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Category Archives: creative nonfiction

90837

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I have known Avril for precisely 203 hours. I have known Avril for 8 days and 11 hours.

I have known Avril one hour at a time for 6 years and 8 days. She was barely out of childhood when we started our secret meetings. She had to sneak around so that her grandma wouldn’t learn about me and kick her out of the house. Now she is a career woman, a single parent, and a home owner. I am her therapist.

Today when Avril left my office, I dashed for the ladies room in the darkened part of the building. My swollen heart was near bursting. I drew a few quaking breaths, grabbed it in both hands, and wrung. When just enough of it had squeezed out my eyes to ensure that it would fit back into my chest until lunch, I allowed myself one luxurious minute more. Maybe two. Another client was on her way. I dabbed my kohl and returned to my post.

I was not sad. The culprit was gratitude. It had been welling and swelling all morning, and Avril’s face had set me off.

Four weeks ago, Avril had returned after a six-month break. She was aware she was starting to falter. I had held up the mirror and shown her how far she had come. She had curled into herself:

“Stop!” she had cried, “Stop it now!”

Two weeks ago, she knew was flirting with disaster. She was scared because she had stopped feeling scared. Would she grasp for the help she needed before she was all used up? Avril had been taught that depression is not real, that medication is an affront to Jesus. She had gutted it out before–but the stakes had seemed smaller back then.

Avril was but a nub that day. Her face was stony, her voice a near monotone. I thought I spied a spark of “Fuck You” simmering behind her eyes but I couldn’t be sure. It both reassured and alarmed me. The starving, the cutting, all those games.…These had been her tools, both comforting and despised, to secure her care. They had been friends once upon a time. Now they fit her like a too-small skin. Weary from trying so hard to embrace her new size, she sought solace in the familiar. She panicked when she realized she couldn’t go back, and this made her strain even harder. In trying to force matters, she had nearly done herself harm.

She had not yet become small enough for me to intervene. I was worried but I would not mother her. Avril had become a woman, and she had to choose for herself.

Today, Avril arrived with a gaunt face, a giant mug of tea, and no hello. She started talking and left me to fill in the blanks:

“The medication is making me really tired. But I stopped trying to avoid food. I know my appetite will come back if I wait.”

Her face was soft and almost shy.

90837 is the billing code for a therapy session lasting 53-60 minutes.

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Dog Knows, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be: A Wandering Essay on Physical Fitness, Sex, & Wilted Produce

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

March, 2013

Things were better when I was younger…well, my things were, anyway!   –Maxine
(Maxine was created by John Wagner for Hallmark)

 

I was born with endurance and a great bottom half. From jump roping to pogo sticking to sibling kicking, my legs spelled power and possibility from an early age. Plus, they provided a great diversion from some of my weaker features. Dad always said my ears stuck out too far and that I had a bit of a chicken breast. Well, now that I’ve reached middle age, my arms are starting to resemble chicken wings. It looks like I’m getting the neck to match.

In elementary school, I was all about my banana bike. I got it the winter I turned 9. I was in heaven! But when the weather turned warm, and my younger sister learned to ride, Mom and Dad turned on me and granted my younger sister Gwen equal ownership.

Possession is nine tenths of the law, so I always made sure I got to the bike first. I’d peal out, legs treadling as if possessed, and leave Gwen flailing at the end of the driveway. I stayed away for as long as I dared. Sometimes I sneaked up to the shopping center to spend my pocket change on candy. I returned when the needle on my Spankometer indicated I was about to move from “Trouble” to “Big Trouble.” I often miscalculated. Between the Now & Laters and my Dad’s belt, I’m surprised I have a tooth left in my head and a hiney left to sit on.

I discovered another level of freedom at age 10 when we spent a few years in a good-sized German city. My bouncing stride propelled me to destinations of my choosing under my own steam and on my own terms. The city was very safe back then—both day and night. I needed no car. I needed no parents. I felt powerful knowing I could walk out my front door and take myself anywhere in the world. My adventures were limited only by my porte-monnaie and my own daring. Would it surprise you to learn that a good number of adventures involved eggs, tomatoes, toilet paper and my buddy Michaela? I ran faster, thank God. I hear she is doing hard time.

In 10th grade, I discovered cross country and track. Talk about a rush! I became a competitive athlete, and these very legs secured me lifelong friends, a million road trips, and two bachelors degrees. Ask me about my bunions another day.

If my physical activity was consistent, so were its fruits. Ripe, firm fruits, I might be persuaded to add–if I weren’t so humble.

One aunt liked taking me out to shop for clothing because, she said, my booty was SO. DARN. CUTE. Back in the days when I lived close enough to walk to our annual Renaissance Fair, a fellow I met there—a friend of a friend–raved about my tights-clad legs. Even my best friend, an athlete herself, coined a phrase to describe my awesome bottom. Happily, the passage of time and the dawning of political correctness prevent me from disclosing it here. My sister Gwen was content to call it my “buttflower” but, hey, what are sisters for?

Ok, ok. I admit that these occasions of bum worship occurred while I was in my teens and early twenties; however, I have it on good authority that even if I don’t exactly have “It,” I still have something. You noticed too? Oh, stop! You are making me blush!

So, the fruits have been predictable. The same can be said for the nuts. By this, I mean the males of our species, who feel compelled to demonstrate their machismo by ogling even those women whose AARP applications are stamped and sitting on the kitchen table.

I haven’t run in decades but they haven’t noticed. For years upon years, my walks have exposed me to the same primitive mating ritual. I used to find it frightening. Years later, I found it enraging. And then annoying. Now I just find it pathetic. My assets are holding up pretty well, butt….Get a life, guys! Get some glasses!

The ritual goes something like this:

(Car approaches from behind, slowing.)

HONK!

(Head cranes out window to take a closer look.)

NICE ASS!

This February, after much cajoling and an astonishingly professional and well-researched PowerPoint, our youngest daughter convinced us that so much undiluted time spent in the company of The Old People might get her down since both sisters are away at college. We caved and allowed her to adopt a rescue greyhound. Trident is striking! He is slender, white, and aristocratically graceful.

We had a break in the weather today. Trident and I, the two retired racers, set out on a long ramble down the bike path which runs alongside the highway.

And wouldn’t you know it…

(Car approaches from behind, slowing).

HONK!

(Head cranes out window to take a closer look.)

NICE…
.
.
.

(Wait for it….)
.
.
.

DOG!

Hanna Goes M.I.A.

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Niko is a good man, an intelligent man, an interesting man, and a gregarious man.

So far, so good.

Niko is also a man of great appetites, a man with high expectations, a man who insists upon his creature comforts, and a man who has trouble taking “no” for an answer.

In other words, Niko is high maintenance.

I’m not sure I would have sought Niko’s friendship if not for the fact of his marriage to my best friend, Hanna, but we had become close. Looking back from my current vantage point, I realize how much I had Hanna to thank for brokering the relationship. And how hard I had worked at it because of my love for her.

When it came to Niko, I took my lead from Hanna. Niko suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. What if I had not been able to distinguish personality quirks from manifestations of illness? I trusted her completely when she explained what he required; and why he could or couldn’t manage this, that, or the other. I imbibed deeply when both of them told stories of his traumatic childhood and his continued mistreatment at the hands of, well, just about everyone. Almost no one understood him, evidently. He was special. He was fragile. He needed preferential treatment. I never questioned this. It was just this way.

I have voiced negative sentiments about triangulation but in this instance, I found it helpful that Hanna could translate Niko to me and visa versa. Hanna had gladly assumed the roles of spouse and caregiver; and the title of caregiver called for stints as go-between, mouthpiece, and champion. Due to her more stable mood and reliable judgment, she was also their family C.E.O. C.O.O., and C.F.O.

It was natural for her to advocate for Niko. On the other hand, Hanna had a good sense for the times when Niko wasn’t living up to his potentials. She knew when and how hard to push. Hanna knew when Niko needed a reality check–both figuratively and literally–and when the best medicine was a good swift kick in the ass. When we spent time together, we made a nice little three-legged stool. I didn’t realize that Hanna’s leg was about to give out.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, I briefed Hanna on my decision not to allow Niko to use my laptop. She wished I had told them sooner, and she anticipated his upset. But she saw my point and agreed the decision was a fair one. I breathed easier knowing she understood I did not mean harm. I counted on her to help Niko towards acceptance and to help me work towards a solution.

Learning of my decision, Niko was quick to embark on a campaign to charm or cow me into giving over my computer. Failing to win my submission, he continued to needle me throughout the visit. Now and again he lobbed some outright grenades.

As far as I could tell, Hanna left him to it.

In past years, Hanna had made it her habit to help with dishes, laundry, and cooking. This visit was different, and I am coming to a place of greater kindness regarding what felt like an abandonment. I am more in touch with my feeling of ownership as well, that vague twinge of security in thinking that Niko had her on loan during those months and years when we could not see one another. A few years removed from our unhappy end, I am especially able to appreciate how exhausted and broken she must have been when she arrived hoping—knowing, really–that J.A.N.E. spelled H.O.M.E. She had needed a safe haven for care and recovery.

Hanna had attained middle age, and the demands upon her had only increased. I had witnessed over several years how hard she had worked in a physically-demanding hourly position to give Niko as much as she could. Her steadfast provision had taken a harsh toll. Either our friends lacked support at home or they had rejected the terms of this support; and so providing for Niko’s essentials and extras frequently meant breaking the bank, her back, or both. I have thought often about how spent, betrayed and alone my dear Hanna must have felt that summer, and I will say more about this in time.

Without Hanna’s help, I was hard pressed to manage my family, the household and my part-time counseling job, let alone attend Niko in the fashion he desired.

Sociable between rounds and ever in need of conversation, Niko set up court on the patio with his coffee and smokes. He loved the peace and quiet, and this is where he lived when he wasn’t in the basement—at least until relations between us went from iffy to rancid. He was without his default entertainment, the computer, and was not often able to muster the energy to leave the house.

When Niko asked, early in their stay, why I was avoiding him and why I never made time to talk, I was at a loss. As taxed as I felt, I had been making a point of spending time with him daily. In fact, I was spending more time with him than I was with anyone else, and our children were starting to grumble. He seemed to have forgotten our pre-visit talks and the fact that I was no longer the stay-at-home mother of small children.

Hanna failed to show up in my defense. There was none of her humorous chiding: Niko, don’t be an ass. She spent two hours with you this morning over breakfast. Jane has other things to do besides entertain you, you big lug.

In her absence, he pouted, hounded, and accused. And not always subtly.

One time, further into their visit, Hanna and Niko arrived home after a long night at their new favorite hangout, a biker bar in a nearby town. They had taken to sleeping until about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., puttering around the basement apartment, going to the bar until closing, and then having drinks with the owner for a few more hours. Since their arrival, Niko had not had the stamina to do much outside the house; and I imagine this outlet helped him meet his social needs while assuring minimal contact with my family.

This particular night, something had gone wrong with our refrigerator and the kitchen had flooded. Tired and seeing no effective way to help, Hanna passed through the kitchen with a sympathetic glance. The moment Niko walked through the door, however, he began bailing and mopping as though possessed. Wide-eyed and alarmingly animated, he told a disjointed story about spewing sewage. He appeared to be seeing it in real time. Worried, I shared with Hanna my suspicion that he was becoming psychotic.

The following day, when the two of them ambled up to the kitchen, Niko launched a sudden verbal assault. His rage caught me off guard. My legs turned to rubber, and I gripped the table to keep from going down.

How dare you talk behind my back? How dare you tell tales about me? How DARE you tell Hanna I was psychotic? I was recounting a story which actually happened when our building’s sewage system backed up into our apartment last year! You knew that! I had told you about it!

Where was Hanna? Three feet from us, looking quietly away.

I explained that I must have misunderstood. I tried to explain. I apologized profusely. I thought that all those years had earned me the benefit of the doubt; but they had accrued no interest, and my account was overdrawn. I knew that day that Hanna would no longer keep my confidence.

When it became apparent, not long after the flooding incident, that Niko was indeed on the verge of a break, Hanna actually spoke these words to me. They were intended as solace: Don’t feel too bad. I’ve made him relapse before too.

The hardest part may have been Hanna’s final vanishing act.

About ten days before their scheduled departure, Hanna approached me quietly: Niko wants to re-book the flight for a later date. What do you think?

My response was a diplomatic but firm N.O. I was concerned for myself and my family. I was concerned for Niko’s mental health. I was concerned for Hanna’s job. Her boss had been upset at the length of her original vacation request.

Hanna stated her agreement. She said she was relieved to have her own views validated, and she would just have to break it to Niko.

A few days later, Niko invited me to the basement apartment for a discussion. He informed me (informed) that he and Hanna had decided to extend their stay. Not having the use of my computer had set them back, he said, but he was certain that 10 more days would be sufficient for them to do all the traveling and sightseeing they had originally planned. He knew they could still make the trip a success.

Hanna was as quiet as a church mouse.

I stayed calm. I explained why I thought this idea was likely to lead to further disappointment. If four weeks had not been long enough to get him out of the house for sightseeing, what made him think 10 more days would do the trick?

Hanna remained silent.

I explained why I thought this was a risky plan.

Hanna remained silent.

I said that though it pained me greatly, I would not be able to support their plan. I told them they had to leave the house as agreed.

They extended. Hanna extended.

For several tense days, I watched and waited. There were no signs of packing. I didn’t know what to do.

On the evening of their original departure date, there was still no movement, and I was desperate. I was halfway through my preparations for a late dinner when Hanna emerged from the basement to issue Niko’s invitation for a Greek dinner out.

I can see myself standing stupidly with the pizza dough in my hands.

Niko wants to leave at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I declined. The situation felt surreal.

She continued: But Niko has been trying to take you guys out ever since we got here. He saved up his money for a long time to treat you. He will be so hurt.

Disbelieving, I responded: Yes. But we have had this discussion again and again. I told him several times that we would love to go but we really need to make plans ahead of time and consider whether or not it is a school night. Niko likes to start planning at dinner time to go out the same night.

She retreated to the basement to deliver the bad news.

A short time later, Niko thumped up the stairs, wronged and angry.

I can’t believe that in the four weeks we have been here, you have never once been able to find one night to take me up on my invitation!

Again, I explained.

You will never guess what happened next: Hanna remained silent.

Soon I heard the sound of showering and a flurry of packing. My best friend and her husband departed around midnight. I guess you could say I kicked them out.

I saw them one last time before they left for Germany. I’m still debating whether or not to tell that story.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

Mad Hatter

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept 26, 2015

Mad Hatter

I am anxious. I am irritable. I have too much time between clients and too much time to think.

Isn’t this what I wanted? To think? To think about writing? To contemplate my enjoyment, which has become tinged with fear, and may be tipping into dread? I love writing for you. Yes, YOU. I also feel frightened and exposed. My perfectionism is a stitch in my side. And the demands of blogging etiquette stretch my introversion to desperation even while I enjoy your writing, and I lap up the comments you send my way.

I have a few moments, and so I continue the waiting I began earlier this week. I talk to God some. Mostly, I listen. I need to learn what comes next. I am both wonderfully strong and entirely dependent.

I purposed—and I think I still do–to finish my blog threads Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. I had written most of my material before the idea of a blog had even crossed my mind, and I have spent the months since February polishing and supplementing the pieces through which I have experienced freedom from suffering and greater self knowledge. During this therapeutic process, I became aware of a desire to try my voice in the hearing of others. I started this blog. All of this felt God-led.

Now the realization of my goal is within sight. What lies ahead?

I am known for fleeting passion. I gardened with fervor for a few seasons and then dropped it cold. My husband Henry and I worry about the appearance of the flower beds I started but do not maintain. Are the neighbors pissed? I crocheted my fingers to the bone last year, and now I can hardly stand the sight of yarn. Early in our marriage, I cooked everything but pasta from scratch. Then it was couponing for a few years. Before I started blogging, I was addicted to Bones reruns and Bejeweled Blitz. You see my pattern?

I have had to review, at many junctures, which parts of me are ME and which are merely hats which have caught my fancy. I have a list of ME parts. I keep it to remind me of who I am when I am in danger of becoming confused. Without it, I don’t think I would like myself very much, and I think I would have a hard time looking God in the eye. God’s pleasure in me is my guiding principle, or at least I want it to be. Not because of fear. No. Because I have experienced the goodness of God and can’t unknow it.

Here are some ME parts:

My relationship with my husband.

My relationship with my children.

My relationship with God.

My counseling career.

There are others as well, but these suffice for now. I am committed to the maintenance of these parts even on days when Henry and I argue, my daughters spill nail polish on the rug, God seems remote, and work straight up sucks. I will attend, fight for, defend, and nurture these parts even during times when my love is a discipline scant on warm feelings.

Writing might be a hat. I can’t tell. If so, it is one which I have worn with enjoyment. I might wear it for a while longer. Or I might put it in my closet and wait to see if it comes back into fashion. Then again, maybe writing is meant to become a part of ME. If this is the case, I will need to learn how to make a more permanent place for it within this anxious and chaotic woman. God can show me how to do this—and I will submit to this molding–but I don’t believe I can do it on my own. Perhaps writing will occupy some role which I haven’t even considered. I will have to wait and see.

And so I have entered a process of discernment.

Which, at times, requires me to lie in my bed with the covers over my head.

So that when I have become fully divested, I will do whatever God asks or permits.

Because following God is not a hat.

Simple Pleasures

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Fall, 2013

After checking my kitchen, I determined that I still needed cilantro, fresh ginger, and a jalapeno for my attempt to wrestle Maybonne into the aforementioned chicken pumpkin stew. To tell the truth, I was unable to locate the original recipe. But with help from Google, I came up with another one. It sounded perfect, and so off I went to my favorite Korean market.

The plan seemed straightforward enough:

1. Purchase the remaining ingredients.
2. Make the stew.
3. Enjoy the stew.

In my effort to accomplish these modest tasks, however, I learned that any or all of these may apply:

1. I am easily distracted.
2. I am a weirdo.
3. I do not have a life.

Perhaps I should have named this piece “Pleasures for the Simple Minded.”

There I was, piddling my way up and down the aisles, when I was transfixed by the most gorgeous mound of jalapenos. So deeply and uniformly green, smooth, firm, glossy, and well formed! I had a hard time moving on from the pepper display but I did so for fear I’d be arrested for fondling. Instead of buying one jalapeno, I bought two. One to cook, and one to admire in private. (It’s in my fridge, stashed in a baggie, so I can ogle it whenever I please. Do I need to join a 12-step group?)

Finding the ginger was easy as well. It was gorgeous in a knobbly, fresh-gingery kind of way but it did not move me. I then went in search of the cilantro.

After checking a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed it, I figured the green bunch labeled culantro had to be the herb I sought. The market has many Spanish-speaking customers and employees. Hmmm. Maybe this was just another word for the same thing. I picked it up and sniffed. It didn’t look the way I thought it would but it smelled, well, familiar. I placed it in a plastic bag, added it to my cart, and checked out.

Groceries in car, I headed off to my daughter’s music rehearsal.

I guess culantro is one of those odd foods, like kimchi, which mess with your mind. When I walk into my house and think: O.M.G.! Would someone please locate that dirty diaper and dispose of it, STAT?!, it eventually dawns on me that I have stumbled unprepared into another person’s kimchi experience. But when I anticipate kimchi, my tongue tingles in blissful expectation.

The reason I bother to explain this is because, when I arrived home that day and stuck my nose into the sun-warmed grocery bag, I was assaulted by the foul odor of a fresh stinkbug massacre. You know what I’m talking about if you have ever attempted to stem the Fall Invasion with your Dirt Devil hand vac. Except, in this case, it wasn’t stinkbugs. Nope. It was my tiny bag of culantro.

My stomach churned. I tied the bag tightly, tossed it into the fridge and went to do a little more Googling. Apparently culantro is cilantro’s cousin—it’s hairy, well-muscled, odiferous cousin. The one who trips little old ladies and picks fights in bars.

I pulled out my cutting board and got to work.

The dish was coming together. Onion, garlic, curry, jalapeno, chicken, pumpkin, coconut milk, red bell pepper, ginger. The scents were intoxicating. All that my work of art required was cilantro, and I was loath to add this vomitous imposter. Fortunately, my research had indicated that culantro will safely permit you to substitute if for cilantro in small quantities if you:

1. Wear a hazmat suit.
2. Give it your lunch money.
3. Promise to do its homework until Christmas break.

Well!

Alrighty, then!

I knew what I had to do.

I thought hard about cilantro–how delicious it would taste warmed in this aromatic blend on a cool autumn evening. Suddenly my mind made that strange shift. I hurried to chop the culantro and add it to the mix.

The stew was delicious!

If you want to give it a go at this recipe, the link is here.
If you are up for reading a strange poem about things whose smells can trick you, click here.

The Balloon

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

What do I do now?

April 6, 2012

A few weeks ago I got the idea to write an essay about myself as a balloon. I put it off, and I find I am no longer able to do so.

I had been tied firmly to my moorings and, despite dancing in breezes and being bullied by gales, I was confident that I’d hold fast. Popping was out of the question. My sense of security had made me a regular punch ball.

Thus grounded, I had even forgotten I was a balloon. I had continued in this state for decades without a second thought. I was so accustomed to my attachment that I no longer contemplated it. My connection to Hanna had become like breathing, I suppose. It was necessary for life, and yet it went on largely outside my conscious awareness–until a disruption of my normal rhythm reminded me I was doing it at all.

After an unsettling fall in which Hanna did not return my communications, I became keenly aware of my tie to her, my umbilical cord. Undernourished, my robust skin began to dull and thin. I began to feel deflated, and I wondered how much longer the silence would continue.

Hanna’s January letter cut me loose.

I bounced and skidded across the ground as the moaning wind compelled me across the gray winter landscape to an uncertain fate. Fragile, I was in danger of puncture. Sharp pebbles and brittle grasses clawed at my sides. For nearly two months, it was all I could do to keep myself intact.

Sometime in March, the winds started to abate. Spring seemed possible. The sun reemerged and began to warm me with its golden rays. I felt myself growing stronger. The beams whispered love to me. I ate and drank them. I began to grow fat and round once more, my skin taut and strong and shiny. Yes, Spring was on the move.

Warmth curled itself around me and within me, and I began to rise in fits and starts. Unattached, I couldn’t stop myself. And as I got over my fear, I began to enjoy my new perspective. I was no longer safely tethered, it was true. But my uncertainty was eclipsed by a burgeoning joy at this unexpected freedom.

I wanted to say all that–but I can’t. (Here you have to imagine the sudden ripping of a phonograph needle across a vinyl record.) I can’t write all that because just as the balloon was beginning its steady rise, a second letter came.

Hanna stated it had not been her intention to end the friendship but merely to put it on hold.

At that exact moment, the balloon snagged in the branches of a tree. It is stuck there still. The balloon is unable to continue its ascent until a further shift of the wind releases it. Meanwhile, the string dangles within reach, leaving open the possibility of its recapture.

What comes next is up in the air. So you see, I am unable to write about myself as a balloon.

This excerpt is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

Wonder Worms

hypnotic-swirl-5295_preview

I sit, mesmerized. I cannot look away.

Across from me, the wonder worms dance across their tiny stage to music only they can hear. So varied and gifted a performance!

Their tap dance, in truth, more of a soft shoe routine, gives way to a classical pas de deux. They plié. They leap. They arc. They bow. It’s all a tease to draw me in. The tension builds: Again and again, they run at each other. They come so very close…and then fall back. They run at each other once more. I lean in and hold my breath.

Suddenly all is still.

The worms resume their performance before I can even register this denouement. This time it’s disco. Then hip hop. What’s next? The Electric Slide. Their agility knows no bounds.

Suddenly the worms become boxers. Light on their feet, they weave and bob as they size one another up. They feint. Faster and faster they spring. Who will be first to deliver the knockout punch?

I forget where I am. I forget who I am. I hope the worms are benevolent because there is no going back. I sit unblinking, paralyzed, spellbound. I am at their mercy. Magnetized, I lean closer still.

I sit, mezmerized. And I cannot look away.

“Jane.”

Silence.

“Jane!”

“Don’t stop.”

“What are you talking about? Let’s go.”

“No.”

“Come on, I’m done. We can get coffee now. Thanks for being patient. I really needed to take care of that.”

“Who are you?”

See the wonder worm performance here. View at your own risk.

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