Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We are not handed a guide at birth entitled Fail-proof Steps to Living This Life. As such, I’ve lived most of my life through a lot of trial and error—heavy on the error side. I’ve also learned that sometimes I just have to take the next right step and try not to run the entire marathon at once. I’m getting ok with that practice.
There is a source that I go to often for life advice. Poet Mary Oliver never fails to enlighten me or ease my weariness. She gives some of the best advice on living a life in her poem, Sometimes:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
This sounds like what many of us bloggers do here on WordPress. We tell stories about our lives in the hope that someone may be touched by reading them. Maybe our words provide inspiration, encouragement, or motivation where it is most needed. Sometimes healing occurs while reading another’s words. Or a community is formed. Or a lesson is learned. Or someone is empowered to create meaning, change, or beauty in their own lives. Maybe a memory is brought to surface, a smile appears, a tear forms in the corner of an eye.
Then other times–nothing.
Scroll. Scroll. Scroll.
We never know what may stem from a post, we just keep paying attention, writing, and hoping. And we also keep reading what others write—it’s a circle, this writing life. What we give is also often what we most need to receive. In the new year, 2018, I’ll keep paying attention, staying forever astonished, and always writing and reading. And I’ll just keep taking the next right step.
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor writes a blog, Giving Voice to My Astonishment, where she shares her love of nature, writing, reading and Yoga. The Next Right Step appeared on Cheryl’s blog December 31, 2017.
2017 was an amazing year for Streetlight Magazine owing to the excellent content submitted by writers and poets from all over the world. Our editors chose six nominees for The Pushcart Prize (best of small presses) for excellent writing in non-fiction, poetry, and short fiction.
We would like to publicly acknowledge these six authors for their incredible talent and wish them future success. Thank-you for allowing Streetlight Magazine to publish your work!
(Unless otherwise noted, all paintings are watercolor/mixed media on hand-felted wool and rice paper.)
I am kind of an image junkie, especially images of the subconscious or dream state. I became interested in art as a teenager and the Surrealists were who I found first.
I began my actual art career working in fibers. In undergraduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, I was a weaver and felt-maker and worked with many materials and textures. I taught all of these processes as well as papermaking and became enamored with paper, the simple beauty and incredible versatility of this everyday material. While I loved texture, and the structure of textiles, I also loved images. Even when I was weaving, I was collaging painted images onto the canvas surface.
Eventually, I combined my love of paper—specifically mulberry and rice paper—with the felt to create a “canvas” that allowed me to paint in detail, but retain an unusual surface. I began working with watercolor—a medium I’d previously never understood or been attracted to—and realized that the rice paper took the watercolor beautifully. I could work in a series of glazes that left the watercolor looking more like oil paint than traditional watercolor.
Towards the end of graduate school, I was in a horrific car accident that permanently altered my body, During a long, slow recovery, I became very interested in the body, looking at x-rays, and anatomy and biology books. Forms such as organs, umbilici, and bones became really beautiful to me. I began to look at the biology systems of plants, animals and humans and explore how these three connect or intersect.
While some pieces have a narrative quality, I don’t really plan the images to tell a story. A specific image may begin the process and the rest simply builds from there.
For many years, I have been a meditation practitioner, gravitating towards sound meditation. We go through life with sound entering and exiting our space without our consent. This movement creates a sort of symphony that needs no composer. I believe we encounter the world visually in the same fluid way except as mostly unconscious or un-awake.
Most of my work attempts to layer images as we hear sound. We see the world in constant flashes of form and color, and I question why these seemingly disparate images can’t be connected, just as we connect sound. I attempt to harness the moving picture into an image that combines the abstract with images of our daily experience.
In 2012, I moved to San Miguel Allende, Mexico. San Miguel has inspired new images and diverse opportunities. Mexico is a very surrealistic country especially San Miguel. Sensuous colors and forms often present themselves in strange, appealing juxtapositions. A kind of magic is built into the culture that accepts the unusual, and references my early interest in surrealism.
My painting influences over the years include R. B Kitaj for his spatial sense, and Francis Bacon for sheer power in his imagery. I also love Lenore Carrington and Remedios Varos, both ex-pat artists who spent the majority of their lives in Mexico.
A recent series I am working on involves birds or bird heads used as totems. Masks of all kinds have also always interested me, and of course, there is a rich tradition of mask-making in Mexico.
The idea of taking a live thing and giving it traditional or ritual characteristics appeals to me. Birds have an iconic, almost primordial place in all cultures, and I hope to filter this idea through my particular interest in hidden biological systems.
This spring I will be in the south of Spain for several weeks where I was awarded an art residency by the Valaparaiso Foundation. The work I will complete there is scheduled in late October for a solo exhibition during Day of the Dead in San Miguel Allende.
In the painting Ram’s Head with Hollyhock
there is a melding of bones and sky
and desert, no beginning or end,
just the eye sockets of a skull
transfixed on the faraway
and in the foreground, red hills and cedar.
I imagine O’Keefe walking in the desert
at night, catching a glint
at her feet — a shell, a stone —
and stooping to gather it up,
discovering the bleached bones
of a skull, vast and empty and beautiful,
like her desert. She must have rotated it
in her hands that night under the moon
as if it were a small earth, seeing in
its bony crevasses and arched jawline
the curvature of her own world,
its hills and arroyos alive in this skeleton
of animal. She must have heard the
echo of mountains, the rhythm of sky
in the labyrinth of bone.
And when she painted the yellow hollyhock
beside the skull, she must have seen
its petals ignite in flame,
a heart laid open
at its center, forever pressed
into bloom, into memory
of what we lose in the world,
then find again in hill and bone and sky.
You spoke a language
we could not understand
just before you died, your last words
a gust of misplaced syllables
and I imagined you traveling
in another land, somewhere
between the continents of living
and dying, an equinox
where dark presses
against light, moon
against sun, where sky
and earth and even the trees
speak a foreign tongue. Sometimes
in the middle of the night,
awakened by a dream,
I stalk the house
in search of something
familiar and alive I can touch,
listen to. I play the piano,
stroke its keys, a new constellation,
water the amaryllis planted
in stones as if in these hours
before daybreak I can awaken something
but even your photograph
is a still life, a fixture
in a world we are traveling
Jo Kennedy is a poet and painter living in Richmond, VA. She has an MFA in Poetry from VCU and a Masters of Humanities from the University of Richmond. Jo has published in a number of journals including Florida Review, California Quarterly, New Virginia Review, Oregon East, Hawaii Pacific Review, George State University Review, and Kansas quarterly, among others. Her chapbook Wind River Song was selected as the winner of the 1997 Anabiosis Press chapbook competition and published in that year.
Featured image: Muse Me by woodleywonderworks at flickr. CC license.
Mopsy, our beloved cat of mixed origins and numerous partners, had just had another litter of kittens—this time only four. She had amazed us the previous two times with six, all beautiful and now in good homes. We gave our new little ones the easily identifiable names of Brownie, Whitey, Stripey, and Junior—Junior looking very much like his mother, grey-mixed. They were beautiful kittens and we loved all of them; however, no one loved them as much as my brother BB. He gave them additional names other than the obvious ones—Mudface, Snowflake, Superman, and Hercules. No one seemed to be upset with BB’s second set of names because they were always interesting. So, most of the time, the kittens were devoutly referred to by both of their given names, Brownie Mudface, Whitey Snowflake, Stripey Superman, and Hercules Junior. Besides, we loved the names of BB’s stuffed animals, especially his teddy bear, Wilbur. Wilbur had only one eye so he needed all the pampering that we could muster and all of us slept with him on occasion.
On a particularly hot July afternoon, Johnny, BB, Curt, Paul, and I were upstairs playing with the new litter in the bedroom that Mopsy had chosen for delivery. Our mother, MamaLu, had recently gotten another dose of religion and was listening to some sermons on tape before she went to prayer meeting later in the evening. She was studying the book of James in the Bible. She had the door to her bedroom closed but we could hear a preacher talking and occasionally yelling hellfire and damnation. His delivery of the Good Book did not sound like what we were used to in the Presbyterian Church.
Our newest living toys scampered all over us and also climbed up the curtains until they reached a certain height, at which point they would either fall with a thud or begin to cry for a human rescue. The curtains were sheer, or more accurately flimsy, so that as the kittens climbed them, they pulled out the threads. After one play session, the curtains looked like they had “runs” in them.
Everyone had a favorite kitten; mine was Brownie Mudface because I felt sorry for her. Everyone said that she was ugly, so I deemed it necessary to give her more attention to assure her that she was just as beautiful as her brother and sisters. Paul chose Stripey Superman as his favorite because he had Superman pajamas. Whitey Snowflake was BB’s favorite because he liked to play in the occasional winter snow. Curt chose Hercules Junior because she looked like Mopsy; however, like every teddy bear or hand puppet he possessed, he also gave Hercules Junior the name of Elmer, this iteration being Elmer the Fifth; hence, the complete name was Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth. Johnny was content just loving the diligent, watchful, and caring mother, Mopsy. It was amazing and comical to friends and neighbors that we would call the kittens by their full names, especially Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth. Only Mopsy had a single name.
The kittens played with everything in sight—spools of thread, shoes, toys, small cars, anything that they could bat around with their paws. Eventually they became tired and were ready to nurse. Mopsy would call them with a deeper meow than usual, and they would respond. Today, however, Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth and Whitey Snowflake did not report to their mother. They had run under one of the beds and climbed up into the box springs, creating a feline limbo or purgatory for themselves. Their whining could be heard but they would not appear when called—in spite of all the coaxing that could be mustered by five small boys and a mother cat. Paul was very concerned and being the smallest of the five of us, he crawled under the bed and edged himself toward the site of entry. He saw Whitey Snowflake and put his small hand on her. She responded out of fear by scratching him intensely; he began to cry, leaving immediately from the scene of the attempted rescue. He said that he might have just pulled her tail because it was so dark that he couldn’t really see very well. He had heard, but not seen Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth. BB was quick to find a flashlight, but it was missing batteries. Ironically, as we would learn later, they were in a new toy fire truck somewhere outside.
Curt pulled the curtains open as far as he could, trying to provide some light. He yanked so hard that they fell off the wall. Still not enough light. Johnny moved a lamp as close as he could to the bed, knocking off the shade, but it did not help. Meanwhile, Whitey Snowflake and Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth continued to whine pitifully. Mopsy was becoming increasingly upset and calling more vigorously to the two stranded ones, while feeding the other two. At this point, everyone was becoming distraught.
BB had a remedy. A candle would provide enough light to find the lost ones. He ran downstairs amidst the sound of the preacher still at it and placed a chair in front of the mantel. He stood on it and was just high enough to grab the two pink candles that were on both sides of a mirror. He looked for matches but found none. He turned on the stove and placed a piece of paper on a burner. It took a few minutes and he had a flame. He had seen MamaLu use the method on numerous occasions when she could not find a match.
He lighted one candle and proceeded up the stairs slowly and cautiously; he did not want to extinguish the flame. Upon entering the scene of the whining, he lighted the other candle and gave it to me, telling me to hold it in case the first one fizzled out. We all watched as he slowly slid under the bed with his source of illumination, calling the two kittens by their full names. Suddenly there was smoke and then a small flame. BB emerged quickly, coughing, and without Whitey Snowflake nor Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth.
“Get some water,” he yelled to everyone. Understanding the nature of an emerging crisis, all of us went running down the stairs to get some glasses. We filled them with water, went running back upstairs, spilling at least half of it, and threw it on the now burning bed.
“Get some more,” yelled Johnny, who was also trying to round up the cats. The room was quickly filling with smoke. What a sight! Smoke and fire upstairs and hellfire and damnation downstairs. Joy and Binkie, friends from next door, were playing outside and saw the smoke. They came over immediately and joined the fire brigade. We did not seem to be doing much to douse the flames. Finally, with some sense that the termination of this fire surpassed the know-how and expertise of seven children, Curt and I went downstairs to inform MamaLu. She opened the door and immediately recognized the existence of a crisis. She quickly darted up the steps in the midst of the expanding smoke.
“I can’t see—get me a rock or something to knock open the window so we can get the smoke out of here and know where the fire is.” MamaLu’s knowledge of feeding a fire with more oxygen failed her in this particular emergency. Johnny returned with a big rock, one of many that surrounded a small bed of irises near the front door. MamaLu crashed it through the window and the fire immediately blazed even larger.
“Call the fire department,” she yelled to Johnny. But before he could do so, he was met by two decked-out firemen with a hose in tow. They firmly demanded that everyone leave the house. Water was gushing down the stairs as we left. Mrs. Pitts, our neighbor, had seen the fire and smoke and had made the important call. She took us across the street to her house and gave us cookies and Kool-aide. Paul was crying because he did not know who was taking care of Mopsy and her family, especially his favorite kitten, Stripey Superman.
The firemen had the mattress and box springs fire under control within ten minutes. They threw the blackened mattress out of the window. The whole affair caused quite a stir and we saw neighbors we had not seen in quite a while, somewhat like a fire-induced neighborhood reunion. MamaLu felt terrible that she had not realized that a fire was occurring upstairs while she was being inspired downstairs. She was happy that we were okay and had been so brave as to attempt to douse the fire, even though we knew better than to light matches, candles, or anything else flammable. She skipped prayer meeting that night and we ate all types of food that neighbors had brought us in our afternoon of distress—lots of macaroni and cheese. It seemed that macaroni could ease the stress of just about anything, including a fire. There were also plates of fried chicken and other types of items generally categorized as funeral food.
The kittens were okay, we assumed. In the midst of the chaos Mopsy had moved them to parts unknown. Later in the evening she made a grand entrance, announcing loudly that she was back and that she was hungry. She gave no indication of where she had hidden her loved ones.
After dinner, one of the rescuing firemen came to visit us. All five of us looked like guilty conspirators as were crammed onto the small couch where he addressed us. He showed us photographs of children who had been burned in fires. All of us cried. He didn’t chastise us, but he did give us a stern warning about playing with fire, particularly emphasizing candles, the stove, matches, and firecrackers. He made us pledge to stay away from these potential dangers and he gave us a poster with Smokey the Bear on it, telling us that we should look at it every day as a reminder of his lecture to us about safety.
The next week Uncle Harold came to visit us and he repaired the knocked-out window. MamaLu replaced the missing batteries in the flashlight and decided that the fire had provided an opportunity to repaint the entire room. She thought that the combination of pre-fire “midnight blue” and the lingering smoke effects needed to be “lightened up.” The Army Navy Surplus Store had “baby blue” paint on sale, so she bought several gallons; enough for the walls as well as the new bunk beds that she purchased. The very kind bus driver on our route knew of our recent distress and even loaded the furniture and paint at the back of the bus and detoured to our front door where he helped to unload everything. MamaLu loved to paint and when she finished the project, everything looked more beautiful than ever; and, the smell of the paint masked the lingering odor of the smoke.
Little-by-little we regained Mopsy’s trust and one week after the fire she returned Brownie Mudface, Whitey Snowflake, Stripey Superman, and Hercules Junior Elmer the Fifth to us, placing them on a lower bunk bed with a new dark blue bedspread. They had grown and looked beautiful. Now our family was reunited and we took a long afternoon nap.
Chris Carbaugh writes the adventures of five boys, his four brothers and himself, and their incomparable mother, MamaLu. As a new writer, he is honored that his work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Heartland Review, Broad River Review, Gravel, Kestrel, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, THEMA, The Tampa Review, Hippocampus, and several other journals.
Last week was a mess! Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told. In my purpose-coaching practice, I had four clients in a row who used the word “mess” to describe their life these days. One client said, “because I’m at a job that requires me to be professional all the time, I have to constantly appear as if things are together but underneath it all, I am a fucking mess.” Another client spoke about how his artistic perfectionism doesn’t allow for anything to get messy and yet he went on to describe his myriad of unexplored projects and undeveloped ideas to be “a big stinking mess.” This all got me thinking a lot about if mess has a purpose in our life.
I am the creator of the art ‘morningaltars’. My art is earth art and I encounter a mess every time I create. The perimeter of my earth canvas is littered with the remains of past altars which are the physical memory of all my previous work. Most recently, I had a friend come over and walk down the path to the creek where I build the morningaltars and she told me that before she noticed the newly perfected altar that I had just labored over for six hours, she first noticed the mess surrounding it. She was struck by the circumference of colorful compost of altars past and while I usually just ignore it, the mess captivated her. She even called it beautiful. Thus, I continued my wondering: Does this ignored and disheveled mess actually have some important and necessary belonging to it?
Most people I know hate mess. We have a cultural intolerance toward most things messy and have been programmed from childhood to see mess as a problem to solve, or a situation to avoid. “Clean up your mess” is possibly the most common daily request that a parent can make of a teenager. Colloquialisms such as “shape up or ship out” or “get your act together” underscore a collective commentary that says: Your mess is wrong so fix it. In many ways, mess means failure and is often reacted to by feelings of embarrassment or shame. And so much of our daily efforts becomes preemptive – how to control our lives, our day, our relationships in order to prevent the mess from happening. Yet, no matter what we do to control it, it seems that the mess eventually returns in one way or another, with that caravan of unsettled feelings that accompany it. Yet, if the mess persists then perhaps it persists for a reason other than the possibility that you keep doing something wrong. And maybe it’s asking for us to discover another way of relating to it other than just trying to get rid of it altogether. But how?
I’ve been taught to look at the root of words, for they sometimes reveal something aberrant and insightful. The etymology of the word “mess” did not disappoint. “Mess” comes from the Late Latin word “missus,” meaning food, literally that which you place or put upon your table – like a mess hall in the army. The very thing that most people try and avoid, fix, tidy, organize or eliminate is actually derived from a word whose root refers to food, the very sustenance for life to continue. And this is also true for other messy synonyms such as “shambles,” which etymologically refers to a meat or fish market. So how did these words’ original meaning so drastically alter over the past 500 years from being food-related to something which is so entirely unwanted and embarrassing? How did our mess turn into such a mess?
Our disconnected relationship with mess has something to do with our culture’s obsessive relationship with order and control. Since the invention of agriculture 11,500 year ago, humans have been successfully manipulating the natural world to produce more efficiently and with tighter control. This desire to control the means which support life is amplified in its expression in the industrial revolution, colonialism, resource extraction, the prison industrial complex and the list goes on. This collective worship of control for the sake of progress is pervasive on global, political levels and even inside of our own homes. We employ technology to control our temperature so we don’t ever have to be too hot or too cold. GPS controls our sense of direction so we don’t really ever have to get lost, and our plumbing controls our sewage so we don’t have to encounter our own waste for too long. Even within the realm of social media, we posture with a well curated display of the happy-put-together life in order to author a personal narrative of progress. We have become so used to everything being controlled that we have diminished our capacity to encounter any kind of mess or uncertainty.
Years ago, when I first started building morningaltars art outside, it was nearly impossible to witness these perfectly symmetrical altars that I would work on all day get annihilated in a split second with a single gust of wind. I had nothing but resistance and frustration toward welcoming anything that wasn’t expected or under my control. Yet each time my work got destroyed, I learned something significant about the limitations of my control and how important that limitation was to reveal my own humanity. Creating this work in the presence of a pile of my past work reminds me that the mess is inevitable. It’s where my material came from and where it returns to. But the inevitability of the mess doesn’t mean I failed at anything. Rather, it is evidence of my heartbreaking willingness to create something so finely tuned, something that I am so in love with and wish could last forever and practice letting it go. When I let go of my grasp on it being perfect, I can offer it back to the land as the most beautiful artistic feast I am capable of creating.
Our ruptured relationship with mess is corollary to our own resistance to let go and see ourselves, our work, our life connected to a much bigger story. Letting go is the giant exhale that reminds us that we can’t hold onto everything forever and that everything we possess, including our own bodies, are a part of life’s cyclical give and take. Letting go allows the mess to be included back into the whole story again as a source of where we come from and where we’re going to. This is what excites me most about my art. Nature lets go, I take, I let go, nature takes and the process continues. I call this: Life feeding beauty and beauty feeding life.
Collectively and culturally things look very different. Instead, what we can testify to today is a rapacious hunger that resists letting go and is always “on the take” as my teacher, Stephen Jenkinson of the Orphan Wisdom School, says. We take food, air, water, knowledge, land, and rarely give pause to acknowledge how much we consume, where it may have come from and where it will go afterwards. Jenkinson suggests that when we consume without pause, and eat unawares, we become just like a machine, a “need gratification machine” and the food that feeds us is the fuel that only feeds ourselves to keep us going forward. He says, “when food becomes fuel—when anything becomes fuel—we lose sight of whatever once tethered it to the ground that gave it life” and consequently, we’re cut off from life’s give and take cycle.
I recently went out for dinner with my grandmother and as her food came to the table, I asked her, “What animal did you get in your pad Thai?” She responded defensively, “Please don’t say that – you’re making me lose my appetite.” My grandma had forgotten the bigger and messier story she and her food are tied to. Instead, culturally speaking, we forget in order to avoid the mess: we use different names for the meat than for the animals, we have other people slaughter and ship it and we purchase it packaged in neat plastic containers all so we can avoid the messy parts and keep moving forward efficiently, like a machine. Yet, to truly know what has died on your dinner plate so that you can live is not a neat and benign inquiry, but a rather uncomfortable and messy one. It means that you are a part of the grief-soaked give and take of staying alive. It means that you are indebted to all that is dying to feed you. It means letting the mess interrupt your meal, when all you want to do is eat your dinner.
So in a way, when my clients refer to their day or mood as a “big stinking mess” and find it almost impossible to carry on with life as planned, than perhaps this is actually the unwelcome purpose of the mess: to rupture the normal, neat and organized and somehow remind you that life is so much bigger and messier than what you thought it was or planned it to be. The mess is requiring us all to respond to it by slowing down, letting go and mustering the courage to allow the mess to have a place in our lives, not because we did something wrong but because we’re being fed a greater remembering: That everything we have is because of what came before us and everything we’re doing is to benefit that which will come long after us. The mess interrupts the incessant, unconscious and self-directed taking, controlling, consuming and, if we can somehow permit it, it offers us the uncomfortable yet necessary reminder that our life must feed that which feeds us. And when we can remember that, then the mess ceases to be the unwanted thing to fix and becomes the life-giving food once again.
Day Schildkret is internationally known for Morning Altars and has inspired tens of thousands of people of all ages from all over the world to forage, build and be awed with Earth Art.
Morning Altars is igniting an international movement of art, workshops and a spiritual practice that renews and redeems our relationship to nature, creativity and impermanence. With over 53,000 followers on Instagram, over 25,000 on Facebook and workshops and installations worldwide, Morning Altars is bringing ephemeral art to the collective human imagination. The first Morning Altars book is being published Fall 2018 by The Countryman Press. You can follow Day on Facebook.com/morningaltars and see his gorgeous morningaltars on Instagram.com/morningaltars.
“The houses that were lost forever continue to live on in us…they insist in us in order to live again, as though they expected us to give them a supplement of living.”*
I liked to throw a baseball against the house, aiming as close to the side door as I dared and catching the ball as it ricocheted back to me. It was how I honed my pitching and fielding. Mom said, “You’d better not hit the door.” My little sister liked the regular pop of hardball striking yellow brick, but soon after her fifth birthday, she had a nightmare about the side door. Scenario of a broken lock untended, a door neither open nor shut tight, danger on both sides, a chronic ajar-ness, the nightmare would return frequently for more than four decades.
We had secret names for one another. She was Deanie and I was Bud. Deanie told me about her nightmare which, over the years, would deviate little from its simple, original appearance. She said that in the dream, she remained a child. It was night, the family was indoors, but only Deanie saw that the house was not secure. Our parents failed to notice or repair the broken lock. This made no sense to her. She couldn’t tell them because fear had clamped her throat and robbed her of speech. She stood at several feet from the door, watching it, but unable to move her limbs until fear pierced the mantle of sleep itself. Each time, she woke at the same paralytic point, the problem of the dream unresolved. Deanie’s nights foretold, over and over again, the damage of her future days.
“We consider the past, and a sort of remorse at not having lived profoundly enough in the old house fills our hearts…”
I’m a man now and I can’t help but feel grateful to Deanie. She was fighting for our corner of time and place, our unprepossessing box house on the edge of Detroit. I recall her kindergarten enrollment for which Dad had to drag her across the door sill. I can still see my sister in her little girl party dress for first day, one spindly leg fighting to remain inside the house, the other leg on the porch. She turned sideways and pressed herself tightly against the door frame, her right arm outstretched along the wall inside the door, left arm along the exterior wall. When Dad removed her, finger by finger, from the brick facade, I saw that her left hand had razor-fine scratches, each one a sliver oozing bright red. It took weeks and a few sessions with the kindly school psychologist before Deanie stopped hugging the house and battling each morning.
Outwardly, my little sister had been subdued. In the rhythmic months and years that followed, she walked to and from school with our little group from the block. She preferred home, watched for snow days, and faked sickness now and again, yet in those tiny resistances she was no different from the rest of us. But at the age of fifteen, Deanie suffered a more serious setback when she lost the house forever. We moved to a newly built split-level miles from the city’s postage-stamp yards, downtown skyscrapers and baseball stadium, crossing several town lines out to where the lots and houses were spacious. It was low density, you might say; you could hardly see your neighbors through the leafy expanses.
Nobody asked us if we wanted to move. It didn’t bother me all that much as I had finished high school and was on my way to college. But Deanie, although she loved our parents perhaps too fiercely, never quite forgave them. She set herself against the new place. She waited for the time of exile to pass. Mostly, she stayed in her pristine room. Mom, promising sleepovers, furnished it with twin beds. But Deanie said her old friends were too far and she had no new friends to invite. She slept in one bed and through the glow of a plug-in nightlight, stared bitterly at the other. She read. Taught herself guitar chords. She stood at the window and cursed God and the abundance of trees.
There was no going back. My sister changed schools, achieved high grades, graduated, went away to college, married a lawyer, and had two children. Eventually, Deanie would live in numerous places of her own choosing, yet she still dreamed that dream, a nightmare about the other house, our side door and a broken lock. Once, I suggested to her that with the progress of adulthood, the power of the dream would diminish, but this upset Deanie. She said she didn’t see things that way. She said life was not progress, but a series of traded locations, faces and voices. New house for old house. Husband for mother and father. Children for our own lost childhood. Deanie tried to look forward, but mostly she’d rather talk about how I used to throw a baseball against the old house.
Our mother was eighty-six when she died. Stubbornly nursing his wife at home to the end, Dad was exhausted. After they wheeled her body away, he went to bed alone for the first night in fifty years. Deanie and I sat up late, she at one end of the living room sofa, while I took the other. With Mom gone, we propped our stockinged feet on the coffee table. “He has just completed his final act of marriage,” Deanie said. “That’s love. I’ll never know anything like it.” Then she gazed at the room. “I don’t like this house,” she said. As if to record the fact again. As if to say certain facts don’t budge, not even for grief. I asked if she still had the side door dream. “Regular as rain,” she said.
Dad remained in the house that Deanie never liked. He enjoyed domestic routine. Sitting at his desk, reading Time and Newsweek, paying bills, tending the yard, cleaning the garage. He enjoyed making sandwiches and eating them from paper plates while watching sports on television. Whenever we visited, he produced a wad of dollars and sent us to the supermarket for more rye bread and sandwich meats. Then one spring morning, he walked out to check his rose bushes, suffered a heart attack and died. The mailman found him. It troubled us both that we weren’t with Dad when it happened, but it troubled Deanie more. She couldn’t maneuver that fact into any kind of merciful place. She unnerved the mailman by ambushing him several days in a row, repeatedly insisting that he paint the scene, its chronology, demanding to know last words though there were none. She remained agitated until the house was sold and we didn’t have to go there anymore.
“Why not sense that, incarnated in the door, there is a little threshold god?”
Not long afterward, her own kids grown, Deanie left her husband and rented a small apartment in Detroit, near the new ballpark. I visited her recently. And here’s the funny thing. She told me that after moving back to town on her own, she stopped having the side door dream. “Well, what do you think it means?” I asked. She looked away from me, towards the window and the buildings outside. I waited, wishing I had not spoken, not caused painful remembrance, but my question was in the space between us and I had to leave it there. “I don’t know,” Deanie said, finally. “Maybe it means don’t get married…don’t have fathers.” Then with a little laugh, “And for sure, don’t get hooked on houses.” Another pause. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter now.”
I let the notes of her familiar voice settle in the unknown room. I saw my sister’s face, no longer young, yet with all her ages inscribed on it. I wanted to put my arms around her. We walked to the ballpark and watched the game.
Amy Kenyon is a historian and writer-photographer. She is the author of Dreaming Suburbia, a study of Detroit and postwar sub-urbanization (Wayne State University Press) and a first novel, Ford Road (University of Michigan Press). As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, she has published with Belt Magazine, Salon, Great Lakes Review, Bright Lights Film Journal, Eclectica Magazine, Cobalt Review, and The Detroit News. She is also a regular blogger for Huffington Post UK. Born and raised in Michigan, Amy now lives in London.
*The quoted material in this story is from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.
When it’s almost too dark to see,
my uncle sits out on the back porch,
rolling a cigarette, holding it up
to his mouth for the lick.
He’s trying to remember a boy
from the next farm lowered
beneath the sod in a slow rain
fallen more than fifty years ago.
Striking the sunset of a match,
his worn face flares up an instant.
The green wicker chair creaks
when he settles back, head at rest
against the siding, white smoke
clouded around him, coffin lining.
Taking another drag, he picks tobacco
from his lip and, for a moment,
the empty quiet stares back at him.
He knows nobody has a name for long.
Ron Stottlemeyer is a retired professor of Medieval English Literature. After a long career as a teacher/scholar, he is writing poetry again. He enjoys amateur astronomy, Middle-Eastern cooking, and being taken on evening walks by his Australian shepherd, Teddy.
Featured image: Time Out by Hernán Piñera. CC license.
I started to become a writer with the first writing exercise I was ever given. I was 12. Mrs. A, my seventh-grade teacher, called it a ‟theme.” She said a theme should have a title, like ‟I Like Horses,” and then the paragraphs that followed would explain why the author liked horses. I did like horses, so that’s what I wrote: “I Like Horses.”
When the themes were graded and passed back, I saw I’d made a C. My theme had too many misspellings and was too short. My teacher was also bothered by the way I wrote about holding my big, black pony, Nightmare, between my thighs.
I again encounter Mrs. A. when I am 14 and in ninth grade. She has somehow moved up to the high school. Another nightmare. Standing before us, she goes on and on about this thing she wants us to write, this “essay.” I study her. I’m still mad over that C. Also, she’s confiscated my note to my friend, Jane.
Mrs. A’s hands are covered with blue inky spots, and when she hands back my papers, the inky spots smudge the margins. She holds a piece of chalk, tosses it from hand to hand. When she turns her back to write the essay’s due date, I make a face at Jane. But then a new thing happens within me. It’s as if the world has fallen away. I train my eyes on the sheet of paper in front of me. I pick up my pencil and write Teacher at the top of the page. The essay begins with the words: ‟Inky spots. Inky spots. All over her hands. All over my paper.” The bell rings, but I am still writing. Jane walks off in a huff.
Weeks later I am walking down the hall when I see Mrs. A. making a bee-line for me carrying a paper. She has read my essay about her; surely she won’t yell at me here. She pulls me into an empty classroom, shows me my paper with red ink everywhere. Mrs. A asks me how is it, how is it, I have not learned to punctuate or spell? I shake my head; I don’t understand it either. But, she continues, as this is an essay contest, sponsored by the newspaper, she can submit it, but I must correct these errors. There are lots, and I can’t imagine doing it; but she has dropped hints: ‟Sp.?” red marks indicate.
‟Period or comma?” she says now. ‟Is this a complete sentence?”
I have no bloody idea.
Then she gestures to two words she’s written at the top.
‟Just an idea for a new title. It can stay Teacher; consider the change only if you want it.”
My essay appeared in the newspaper under her suggested title, Inky Spots, and for first prize I won seven dollars, which I considered a lot of money. My name appeared under the title and my paternal grandmother, who lived across the street from the newspaper editor, was so proud she gave me another dollar. Printed up that way, in the newspaper, my essay looked different, nicer, more real.
I could hardly stop looking at it. At 14, I was a published writer.
That portrait of my teacher was not flattering, but she took the blow I dealt her. And I dealt her blow after blow. After I described her inky hands, I went to her Spartan wardrobe, her severe hairstyle, and her precise mannerisms. Maybe because she respected that objectivity, she let me tell my story.
I’ve always heard you become a writer if your mother chooses you to tell her stories to. But when I stitched my writing life together, I realized a teacher can choose you too.
Mariflo Stephens, whose fiction is included in Contemporary American Women Writers, also writes essays, two of which were published in The Barbie Chronicles and Successful Writing Strategies. She was awarded two grants for fiction from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Stephens’s essay Appalachian Sprung won the Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize for 2017, and another essay will be published in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose in the spring of 2018.
Within just a few months living in New York’s Hudson Valley, we stopped buying our eggs anywhere but Sawkill Farm down the road. “Your eggs are better than anyone’s,” I told Kallie who runs the store and who moved from Brooklyn not long ago herself. She beamed with pride, but I don’t think it was the first time someone gave the compliment.
“Cidiot” refers to a hardened city person who moves to the country and acclimates through experience. After 20 years in Manhattan, my husband and I purchased an 1847 cottage in the farm community of Red Hook, and a year later, are shifting more of our lives here even as we clearly have so much to learn. Transitions are not easy. The people, the culture, the time in the car. Schoolings are daily, from simple things like a favorite restaurant’s unexpected closing because a new calf was born to sudden road work on a one-lane bridge with a detour that GPS can’t calculate. Other shocks are more substantive, like a septic system fail or emotional, like noticing a Confederate flag hanging on a neighbor’s porch. Your sense of normal changes.
As a writer, I had hoped the shift in geography would reinvigorate my writing, and it has. Farm stand shopping alone is helping me talk in new ways about food, taste and color. Curiosity is fuel in a new place, with new experiences, new relationships, new words—and even new smells.
For me, the most important lessons of living here start with the farms:
Be your own sheep
We first got a whiff that animals were for real in the bank’s mortgage paperwork. The county has a clause which says you understand you are buying in farm country with active livestock. Our attorney said the wording was added after city folk ignited lawsuits over “farm smell”—that bouquet from the barn, which becomes increasingly familiar if your property, like ours, is downwind. Sheep and goats will gently graze right up to the property line, and I recorded the sheep bleat (their cry) as a mobile ringtone. Before I write in the morning, I take carrots and our puppy Nora to visit Bert and Ernie, two donkeys. When Ernie sees little Nora approach, he trots down to greet us at the fence. Nora’s tail wags, and when Ernie feels flirty, he kicks. There’s a children’s storybook here.
Farm stands alter weekly food shopping, whether you’re picking up fresh eggs or returning milk bottles for the deposit. We go to Greig Farm every Saturday and joined a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in the Spring. From both, I’ve learned what’s in season and fresh. Early weeks have asparagus, summer has tomatoes and corn, fall is root vegetables like squash and potatoes. There always seems to be kale. Supermarkets become fill-in and Amazon is for water, paper goods and anything in bulk. Like many we’ve met, we’re biased towards farms near home. They are inexpensive, the people know us, the food is delicious and why not support local growers. Many supply top restaurants in New York City. In a few years, I imagine there will be farm tours and hospitality centers the way the wine industry does in California.
Create a table
This is not a weekend escape. Early on, my husband and I committed to building a life here. Through dinner parties, local events and even just sitting at a bar striking up conversation, we’ve made friends in different social circles. It took persistence and saying yes to every invitation, but over time, we found various single and couple friends who will host a dinner or show up with a dish at yours. A few like a writer couple and a pair of professors at the local college live here full-time. A fair number split time like us, though everyone has a wish to be here more as the years go by. We find it takes work to build these relationships, planning ahead, rotating hosting, celebrating holidays, and even mundane drive-by or errands together. We’ve also found we need a network of support. We found a guy to help maintain the house and fix things that we cannot, as well as look in on it when we’re not here. Home services are spotty, appointments are often good intentions rather than commitments to show up. A guy painting our fence walked off the job only halfway done. You can scream and posture all you want (and we did), but it doesn’t change that things work differently here.
Under the hood
Apartment life doesn’t prepare you for rural living. Power sources we clearly took for granted. One humbling lesson has been septic systems. We only found the exact location of our leach field (and what it even was) when the system failed and we had to tear up the lawn to replace it—a crash course in infrastructure and insurance. We’ve also become students in oil versus gas versus electric heating and are somehow stuck with all three, plus a potbelly stove in the living room. Our house doesn’t have air conditioning, and it’s a game for us to see how many summers we can go without installing it. Meanwhile, I keep stockpiling batteries and water and regular outages led us to buying a standby generator. I now watch that TV show about doomsday preppers.
Very Social Media
Internet connections aren’t great. There’s cable, satellite and DSL, which feels retro in today’s advanced digital age but works most of the time. Like many towns there are community Facebook groups where you can find out what’s happening in the schools, announce a garage sale, borrow a shovel, or get recommendations on a plumber. My favorite social network is “The Empire Regulars,” an email listserv of train commuters to and from New York that not only reports from which track the train is leaving and any delays, but is a forum to plan retirement parties and beg for help if someone, say, accidentally leaves a smoked salmon platter in a car on the 5:47. Which happened.
“Cidiot” isn’t the badge I want, hoping to graduate from it to “Local.” “Weekender” sounds neutral, I suppose, but implies our default home is elsewhere, not the signal we want to give off. Practically speaking, we have a suspicion there’s a mark-up on services for weekenders and perhaps a double mark-up on gay couples like us. We even got a local phone number so that our first impression on the receiving end would not be from elsewhere. The truth is, we’re committed to building a life here. We switched our driver’s licenses, voting, car registration and mail to this address. The city is now the place we spend part-time, Monday nights to Thursday mornings, our apartment building more a hotel than a home. For us, with the goats, the sheep, the farmers and all the other cidiots we’ve met so far—where we truly live is here.
Mat is a speaker and writer of memoirs and essays, published in The Bark, Chelsea Now, New York Press, Entropy, The Forward and a regular contributor for Forbes.com. He works full time in consulting as a digital and content strategist and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley and Manhattan with his husband Brian and their dog Nora Ephron. Follow him on twitter @matzucker.
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