a discard pile, she pulled it out and noted that I’d want it for my spoons. It was quite dusty when I received it, and it doesn’t hang flat on the wall after being stored in a garage and thus exposed to Minnesota’s temperature changes. Nevertheless, I happily removed the flat spoon rack I’d found at an antique shop from my kitchen wall and replaced it with my grandmother’s cleaned and warped one. 

Receiving my grandma’s spoon rack helped bring her presence into my kitchen, but it also made me wonder where her souvenir spoons went. I’ve since confirmed that my aunt, Debbie, my grandma’s only daughter, has them, which is fitting. I’d love to have the spoons, but I respect her privilege to them. In particular, I’d be interested in spoons from states I visited prior to beginning my collection. Many I have not visited again to be able to buy a spoon from, such as states I visited on a week-long school-organized bus trip to Washington D.C. as a high school freshman. Since my grandparents never travelled outside the continental United States, I’ll have to either visit places such as Puerto Rico again, which I travelled to on a training trip for swimming in college, search for the spoons in antique shops, which is satisfactory in its own way, or purchase them on the internet, which is particularly disappointing.

In addition to the souvenir spoons on my rack, there also hang four stainless steel Stanley Roberts Lancelot teaspoons, which I treasure more than all the souvenir spoons. As I’ve gotten more and more of my grandmother’s (and now mother-in-law’s) itch for antiquing, I’ve also been on the lookout for additional silverware to make a complete set, and recently picked up a matching box of six knives. They’re heftier than the spoons.

Each individual spoon is heavier than any other teaspoon I’ve held and consciously paid attention to its weight. The spoons are thick—nearly twice the depth of most spoons I’ve seen. Beyond the neck of the spoon, the handle is a honeycomb pattern with a dot in each honeycomb. There are four dots going down the center and five along each side of the center. Between the dots and the honeycomb outline, the metal has been darkened. 

These four were given to me when I was in my early teens by Grandma Walters. She always had a hodgepodge of silverware sets, but these four spoons didn’t have any matching forks or knives in her silverware drawers on each side of the kitchen sink. I’d always seek out one of the spoons when I ate ice cream at the farm. I’d pull the Kemps gallon ice cream bucket out of the freezer located underneath the windows at the end of the kitchen counter, along with a glass jar filled with garden raspberries out of the fridge. 

Each summer, my grandma would go out and pick ice cream buckets full of raspberries and black raspberries from the roughly 10×16 feet patch behind her garage. (If I was “helping,” more berries were making their way into my mouth than the bucket.) After rinsing the berries off inside, she’d spread them out on cookie sheets and coat them with sugar. Then, they’d be divvied up into any jars she had available and frozen. 

After my ice cream turned burgundy from all the berries I dolloped on it in one of my grandma’s Anchor Hocking Fire King milk glass chili bowls, I’d grab my spoon and settle in on the couch to savor the delicious treat. I loved to take a scoop and flip the spoon’s bowl upside down in my mouth, to make sure I didn’t miss a drop. After noticing that I always pulled one of those spoons out to eat, Grandma Walters said I should take them home with me if I liked them that much, so I did. 

I wonder what my future children will collect, if anything, how it will be influenced by the people in their life, and what it will mean to them—just as I wonder how my future children will remember the sleek concave set of silverware Ben and I received as a wedding gift, if they place any significance on the household silverware at all. They will certainly see my souvenir spoon collection in a warped spoon rack on the wall, though, and hopefully they’ll ask me about it. Maybe they’ll even create some of their own memories by acquiring some of the spoons with me. 

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Bio: Whitney (Walters) Jacobson is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth and an Assistant Editor of Split Rock Review. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have recently been published in DASHFeminine CollectiveLikely Red PressWanderlust-Journal, and Voice of Eve, among other publications. Visit her website at whitneywaltersjacobson.wordpress.com

Essays

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.

Essays

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. 

GLOSSARY OF EATING DISORDERS:

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:

MAURI’S ANOREXIA
Prep time: 7 years
Baking time: 

Ingredients: 
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).

Directions: 

  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.”

COMMON HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF (RESTRICTIVE) EATING DISORDERS – INCLUDING ANOREXIA: 

  • 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. 

OTHER CONSEQUENCES YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT THAT I DO 

  • 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.”

RECOVERY 

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 

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https://www.aedweb.org/learn/resources/fast-facts

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20353603

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

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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.