The Chickens Wake At Five

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, The chickens wake at five.

I swing open the creaky door of their coop and they dart out into the yard. They high-step through the garden, bobbing through basil, pecking at tomato plants. Sometimes they scratch up a cloud of dust then sink their bellies into the dirt.

The chickens are named Himalaya and Buddha. They are both thick and strong, but Buddha is a little smaller and more docile than Himalaya. Their glossy feathers are red and black and they shine like oil slicks in the sunlight.

I don’t know much about chickens. I assumed the eggs would come in the morning. But when I open the lid to the hay filled box where they sleep, all I find are two chicken shaped indentations. It’s not until late afternoon that they appear, those two pastel ovals in the yellow straw.

I collect the two eggs in the afternoon. Each egg is smooth, warm, and oblong. Holding them in my palm I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity. Like the symbol, the eggs are matched halves---shells containing, curves repeating.

I blame Alice Walker for thinking like this about chickens, for trying to see the universe in a bird, for trying to see poetry in poultry. Around this time last year I was reading Walker's  “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” I found myself enchanted with Walker’s meditative and philosophical writing, and entertained that her observations where drawn from contemplating the behavior and being of her flock of chickens.

I should probably explain how I came to have chickens in the first place. I’m housesitting in Brooklyn in exchange for chicken keeping, dehumidifier emptying, and acting as liaison to a visiting French family who will be staying in the upstairs portion of the house.

The place is stunning. A classic Brooklyn brownstone on a quiet tree lined block. I’m here with my dog and my computer and not much else. We’ve retreated here so I’ll have time and mental space to complete my documentary project and to apply to grants. At home my attention dissolved into chores, work, television, more chores, more television. Here I get up early for the chickens and the dog, work on editing and writing and transcribing, walk to get a coffee, loll in the park.

This is not my real life, I remind myself.

This is a single six-week escape. It’s a special time for working and writing.

It's time I’ve come to understand I need in order to actually make progress on creative projects. I hardly leave the apartment. I walk the same loop to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the apartment. Oddly enough, if I were to trace my daily walking routines on a map they would take the shape of an ellipse. An oblong, egg-like trajectory. Contained, repeating.

An Insufficient Fare Kind of Day

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It’s an insufficient fare kind of day.

A spilled soda kind of day.

A drop a dirty fork on a customer and he rolls his eyes at you kind of day.

A your best friend misses his flight to come visit you kind of day.

An if I try to fold this blanket I’m gonna freak out kind of day.

A day when the murderer of a black teenage boy goes free.

A day when your heart feels numb and clumsy as a gloved hand.

A day when you realize that everyone you know is sad for the same reason and that’s the one thing that makes you feel better.

A day when the murderer gets his gun back and the prosecutor smiles and says she’s proud and you wonder how did these people get to be in charge and what is wrong with us?

A day when your friends go to a rally and walk all around Manhattan and miraculously people still have hope and rage and energy left.

A day when you sit in the yard after work drinking a beer with the guys, listening to them talk in Spanish, using your four verbs, laughing at stupid stuff and cheers-ing over and over again. And you know it doesn’t change anything but it makes you feel better.

And your boss’s cousin talks about how jail is so easy these days it’s like daycare and you crack up.

And you look at the sky and think about how you are just a tiny spot on the globe.

And you are more than usually aware of the complicated, simple humanity of everyone around you.

I have nothing very smart to say about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and racism and the American justice system. There are so many people saying smart things all over the internet, I’m sure you have read them. I don’t know if I should even try to talk about it, but I can’t really think about anything without also thinking about that.

I have been reading so many heartbreaking, infuriating articles over the past few days since George Zimmerman was acquitted. I have also been doing a bunch of stuff to prepare for my wedding, which is on Saturday. My emotional state has been blurry, as if the good and the bad cancel each other out, complimentary colors mixed together to make a non-color.

I've been looking through Pema Chodron's book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change to find readings for the ceremony, and this passage feels particularly apt at this moment:

"The other morning I woke up worrying about a dear friend's well-being. I felt it as an ache in my heart. When I got up and looked out my window, I saw such a beauty that it stopped my mind. I just stood there with the heartbreak of my friend's condition and saw trees heavy with fresh snow, a sky that was purple-blue, and a soft mist that covered the valley, turning the world into a vision of the Pure Land. Just then, a flock of yellow birds landed on the fence and looked at me, increasing my wonder further still.

I realized then what it means to hold pain in my heart and simultaneously be deeply touched by the power and magic of the world. Life doesn't have to be one way or the other. We don't have to jump back and forth. We can live beautifully with whatever comes--heartache and joy, success and failure, instability and change."

I can't let my heart go numb. I have to have a big, wise heart that has room for all of these things at once.

Waiting

diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to https://www.facebook.com/ThePritchettFamilyAdopts) or share their adoption website (www.thepritchettfamily.com) with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

Bridesmaids: Broke Edition

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm honored to be a bridesmaid in my dear friend's wedding later this summer. The only problem is that being a bridesmaid costs approximately one million dollars and I'm a starving grad student.

My friend isn't a wedding-crazy bridezilla who expects us to pony up for hair extensions and matching "bridesmaid" bikinis for pre-wedding pool time (that's totally a thing---I saw it on television). She's been so thoughtful that she's even arranged for family members to host us in her hometown since she knows we all have to pay for plane tickets to get there. The expenses that go along with traditional weddings just add up -- for everyone involved.

At this point I've adequately scrimped to get the dress, the shoes, the plane tickets, and the wedding gift. Unfortunately, her bachelorette party is coming up in a couple weeks and it's a weekend trip to her family's vacation house. Between the plane tickets, the dinners out, etc, I don't see how I can swing it. This is one of my very best friends and I hate the thought of not being there for a big event in her life though. How do I handle this?

Sincerely,

The Penniless Pal

 

Dear Penny P,

It appears to be a trend that, instead of a night out of debauchery, bachelorette parties are now days-long events.  Should we blame The Hangover?  Perhaps not---in general, it is pretty great that women are asking themselves, "How do I really want to usher in this new phase in my life?" and what they are coming up with is having their closest friends around them for a weekend, soaking up support and relaxation before all the bustle of the wedding begins.  It's sort of a last hurrah before joint couple vacations happen.

But that's what this is: a vacation.  You stated you are sad not to be there for a big event in your friend's life, but the event is the wedding. This is a vacation, that your friend has invited you on, that will be totally centered on her.  I hope I can adequately explain that I have zero judgment about this practice.  I have been invited on many such weekends in the past few years, as ladies getting hitched have decided they'd prefer a fun time away with their friends rather than a sure-to-be-slightly-embarrassing "bachelorette party".

Many of us cannot afford vacation, however.  We simply don't take them.  A "weekend away" is not a reality for us, or if it is, it is rare and hard-won.  People from income brackets and lifestyles that give them actual time to take vacations and the funds to do so take week (or month) long vacations, and then consider these little weekends away to be just something you do with your Saturdays and Sundays.

Which must be nice.  But those of us without that kind of life spend our weekends at the laundromat, planning meticulous weekly meals that fit our tiny budget and shopping for them, and, often, working our second job.  Most of the time, it feels okay to do this.  This is the life we either chose because we believed in it, or are willing to accept, at least for now.  However, it goes from feeling fine to feeling like shite when all your friends are on a weekend vacation while you are wondering if you have enough pennies to splurge on the tiny box of fabric softener this week.

So, where does that leave you?  You have two choices.  The first one is: you stay home, sit with your disappointment, and work hard at not turning it into resentment.  Perhaps you can offer a special night later in the month with your friend that is just the two of you---you can cook her dinner at your place, present her with a thoughtful homemade gift, and talk about the coming changes for both of you as she embarks on marriage.

You'll have to work together on managing the fact that you can't show up for your friend in the way that you want to, because of your different lifestyles.  This is going to keep happening.  We always want to give more to our friends than we can, and often it is because it is impossible to be at the same place at the same time in our lives every step of the way.  She sounds very thoughtful and understanding, so forgiving yourself for not going on the weekend will be tantamount.

The second choice is you ask for help.  If this is just too important to miss, you must lay it all out for your friend.  You tell her you can't afford the dinners out, so can you all cook dinner at the place where you are staying?  Ask her if she has some frequent flyer miles you can use to get out there.  Let her know how much you want to be there, but you simply can't do it on your own at this time in your life.  If she can help you, I'm sure she will, and it will bring you closer to work on raising the funds together.

Either way, you have to be really vulnerable and truthful with your friend about your financial situation, and your desire to be there for her.  I really believe she is going to be understanding either way, so the hard realities will be all your own.  Your love for your friend is non-monetized.  This is only one weekend, and it sounds like you are a friend who will be with her in the grander sense, for much longer than that.

In Broke Solidarity,

Sibyl

What Are You Writing, Lisa Rubenson?

what are you writing lisa

Fitzgerald is remembered for his blockbuster-worthy works and the words within them, and while many are currently caught up in quoting (and misquoting) The Great Gatsby, one quote used among rhetoricians across this great nation is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” However you choose to interpret this, and there are many ways in which to do so, I believe at its most basic the quote implies that there are no second chances. Fortunately for the optimists of the world, this is not necessarily true. In Lisa Rubenson’s case, believing in second chances was the first step in good fortune, and good writing. Rubenson was recently the recipient of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest award, where her theme focused on second chances, a theme that also seems to be a part of her own life. When she is not being called “Julie” accidentally at her favorite coffee shop in Charlotte, NC, she spends time with her husband and two daughters, all the while writing with intention. I invite you to read her words on chance and how it changed not only her, but also how it can change all of us. I believe in second chances, and third and fourth and eleventh—whatever it takes to get it right. “Do overs” make things like hope, redemption, and games of mini-golf possible. Why else would we have put erasers on the end of pencils and invented that whole “command Z” business? The thought that we might be able to undo at least some of our mistakes helps us get up in the morning. Otherwise, and I’m speaking for myself here, I would’ve given up after wearing a “Dynasty”-inspired jumpsuit to prom.

When I heard that the author Mona Simpson would be judging round 10 of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest, and that the prompt was to tell a story in the form of a voicemail, I decided to submit something. I’m famous for leaving “rambly” voicemails, and I liked the idea of playing with the form. Voicemails, and that grace-filled asterisk on the lower left of our phone keypads, are all about second chances. You can record, re-record, and then record again whatever you want to say. It’s not unlike the writing process, with its many drafts and the never-ending cut-and-paste dance.

For the contest, I wanted to create a story that told itself by accident, wherein the main character struggles—like many of us—with what needs saying and what doesn’t. I also wanted readers/listeners to know more than the intended recipient of the voicemail could know. When the main character attempts to call her old boyfriend and simply say, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother,” she unravels the thread of their whole history together.

I had never submitted anything to the 3MF contest before, so I was very surprised to win. The chance to talk to Mona Simpson and NPR’s Guy Raz about writing, then receiving Simpson’s novels and being published in The Paris Review, were exciting outcomes of the win. An actress heard the story and felt a connection with the main character, so we’re developing a screenplay for a short film. I love the idea that my little story can live on and be interpreted through the eyes and experiences of others. Talk about second chances. It was also nice to hear from so many people I did and didn’t know who could relate to the story. Apparently, there are a lot of other prolific voicemail leaver-deleters out there.

I’m entering the world of fiction writing late in the game, which is another reason why the idea of second chances appeals to me. I’ve spent my whole career writing for other people, channeling their voices and helping them shape messages. Although copywriting is a kind of storytelling, the distance between the writer and the material is too far. I want to write my own stories, and bring to life the characters that have been hanging around in my head for way too long with nothing to do.

The writers that inspire me the most are the ones that march me up to the edge of the figurative cliff and either force me to look down or show me how to live in the tension of standing there with the wind in my face. They can be hard living, whisky swillers (Hemingway and Raymond Carver are favorites), or highbrow British ladies—Virginia Woolf and those Brontës could sucker-punch you with their characters’ desires. I like to be terrified by the beauty of an image and made dizzy by the genius of a writer’s prose, which is why I spend time reading Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Karen Russell. Next up for me is a trip to the Tin House summer writer’s workshop, where I’ll soak up some “writerly” wisdom from the great Benjamin Percy. I’m also working on my first collection of stories, which will include flash and longer pieces that share a common theme.

My favorite part about writing fiction, and also about re-inventing myself as a fiction writer, is not knowing where I’ll end up. It’s like getting on a train in a familiar place, falling asleep, and waking up in a foreign country. I start off thinking I know who my characters are, what they will do and say, and then they haul off and take me somewhere else—a place I was either afraid to go or never knew existed.

 

 

To Whom Do You Give Your Joy?

loud and clear joy

For two years after college I was a restaurant hostess. And every night, at ten o clock, I would walk down the delivery hall, swipe my punch card, put on a pair of sweat pants over my tights and few minutes later fall into a bus seat for a ride over the bridge and into my north side neighborhood. A smile of acknowledgment to the bus driver was the last sputtering of any niceness I had left---god help any poor soul who asked for change or stranger who wanted to chat while sharing the seat. Nope. Nu-huh. I was done---fresh out of politeness or civility (and genuine care?  I ran out of that a few hours ago.) More than once I feared coming into contact with a disguised sorceress on public transportation who would "see that there was no love in my heart" and hex me into a Beauty and the Beast situation.

At the end of days like that I didn't even recognize myself. I'm a total bleeding-heart type and usually unfailingly pleasant, to a fault. If I learned anything from those soulless nights it's that emotional energy is limited. Despite our best efforts, it's possible to get to a point where there isn't anything left to give. I think back to times when I've cried myself out: heaving sobs eventually subsiding into a wave of calm. Or, when a breathless announcement falls into its own kind of script: "yes, I'm just so excited!"

A few months ago, I misread a line in some self-helpy thing that left a question that's stuck with me. Who do you give your joy?

I think most of us have a mental speed-dial list of people we turn to in a crisis. It's a small handful of people who understand our worries and validate our fears and even in our most hysterical moments respond with "oh yeah, that's totally reasonable." I trust these friends  in the deepest way possible. I give them the parts of myself that I'm not proud of and that only show up with my heart-of-darkness at 10pm on Trimet.

But, the list of those who receive my for joy is different. I give a little of it, all over (and sadly, perhaps the least of it to those who take my tearful phone calls.) I so value my relationships with emotional intimacy---the rare moments when I can truly turn in off and just let it all out---that I forget about the good stuff. I give the most of my joy to those in that "middle area" of friendship, relationships full of love and admiration but also the secret desire to keep myself together to keep them around.

This is compounded by the fact that many of those we are closest to in our hearts are actually a few thousand miles away. It's easy to lose sight of the daily lightness, because we need them so much for the weight of things unresolved in our hearts and we only have so much phone time during a lunch break.

All of this is to say, I want to allocate myself differently---to share the easy joy of newspaper articles and nailpolish colors and to make more calls beginning with "remember that time . . ." and ending in a giggle fit. I want to be better at giving the best of me to those who love all of me, regardless.

 

Trust No One

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Okay, you asked for it . . . This question doesn’t appear to be about relationships, but then again, maybe it is!

Yesterday, one of my best friends was doing an energy healing when with no warning whatsoever, he started speaking (something he doesn’t normally do during a healing!) an unintelligible language and making a lot of weird clicking sounds. It was later revealed that he was bringing in Sirian and Pleiadean energy to prepare him for his next level of consciousness. As if this isn’t mind-blowing enough, my friend was told that he is an ET ‘in disguise’, that he’s only pretending to be human, and that he will reveal himself within the next couple of years. As you can imagine, my friend was a little shaken by this experience.

So here’s our question: Assuming that we are living in multiple dimensions simultaneously (see Brian Greene’s Cosmos series on PBS) or at the very least have lived many lives in many galaxies throughout the multiverse, aren’t we all ETs? Is it just a matter of semantics?

Thanks,

Cosmic C

 

Dear CC,

You have a pretty exciting social life.  Seriously, the best I can do these days when I get together with friends is try not to insult each other's politics by serving only sustainable agriculture.  I am obviously hanging out with the wrong crowd - no one reveals their true identity as an alien, no matter how many glitchy hip hop beats we listen to.

So, you are clearly doing something right, at least on the level of some cosmic shit happening on any old Tuesday.

Now, to your question.  I absolutely cannot claim to be an expert in human-Extra Terrestrial relations, as my experience with communicating with beings outside this earth is confined to whistling the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then feeling a little creepy thinking about who might be listening.

However, I suppose we are all E.T.s, to someone.  In many ways, we are all aliens to one another, our own little universe in our experience.  Sometimes communicating even with the members of my own family feels as complicated as mastering an intergalactic language.

And if it turns out that life does exist on other planets, it will be important to remember that to them, we are the aliens.  I suppose it is all a matter of perspective, and I commend you for widening yours.

I don't think I'd take that friend of yours to Las Vegas, though.  What if all the lights and sounds communicated something to him, and he turned into a creature from a Ridley Scott movie?  Then you'd really have a quandary on your hands.

With Roswellian love,

Sibyl

Independence Day

me without you

My mom married my stepfather on the Fourth of July. Her second marriage and his third, the celebration was small and the guest list short on immediate family. The wedding took place across the street from my stepfather’s house — our new house — at the home of a neighbor who ran the nondenominational Christian church we attended. The following year, I would be baptized in that same neighbor’s pool, wearing a starched white robe, my sins washed clean in chlorinated water. Mom wore a mauve dress and a matching broad-brimmed hat. I donned a yellow dress and worked triple duty as flower girl, maid of honor, and ring bearer. My legs grew tired during the long ceremony, but I took my roles seriously, staring stoically at the minister.

Mom’s wedding ring was a cluster of diamonds and sapphires, my birthstone, because, as my stepdad liked to say, he was “marrying them both.” Unlike most men who spotted the truckload of baggage my 30-year-old single mother dragged into a first date and bolted for the nearest exit, my stepdad was thrilled to be a father. During the reception, he ushered me from table to table, showing off the trophy-sized version of his wife to his coworkers. Wasn’t his new family pretty? So charming, so pleasing, so blonde.

The reception took place on the neighbor’s waterfront deck. After the sun set and the new couple enjoyed bites of wedding cake, the stormy night sky lit up with a perfect view of the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display.

I wanted to like him, but I just couldn’t. He was too old, his tall, broad frame too physically imposing to find comforting. He was too eager to hug me. I felt bad that I didn’t like him, knew that I was being the stereotypical stepchild, unhappy with any parental copy vying to replace the original. I was softened by his prideful, paternal glow, but his hand on my shoulder was heavy and oppressive, like dead weight. The determined way he maneuvered me around tables of new faces at the reception made me uncomfortable. Well wishers and cheek pinchers said that Mom and I had much to be thankful for because my new dad loved us very much and would be very good for us.

Good for us. What about to us?

He was neither. This Thursday marks the 237th anniversary of our country’s independence and the 26th anniversary of my mother’s dependence on an abusive spouse. He was cruel and psychologically abusive, berating us — mostly her — on a daily basis. He picked fights, pushed us to breaking points, and then exercised his will, dangling our freedom in front of us like a carrot. If we took the abuse without “mouthing off” or “disrespecting” him, maybe we’d get what we wanted, which was usually a day without fights or insults.

I’ve found it difficult to convey the experience of living with him. He did not fit the familiar Lifetime movie mold of the abusive husband. He did not hit or molest us, but he told us we were unlovable and dim-witted. The golden trophy family he once proudly boasted became his “stupid bitches,” “lazy brats,” “fat pigs,” and “cunts.” Mom preached endurance to me; she saw our union with my stepfather as a trying but finite sentence. We would endure him until I was off to college. We would use his good neighborhood, zoned for good schools, to get me a good education and arm me with everything I needed — everything she said she couldn’t give me on her own — to get out. We strategized and conspired as if we were tunneling out of Alcatraz. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, it became clear that the dual escape we were planning was only meant for me. We argued and fought and Mom placated me, but her interpretation of our situation shifted from “I’ve made a mistake. I’ll make it right.” to “I can handle him. Don’t you worry about me.”

With each year of marriage gained, Mom gave something up in kind. First it was her job, followed by her car. Then she wasn’t to leave the house during the day. Next she was limited to one phone call per day (she snuck in more), with no incoming calls after 6pm. We spent the years keeping secrets from my stepdad to ensure I enjoyed more freedom as a teenager than she did as a middle-aged woman. She manipulated and cajoled and weathered his outbursts and accepted the brunt of his venom.

Five years ago, when Mom began forgetting things, withdrawing from family members, and acting insecure and fearful, I assumed that 20+ years of verbal abuse were simply taking their toll. Amidst the usual exhortations to leave him, I tried to give her perspective. “You’re not stupid. I forget things all time, and I’m not being berated constantly.” But her smile and trademark Pollyanna optimism weakened. Needless to say, recent research suggesting a link between depression and dementia comes as no surprise to me.

Now that early onset dementia has reduced my mother to a husk of her former self, my stepfather is in the unlikely role of caretaker. I believe he loves her as much as he is capable of the feeling. But he does not accept any guilt for Mom’s breakdown, and often counts her illness as another way in which she has made life difficult for him.

Only a few years into their marriage, my mom and stepdad stopped acknowledging their anniversary. There were no gifts, no cakes, no date nights. It was always just another 4th of July, just another Independence Day.

Two Paths

Something happens when you become a mother; it’s easy to lose sight of who you were before. For some women this happens all at once, when they become pregnant or right after they have the baby. For others, myself included, it is more like a trickle. Everyday when I look in the mirror, my previous self seems farther and farther away. Right after Charley, this made me depressed. I would stare into my enormous closet full of size four silk dresses that weren’t even close to fitting. With tears in my eyes, I wondered when I would ever wear them again. I must have had forty pairs of heels, that sometimes for fun I would shove my foot into and walk around in our apartment. Slowly, throughout that first year of being a mom, I let go of all of that. I sold my dresses, one by one, on Ebay. Sometimes I would search for the addresses of the recipients on Google. I imagined that my prized pink wool tweed dress was going to another adventurous girl at 150 Oak Street, Chicago, Illinois. I bid it adieu and hoped she would wear it well. I pictured it going out to fancy dinners and to the opera. The shoes went next. They were narrowed down until one day I had only a few pairs, and they were all flats (or clogs). This editing infused every aspect of my life. I purged perfumes I didn’t use, jewelry I never wore, even books I would never have the time to read. I purchased ‘mom shorts’ and chopped all my hair off. I embraced motherhood. Or so I thought. Suddenly, sometime after my second son was born, I looked in the mirror and gasped. I couldn’t even recognize myself in pictures. I realized I had strayed too far down one path. In embracing motherhood, I had ignored my true self, the ‘me’ I had discovered before kids.

I set out to merge these two paths. I knew I didn’t want to be 100% ‘mom’ but I also knew I could no longer be 100% ‘me, me, me’ like I was before children. They needed me as their mom, but I also needed me as me. Part of merging these two paths was making decisions with both selves in mind. So much of parenthood is dealing with your previously suppressed notions of what it means to be a family and a mother. For some reason, I believed I had to buy those ‘mom shorts’. I felt they were my ticket to the club, to some hidden sisterhood that I desperately wanted to be a part of. Instead it just made me feel further from myself.

Part of combining my two selves is bringing my kids to experience the places I love. For the first time, we brought them both to Chicago last week. Charley was thrilled! He pointed out every tall building (there were many) and every type of truck he could see. We walked up State Street, where I had moved as a wide-eyed college student. It was a nostalgia trip, to say the least. But it felt like home for the first time in a very long time. I saw my two selves merge, I could be a mom and I could be my old self as well. It would just take time.

Why We Need Feminism, Reason #3849

Asking For It with Sibyl

Hi Sibyl,

I feel very lost.  Within the past 4 years, I've moved to another state, lost my job, gotten married, cheated on my domineering husband, gotten immediately divorced due to the shame of my actions, started my own business, moved 4 times within this city, and had the misfortune to fall in love with a wonderful man who turned out to be an alcoholic.

First and foremost, I struggle with the cheating and divorce.

My husband was a great guy, but treated me very much like a mother, being bratty until I fed him and coddled him, and took care of him -- and at other times, he treated me like I was a child.  After moving to his hometown, I made friends very slowly, but when I did, it upset him and he became jealous and would scorn me..  I felt trapped.  I lost my job as an architect, and went to work as a hostess at two restaurants, at my husband's immediate urging.  I also began working at starting my own business.  I had no access to our checking account or shared car, and he was grumpy whenever I needed rides.

I just snapped at some point, and began drinking, partying and had decided it was worth it to let a predatory co-worker have his way and we began a sexual relationship.  I've always been a good-hearted person, slightly bookish and nerdy, so when this co-worker cornered me at a work function and told me that I was beautiful, and sexy and basically proceeded to force himself on me, something in me felt amazing and energized, for once.

But it only made me ashamed of myself and unable to face my husband.  I pulled away, sure that our marriage had crumbled because of me.

That became a turning point in my life.  I ended the affair, moved out, got a new job, and ended up falling in love with a man that I felt immediately kindred to.  During my marriage, I had this feeling that things were happening TO ME, rather than me being in control of my life.  As soon as I made the decision to finally face what I had done, and began rebuilding my life, I felt for the first time in my life that I could see clearly what was important to me and how I had failed to have agency in my own life with my husband.

I remembered all the times when his dominant personality had prevailed, turning me into a submissive and scared person, at his mercy.  I have never been a fighter, always sensitive to the needs and wants of others, and can easily see their perspective.  However, this type of personality, without a sense of grounding in what I wanted, turned quickly into people pleasing, rather than being understanding.  I was an easy victim who fed right into the types of emotional manipulation that people like this rely upon to keep others under their control.  Being isolated from friends and family meant that I had fallen into the perfect situation for an emotionally abusive person to take hold of me.  It's taken me a few years of therapy and personal growth to understand this, and my role in the situation.  I vowed never to get into such a bad situation again.

Very shortly after leaving my husband, I met S, a very charming, handsome and successful entrepreneur.  He was everything my ex-husband wasn't: fun, super sexy and totally energetic.  Whereas my ex-husband never had many friends, S had a million.  He was adventurous, loved my cooking, and we'd talk for hours about life, design, and literature.  He felt like the adult I had been looking for.

We quickly moved in together, and began building a life of trust, health, adventure, and business-building. I had even quit my boring marketing job to begin my business full time, with S's new company as my largest client.  Things felt like they were falling into place.

After two years of our life together, I found out that he had been cheating on me with roughly 5 other women.   Of course I was devastated, but because I had committed similar acts of deception, and had known the healing effect forgiveness could provide, I decided to listen to him and give us a chance to reconcile.

That's when everything began to unravel.

It was right around this time I became aware of S's upbringing.  He was one of 7 children in a fundamentalist Christian household, and was celibate until age 23.  He had carried a Bible around with him every day, and was very fanatical about his religion.  Until he decided that he didn't want that life anymore, choosing the opposite.  He left the church, began drinking heavily, opened up a bar with his brother-in-law, and began sleeping with as many women as possible.  He would start fights about anything that resembled family values, like having children, getting married, being faithful, creating a home, etc.  Though, he also became extremely hard on women who might be like him, dating multiple guys, being expressive of their sexuality.  On one hand, he wanted to be near these "slants" as he termed them, yet also hated them.  I believe he also has a similar feeling about himself, which leads me to the drinking.  I believe he has such internal conflict about how he lives his life, that drinking and girls ease that pain for him.  From my experience as a cheater, the worst part is facing the other person that you hurt.  There are a few ways to get around that.  You find someone new, who has a good opinion of you, surround yourself with others who have low morals and wouldn't judge you anyway, and numb yourself with booze or drugs.  I fell into the "new people" and "drinking" categories.

I've never written this story, and I apologize that it's so long.  Basically, I learned from my own experience that people fall, they fail and deserve a chance to be forgiven.  So I honored this decision and began to work with S to understand him and be there to help him get past this.  I knew that forgiveness would have gone a long way for me.

Another reason that I'm attracted to S is that he is a creative, very successful entrepreneur.  That's something about him that I wish for myself, to be as successful and well-respected.  Being accepted by him somehow makes me feel less insecure about my own shortcomings, which stem from financial instability, building a small business, and taking responsibility for my life.  I also love him, and we truly have a wonderful connection---or so I thought.

As soon as I discovered exactly what S had been hiding from me-- the girls, the drinking, the deception-- he was never the same.  He turned from a loving and supportive partner into a combative, irrational, mean-spirited person.  He began to blame me for "finding out" and for expecting too much from him.  He cared less and less about falling short and hurting my feelings.  I found out that he had been in an on-again off-again relationship for 8 years (which went on during an engagement to another woman, and during my relationship).  I know all this yet, my main problem is giving up and moving on.

Our city is small enough that getting away from someone like this business-wise is extremely hard to do.  My clients are linked to him and his to me.  He constantly makes it seem, to these people, that we are a couple, or at the very least that we are on good terms.  This is what I've termed "emotional-business abuse".  He's mostly concerned with how the public sees him, because he runs 6 restaurants/bars and wants to be seen as a leader.  He threatens that if I tell someone who he really is, that he'll destroy my business.  He constantly tells me that he created my current success.  He represents us as a couple to whoever it seems like it might be fitting to do so (without my consent and without me being there).  Everyone loves him and is fooled by him.  It's kind of a mess.  And I end up feeling so overwhelmed and (again) not in control of my life.  I didn't want this to happen, I wanted to build a life with S, and focus on doing good work and building a great business.  It just seems that because he can't come to terms with who he is, and forgive himself, that he needs everyone to like him to combat the truth of his life.

I feel courageous for having gone through what I did, and to have emerged with a greater sense of who I am, but now I'm just baffled at how to create a life that I am happy with, because so much has been destroyed in the last few years.

The whole situation leaves me with these feelings:

1.  Did I make a mistake leaving my husband?  When it comes down to it, I would love a partner and a family and a home.

2.  Why does someone like S have this power over me and why is it so hard to not equate my self worth with what he thinks of me?

3.  How can I begin to feel happy again, to plan my life with excitement?  Right now, I tend to feel like a failure.

4. How can I let this go and pursue a life that I love?

Thank you so much for reading all of this.  Just writing it makes me seem like I'm spending too much of my time thinking about this.  Please help me gain a new perspective on this situation.

Thank you,

Baffled

 

Dear Baffled,

You are in what I like to call a Patriarchal Shit Spiral. What I would really like to do is plunk you down in a feminist re-training program, where you are not allowed to date a man for at least a year, but I am not sure that exists.

The current man in your life is really no different from the last, he's just a bit more interesting. Both of them see women as objects to get what they want, rather than whole people.

I'm going to directly address your questions rather than speak overarchingly, since there is a lot here.

1. You did not make a mistake leaving your husband. Divorce is a two person endeavour, and there are very real reasons that you cheated on him and left him. You felt it was your only recourse to get out of a marriage in which you were completely stifled as a person. Could you have done it more gracefully? Perhaps. But you needed to get out of there, and sometimes the only way out is to implode it all from the inside.

2. S has power over you because of what you find attractive. In order to stop dating men like S, the co-worker, and your ex-husband, you are going to have to radically change your idea of what is "hot". You'll have to take back a lot of the power you've been giving to men to run your life, and make choices for yourself. It is extremely scary to do this at first, but in the end you'll find yourself wondering what you ever saw in those kinds of overpowering male personalities. I really want you to ask yourself some deep questions, about why you are attracted to these kinds of men, which I think would be best done with your therapist. Have you ever been into a person who wasn’t a domineering personality? How did that relationship go?

3. In order to feel happy again, you need to be free. You are completely bound up in the expectations other people have of you, particularly what the men in your life think of you. You need to get in touch with who you really are internally, rather than whether or not you are a success in your relationships, career, and life trajectory.  I know you are reluctant to let go of S, because all you see down that path is loneliness and ruin, but believe me, this man is not as universally liked as he appears to be. You will have allies if you leave him, and you will rebuild both your business and your self-worth, on your own foundation, not someone else’s.

4. Self-forgiveness is tantamount to your ability to let go and build the life you want. In order to fully embrace that, you need to understand that your choices, and your subsequent shame about them, were a part of the patriarchal system designed to uphold the image of men as powerful beings that get to call the shots, and women as mercurial sprites who exist to support and serve them. It is a system that is hurting men as well as women, and you are seriously caught in its web right now. You’ve got to cut your way free, which will be painful, but incredibly worth it.

In closing, you are definitely not thinking about this too much. It is all you should be thinking about.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

Slippery words of another tongue

eternally nostalgic

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start" in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word 'tartle' in Scottish refers to "the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name." And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade---and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. I grew up in a word-loving family, with Greek as my mother tongue. Tallying up the score of Scrabble games with my father exposed me to double-digit addition and to the perennial "is that a word?" any game of Scrabble inspires. Studying for the SATs as part of the process of admission to an English-speaking university in the United States exposed me to a whole other family of potential Scrabble words. While I excelled at the questions that required knowledge of words with a Greek root, I struggled with the ones that required test-takers to pair an animal and their young. What do you call a young lamb in English? What do you call many doves flying together? The kind of knowledge that one acquires in her childhood when English is her native tongue was foreign to me. And so at the age of 16, I scribbled on flashcards: "An ewe is a baby lamb." "A calf is a baby cow." "A constitution is a group of doves, a pride is a group of lions, a pack is a group of wolves."

The realization of my own English fluency sank in when I began to dream in English, when the English words started seeping into my subconscious, displacing the Greek ones. When I started learning Spanish, or German, or even fledgling Arabic and Hebrew, I noticed that there came a moment when the precious few words I had mustered would find their way into my dreams---or, indeed, my nightmares, as that one night in Bogotá when I dreamed that I could no longer speak a word of Spanish in front of a room of 750 ex-combatants would attest to. I still maintain my connection to my mother tongue and actively try to cultivate it, even when there are few people with whom I can speak Greek in my daily life at present. I read the Greek news, and I return to my favorite book of Greek poetry by Odysseas Elytis when I am homesick for Greece or hunting for inspiration. And still---I can feel the words slipping away as soon as the language of my dreams shifts away from Greek.

It is not just the words that slip; it is also the fundamental functionalities. For a long time, I spoke 'professional Spanish.' You could ask me to lead a conflict management training and I would produce polysyllables comfortably. Put me in a bar surrounded by Spanish speakers and I would be effectively mute. The casual rhythms of a language often lag for me. I long for familiarity with those words that break the stiffness. When I aspire to fluency in another language, I hope for those words of wit and smiles, the teasing words or casual words you only learn by living somewhere and listening closely for motifs and idioms. The more of those I accumulate in a language other than my mother tongue, be it in English or in Spanish or otherwise, the more the informal Greek slips away from me. Put me in a bar in the Greece of 2013 and I would struggle with not having the ease of conversing naturally like a young person who knows she can find the word that best describes what she wants to express---the perfect word for saudade or mamihlapinatapei.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, I felt the impact of words in Greek. "I'm sorry" was a concept I understood by relating it to its Greek iteration: συγνώμη. "I love you" was Σ' αγαπώ. It was as though I experienced the full weight of those words only if I uttered them in my mother tongue. "I love you" did not feel intimidating in the way that saying 'Σ' αγαπώ' for the first time did---because I associated the nerves of young, unuttered love with Σ' αγαπώ and not with "I love you." Saying 'I love you' in English initially felt like performing in that way that speaking a second language often does, thus robbing the words of their full power which only existed in Greek in my mind at the time. After living in Guatemala and Colombia, I became conscious of the many linguistic iterations of "I love you", of the difference between Te deseo and Te quiero and Te amo. Despite the beauty and benefits of multi-lingualism, I never quite want the impact of αγάπη to fade---I never want the Greek iteration of words to feel more foreign or distant to me than the English word 'love.'

Every time I arrive at a new country for my job, there are words I am immediately curious to learn how to say. Empathy is one such concept, as are the words that express gratitude or respect or compassion. English is the default language in which I think now; every new word learned in a foreign language gets translated in my head to English before it's fully comprehended. And much as I celebrate fluency and linguistic curiosity, a little part of me grieves for the Greek words that quietly slip away.

*If you have a moment, look up my favorite untranslatable Greek word: filotimo -- φιλότιμο, as telling of my mother tongue as it is of my people.

It's Not You, It's Me. And By Me I Mean My Job.

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I am young and employed at the exact place that I said I would love to have a job at when I graduated with my undergraduate degree just over a year ago. I have a benefits package and vacation days. I rent a small home with a fenced-in yard and a small vegetable garden in the back. Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I seriously consider calling in sick to work. Some mornings I cry.

I have struggled, over the years, with chronic "mild" depression and anxiety issues. I have gone to therapy, tried medication, and have no issues with either of these things. They helped! It was great! I have been off of both for five years to no ill effects. But I have always been "moody" and "high strung," even when it wasn't bad enough to require medicine or therapy. Coping is not my biggest strength. But I'm trying to find a therapist in the area and maybe that will alleviate some of what is happening. I'm just not sure that is the entire problem here.

I loved my job at first. But staff has changed, and now the situation feels toxic. A new coworker is saying negative things to my boss about me. My boss is increasingly taking anger about mistakes made prior to my hiring out on me. I've become paralyzingly afraid of making even a single mistake.  My boss gets annoyed if I don't respond to emails they send after hours or if I leave before they do.  I miss interacting with (and helping, even in small ways) customers, as the nature of my tasks is devolving rapidly into standard unpaid intern-type tasks (and that's about the level of credit I get). Twice last week I came very, very close to having anxiety attacks while I sat at my desk. I've only been at this job for 6 months, although I've been with the organization for 3 years.

Sibyl, do I just need to get over myself? Is this job really not for me? Should I consider jumping back into the job search, even if it means leaving my current position after just a year (assuming I am able to find an alternative after a brief job search [I probably wouldn't be so lucky])? Are the issues with my job just a figment of my currently depressed and very stressed imagination? I should be happy right now---so why aren't I? And how do I get there?

Sincerely,

Sick Of It All

 

Dear Sick of it All,

Perhaps you are familiar with this quote, attributed to Steven Winterburn: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

I think you may be finding yourself in the latter category, my dear.  You absolutely need to get out of that job.

I can understand your confusion.  It is noble to ask yourself first, "Is it me?  Am I the author of my own unhappiness?"  But I think that before you come to that conclusion, you've got to say, “Well, maybe it’s a little of both.  Let me rule out some external suckiness and see how I feel.”  If you want to find out whether depression is plaguing you once again, you need to get to a baseline of peace to see what your natural state is.

It's possible that you are getting hit with the solemn reality that, for most of the world, work really, really sucks.  It's dehumanizing and disempowering, and all the infographics about "doing what you really love" don't help when you're punching a clock to make payments on student loans that you'll never actually pay off in your lifetime.

However, it does not seem like your issues are normal work drama stuff.  Something in you is reacting strongly to this current environment, and I'm here to tell you, you can make those changes you want to make.  You must be willing for your life to look really different, but it is possible.

Having spent way too long in a job that went sour, I asked myself, once it had all blown up in my face, "Why didn't I get out sooner?  I saw the writing on the wall months ago - what kept me there?"  Everything I could think of: loyalty, security, false hope, all could be summarized by one thing: FEAR.

I feared I wouldn't find anything better, I was afraid of having less money, and I feared what people would think of me if I left.  So, eventually, I was forced out, and once the dust cleared I saw that not working there anymore, even though it meant I was out of the full-time workforce for a considerable amount of time, was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I came to the realization that no job, if you are miserable every time you’re there, is worth the paycheck, if you are paying in mind-body-spirit health.  We spend more time at our jobs than anything else we do.  I’m not saying we need to love every second - all jobs have their equivalent of “taking out the stinky garbage” - but yes, I think you should look for a different one.  And if the garbage still smells so bad that you are hyperventilating at your desk, follow up on those therapy referrals.

Be smart about it---don’t do your job searches while you’re on the clock, don’t burn your bridges (you never know when connections you made at a miserable job will pay off in the future---someone is watching your hard work, believe it!), and save as much money as you can, so you’ll be in the position to take a less-paying but more fulfilling job next, if that’s what happens.

The first step is opening your mind to the possibilities that await, and deciding that being so upset at your job that you are questioning your own sanity is not okay.  You need to break up with this bad job like it’s a really terrible partner that steals your money and crashes your car.  No looking back.

Love,

Sibyl

One Big Awesome Tide Pool.

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, Last week I started working on my first podcast. It’s a new sub-project of my documentary film Stories From The Green Cabin. The podcast is a little silly, really. It asks people to talk about their work as if it were a wilderness. Say, for example, that someone is an essayist. The podcast asks them: What would essay writing look like as a physical place? Is it like a lush rain forrest, a freezing tundra, or a beautiful, peaceful field?

Then more questions along those lines: What is in an essayists backpack? Do you need a map, or is there a clearly marked path? Is it lonesome or are there lots of others like you?

What is the most dangerous animal to an essayist? (The Internet? An empty coffee cup? Self-doubt?)

What’s in your canteen? (Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?)

What’s your advice to a newly exploring essayist? How important is it to go to school or have a guide before venturing into this wilderness?

What would a Girl/Boy Scout style badge for your work look like?

I’ve had this podcast idea for a long time. I had been listening to shows online about writing, pop culture, science, international news, cooking , etc. Eventually I started using the Sticher app on my phone, which helped me burn through even more podcasts while walking my dog, sitting in traffic, or riding the train. Most of the shows were great. I loved them. Two of my favorites were The Dinner Party and Hash Hags. I liked the content and the hosting of Hash Hags, the theme and the structure of The Dinner Party. I wanted to listen to a show that combined the two, but couldn’t find one.

So I bought a bunch of audio equipment and told a few close friends about my idea.

Then I let the audio equipment sit unused on my bookshelf for almost six months.

Then I emailed Elisabeth and Miya and said “Hey, I have this idea for a podcast, can I share it on Equals?” They said yes.

Then the audio gear sat on my bookshelf for another month.

Something was wrong.

My desire to produce a podcast was there but wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone project. The podcast didn’t have a home within Stories From the Green Cabin at that point. Would I really want to create a new website and media presence to support this podcast? I wondered. Would I really want to bother my friends about having them as guests on a silly little side project without knowing where it was all headed? There were so many people I wanted to talk to about their work but there was little reason for me to set aside the time in my schedule to record, edit, and promote this quirky program.  It seemed to me, at that point in time, that the podcast idea was just a distraction.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was halfway though an application for a summer media program*, that I realized how the film and podcast were linked. Applying for something always has this clarifying affect on my work. Regardless of whether or not I secure the grant or get accepted into the residency program, the structure of an application always demands a simple, straightforward explanation about the project in question.

The boundaries an application presents in format and word count always leave me with a better understanding of what I’m really up to. This time around I came to see how both the podcast and the film satisfy this intense curiosity I have about identity, creativity, and work. It seems so obvious now, but just months ago I couldn’t make that connection.

When I was little I was obsessed with tide pools. They felt like mini-oceans suddenly and perfectly contained for observation. Every once in a while a big wave would come and wash all of the little tide pools into one big awesome tide pool. I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement when connecting the film and podcast. For a long time I was just waiting for the next big idea wave, I guess, when all it really took was filling out that application to change the tide.

*The program I applied to (and have since enrolled in) is hosted by AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and Uniondocs in Brooklyn. It’s called the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive. For any freelance radio or film producers out there, check it out---there are still a few spots available!

 

My Mother’s Twin

me without you

When I was little, my mom would go out a couple times a month to play bridge with a bunch of girlfriends at my godmother’s house. Though infrequent, I dreaded these outings. A worrier by nature, once the sun set I started to imagine worst-case scenarios. What if she got in an accident on the way back? Mom was a notorious nervous ninny behind the wheel, and I was convinced that her too-tentative method of merging would be her doom. What if she got mugged walking to her car in my godmother’s sketchy neighborhood? I whipped myself up into a panic that was somewhat quieted by two (okay, maybe three) “check-in” calls to my godmother’s house. But the angsting did not subside until I heard Mom’s key slide into the lock of our side entrance. Until that moment, I stayed awake, vigilant, as if encouraging my gut churn would keep her safe. I prayed silently and obsessively, like a mantra or a compulsive tic: “Please, God, let her come home. Please, God, let her come home.” These moments made clear that Mom was the only real thing to me. I wasn’t comfortable with anyone else. If she died, where would I go?

One of these evenings my hand was hovering over the phone for another check-in call when it rang.

“Hey there! How’s it going?”

“Oh good, I was just about to call again. When are you coming home?”

“Wha-- ? Oh no, honey, I’m sorry. This is Lynn.”

Lynn is mom’s identical twin. When they were little, they dressed in matching outfits and white-blonde pigtails. Even they can’t always tell who is who in old photographs. As an only child for most of my adolescence, I was captivated by Mom’s twinship. She and Lynn spoke almost every day. They often had the same dreams. In elementary school, they would switch classes, each pretending to be the other. They also have the same voices — the same timbre, the same slightly Southern cadence, the same hearty laugh. This wasn’t the first time I’d confused Lynn for Mom on the phone, but the audial illusion never ceased to surprise me. And freak me out a little.

If Mom dies, I used to think, 99.95643 percent of her DNA will be living in Boise, Idaho. I imagined how much it would hurt to hear Mom’s voice on the line, the false hope it might inspire, if Mom died and Lynn called me.

In addition to sharing most of their DNA, Mom and Lynn display matching personas. Exuberant, optimistic, easy to laugh, and quick witted, being in their joint company felt a bit like watching a sitcom. They were two halves of the same brain, a near-constant stream of mirth and/or argument. Though their twin lexicon was heavy on inside jokes and shared experiences, you were never excluded from their banter. They seemed to be aware of how fun they were as a pair and wanted everyone plugged into the experience.

Lynn’s presence validated my unconventional relationship with my mother. Growing up, I somehow knew that Mom wasn’t regarding me as other moms did their daughters. She spoke to me like an adult and often didn’t shield me from adult realities. I’ve long said that I was raised to be Mom’s friend or confidant, but remembering how she was with Lynn, it’s obvious that I was filling the void of her twin’s absence. Even when they weren’t getting along, Mom and Lynn were always close, but they haven’t lived in the same state since before I was born. Being a twin was in Mom’s bones, and physical distance didn’t stop her from feeling like one half of a whole. The relationship she nurtured with me was informed by her twinned experience, the imprint of her sister a blueprint for every relationship she had.

Mom and Lynn turned 57 on Saturday. With Mom in a Florida nursing home and Lynn now living in Nevada, they are still separated by several states. Over the years, Mom’s dementia has rendered them singletons. Lynn is bravely if not reluctantly redefining what it means to celebrate a birthday, one that is no longer shared with a functioning other half. Though Lynn will never replace my mom, she has been an unexpected gift in my grieving. Over the past five years as Mom has rapidly deteriorated, Lynn and I have become closer, sometimes talking a few times a week, sharing and comparing stories about Mom, providing updates on her condition. Lynn has become a surrogate mother to me, and her likeness to mom — in both looks and humor — is a comfort I can’t articulate. We are bridges between the sister and mother of our youths and the memory she is becoming. As more years pass since the last time Mom was able to speak to me on the phone, Lynn’s voice on the line is less a copy and more an original. I see distinctions in their personalities that I didn’t detect before. Her voice lets me remember my mother’s, the voice that was imprinted on me, and allows me to speak to it as I learn to let it go.

Saying Goodbye

This is the story of our first house. We bought it when we moved back from a failed attempt to live in Seattle. It was the house we bought out of defeat, when we truly just needed some place to live. But it was also the house we bought from the desire to dream big. We had big plans for the place. We were going to transform it from ‘barn’ to ‘beach barn’ to ‘modern cabin’. In two and a half years we did transform many things. We renovated four bedrooms and put two and a half new bathrooms in. We removed popcorn ceilings and installed laminate floors and repainted every room. But at the end of the day, there was still so much to do and we realized we weren’t the family to do it.

This is also the story of the first years of our marriage. Of the countless fights at Ikea about bathroom sinks and faucets. Of nights spent dreaming and deciding how large our family should be. I’ll never forget the orange tile we didn’t replace and how dark the living room was. I won’t miss the countless spiders and broken French doors. I already miss the perfect location though, at the end of a dead end street, just a short bike ride to the ocean.

In the end it felt like the house won. We tried to modernize it and change everything, and in the end we changed more about ourselves. Perhaps moving makes you introspective. We thought we wanted the big house with two big cars and a bunch of kids. Instead we realized more isn’t more. A big house meant more cleaning and more junk accumulated. Now I long for a simpler life, with a little house, or an apartment. (Apparently we are the worst with yard maintenance). Charming and older, where we can raise our two boys and dog and focus more on that than renovations. It’s amazing how much change two and half years can bring. When we moved into the house we thought we wanted several more kids, and then maybe only one, and then brought home our last and final baby to that front stoop. We learned much about ourselves and our marriage, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to accomplish. And now, are suitcases are packed, the house is almost empty and we are ready for our next great adventure. When people ask where we are going, we tell them we aren’t sure. But isn’t that kind of exciting?

You can follow my moving saga on Instagram @shannon_oertle

xxxx. paris

postcards from france

I first lay eyes on the Eiffel Tower, that eternal symbol of France, in the summer when I am 15 years old. I haven’t even had my first kiss yet, but I am filled with romantic visions of Paris — ones that I’ve carefully cultivated during repeated viewings of Amélie and Before Midnight.

On a hot afternoon train back from Versailles, I quietly watch as a French girl a few rows in front of me is approached by a cute Spanish boy, both about my age if not a few years older. Their common language is English, so I listen as she points out places to go on a folded, faded paper map of the city that he’s pulled out of his pocket. Before their separate stops in the city, she writes her phone number somewhere around the sixth arrondissement. He flashes a heartbreaking smile back at her as he steps off the train.

If only I’d sat in that seat, I scowl.

For a long time, I think of travel in this way — a matter of happenstance and luck where something magical might happen only if I’m in the right place at the right time. To a certain extent, I still think this is true. But the most magical things I’ve experienced so far have happened when I make them happen — when I uncross my arms, get up, and move a few rows over.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading samantha

Samantha Marie Bohnert enjoys the snow, words, adventures, writing letters and finding something new to dream of daily. She has been a writer since she could put pen (or pencil) to paper, and is inspired by many things, from the way the light hits her toes in the morning to the sounds of her surroundings. She lives in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; a city that has kept her heart safe and follows her wherever she goes. Her love for coveting what is beautiful—and sharing that beauty with those around her—brings her happiness, always. The other day I was at my father’s pool, and I handed him a library book­–the standard, crinkly plastic-covered kind that smells like books from decades past­­–and after barely looking at it, he asked, “Do you still read?” Now, to any innocent bystander, a question like that would imply that not only did I used to read, but that I had also forsaken it long ago. But I knew the true meaning behind his inquiry: he wanted to know if I read with the same ferocity, dedication, and irreverence to my surroundings as I did in my youth. I was never a social child, and one would assume I lacked a nose because it was buried amongst pages during all waking hours. This was the girl my father knew well; a girl who preferred the company of fabricated strangers, and who could tune out any cacophonous setting. But that behavior is now a faint memory, as is my ability to regain that type of unwavering focus.

No one would suspect a lack of reading in my life; I have two bookshelves packed to the brim in my home, and I recently checked out five books from the library. But I have a terrible secret . . . that aforementioned book my dad shied away from? I haven’t even cracked it open. And one of those bookshelves is reserved exclusively for authors whose words I have never read. Please accept my apology Dostoevsky, Eugenides, Rushdie, but not Proust; I am saving the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) for my own, personal column: “What Are you NOT Reading, Probably Ever.” From what I’ve gathered the work is every avid reader’s kryptonite, mocking him or her from the bedside table. I’ll get there when I get there, okay? I have even dedicated a special section of my blog to that ominous bookshelf called “Shelf Life.” And before you ask, no I haven’t finished the book mentioned there, either. But I digress. I am not some hoarder collecting books uncontrollably. My intentions are pure and true, but if I am being completely honest with myself, I buy books and wear out my library card because that is what happens when you love something so deeply. You immerse yourself in it, let it envelope you, let it overtake whole areas of your life (and apartment.)

My entire life has been spent coveting words, yet there was a significant and somewhat detrimental lull in the time I spent with my paged companions. I was growing up, exploring other interests (gasp!), and somehow I strayed. The only books I read in my undergraduate program were literature of a certain century, and graduate school was an amalgamation of rhetoricians classic and contemporary. Needless to say, I was pigeonholed. Maybe it was self-inflicted, but that is not important, nor relevant at this time. What is important is that I pushed away that past love of mine for something else, but as my life settles and my mind regains clarity, all I crave is a book that allows for the rest of the world to just…fall away. So I buy and I borrow; I read reviews of any published work that have just one thing about them that grabs my attention. It is a slow process, and I have to tell myself that I am not that wide-eyed girl with a wealth of time and freedom. And I certainly cannot just read anything anymore. I want to read words that move me, that cause a reaction. I once vowed that any book I started I would always finish, no matter how abhorrent. However, there have been certain stories I have read recently that are difficult to stomach. I proceed with trepidation and hope always, always that I will feel what I used to. I think I am getting there through the briefest of moments that occur in between wading through less than desirable writing. So fret not, fellow bibliophiles, and please explore those moments from the past year. Also, thank your lucky stars that I am not writing as my 12-year-old self; at that age I read more than 100 books in a year. Nowadays, I am lucky to get through 100 pages, so my list is much shorter. Enjoy.

L’Etranger (The Stranger) — Albert Camus

The Fifty Year Sword — Mark Z. Danielewski

Hannah Coulter — Wendell Berry

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — Dave Eggers

A Map of Tulsa — Benjamin Lytal

On Beauty — Zadie Smith

Currently, I am reading Whole, a non-fiction work by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and in a bold, yet silly move, I am simultaneously working my way through The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Check in with me in a few months, where you will probably witness me crying amidst a circle of unread books. Like a champ.

The Diary of a First Time Filmmaker

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, I am making a film. Does that make me a filmmaker? I'm not sure how this all started.

I guess it began back in August last year when I traveled from Virginia to New York to go to that blogging conference. I wasn’t much of a blogger, really. I was mostly unemployed, living in a dank hunting cabin that was infested with stink bugs and a rowdy squirrel family, and feeling mixed up about my next step in life.

I had hoped the cabin would help me make progress towards my goals. I hoped blogging would magically make me more dillegent in my writing practice. I hoped I would find a way to get out of coffee shop and retail jobs for good. The blogging conference was my first real step towards what I wanted to be doing with my time.

Don’t get me wrong, Diary. There’s nothing wrong with working in retail or pulling shots of espresso to get by. I still work in the service industry to pay rent. It was just that I didn’t know how to balance that work with the work I wanted to be doing in writing and filmmaking. The cabin gave me time to apply to writing residencies. It gave me the safe feeling I needed to share my work with someone other than my writing partner.

My time at the cabin also gave me some perspective on other work I had done that hadn’t been a good fit. I had worked as a production assistant on commercials, documentary films, industrials, and reality shows. But I think it was a safety net to work those kinds of jobs. I wanted to be close to filmmaking, but I never actually made any films. I was close to something I loved, but not actually embracing it full on. I enjoyed working in production but I wasn’t sure it was helping me find my voice. It wasn't much different than working at a coffee shop or in retail.

At the blogging conference, just like when I had worked on production gigs, I struggled to explain my story. I was a complete failure at “branding” myself in a way that made any sense or felt honest. Freelance production assistant/barista/salesperson? Aspiring director/editor/ writer? I didn’t know what I was about, let alone what my blog was about. Was it about my move to the cabin? About my budding interest in food? My pets?

It mostly became about my pets. 

I had a hard time connecting with people at the conference because I was so confused by my own blog. One person I did connect with was Lisa Weldon. We met at a small group session about writing book proposals based on personal blogs. The content of the workshop went in one ear and out the other, but Lisa’s story stayed with me. After the session I introduced myself and wrote a little note on a piece of paper with my contact information since I didn’t have any business cards. I also wrote “you’re awesome!” because, well, she is.

After a few weeks back at the cabin thinking about why I liked Lisa’s story so much, I emailed her and asked if I could write a screenplay about her experience. Lisa had walked every block in New York City the summer before and mastered social media in the process. She said yes.

Eventually I realized that reaching out to Lisa about her story was also a security blanket of sorts. I thought if I wrote about a compelling story that had really happened I’d have justification to write a screenplay. None of my own ideas could be good enough for a script, I figured, I needed someone else to help me along.

Lisa encouraged my writing through emails and calls. We even hung out in her hometown of Atlanta so I could do research for the screenplay. But then a funny thing happened. The story stopped being mostly about Lisa’s trip to New York two years ago, and started being about our relationship. We sent each other drafts of stories, sample chapters, and general positive vibes about our respective creative ventures. We stopped talking about the screenplay, and started talking about a documentary.

Now, almost eight months later, I’m almost halfway through with a short documentary — my first film — about Lisa and a few other talented people who shaped my time at the cabin.

I find it hard to think about what the filmmaking process has been like so far.

This is all I can think of:

At the cabin I used to sit on a concrete bench beneath a rotting old walnut tree. I’d look out across the flood plain and watch deer flicker through the trees. I would watch groundhogs perk up on their hind feet, nibbling grass and rolling their wary glistening eyeballs back and forth across the field. I’d watch birds, those bright little singing kites, gliding through currents of sky.

Making my first film feels something like watching a wild animal from far away. Maybe it's the not knowing what will happen next. Sometimes the deer disappear into the trees, other times they freeze, heads perked up like the wary groundhogs. And sometimes the birds take off over the ridge and soar higher into the clouds, higher than you'd think a bird could go.

A Red Thread

loud and clear red thread

When I fall in love with a man, I fall in love with the place connected to his heart by one red thread, anchored with a map pin. And being there in that city, or usually that small town (a place which no one has heard of---so, he says he’s from the nearby city that other people can at least associate with a state, but is really forty-five minutes down the expressway) is the end for me. Or rather, the real beginning. On your first visit you hear it---the way that people say their A's as “ah” and will you run up to the Rosauers? (The name of the corner market has altogether replace the generic descriptor of “grocery store”) The neighbors close their blinds beginning with the heat of the day and ending with a fan facing backward out the window. He barely notices, because this is his home, but you begin to make sense of him. For months after, you'll catch a glimpse of it---when he opens a beer bottle with a lighter or is stubborn about the definition of coleslaw.

And then on the first hot night of summer he’s seventeen again, driving down River Road. The windows are down and you have nowhere to go and he reaches for the volume when Float On comes across the radio.