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What The F*ck is Going On?

By Arlene Rosales

I don’t quite recall the last time I fully understood something that happened in my life. Two seconds ago, I was just entering high school and worrying about keeping my room clean, and now I am working five days a week, going to school, and trying to sleep more than 4 hours; and I am doing it all in a different country. For a long time, I begged for a pause. The world finally heard me —the novel Coronavirus hit the world in March of 2020. My life took a 180-degrees turn, just like everyone else’s. However, I was not affected by the shortage of toilet paper, Criminal Minds ending after 15 seasons, Zoom classes, trending workout videos, the emergence of TikTok as the new Vine, and not even having to spend five months by myself. What impacted me was time and how suddenly, what seemed like a blessing turned into a curse. It is 2 am, and my wrist hurts from awkwardly holding my phone; I have been trying to sleep since 11 pm, but my mind keeps running: What the f*ck is going on?


As a child, there was a point when my parents had to beg me to go outside to play, but it wasn’t always like that. My parents tried to keep me away from social media for as long as possible. For years, I only cared about finishing my homework and playing soccer with my brother and cousin. Those years when I was innocent, when I could wear long basketball shorts and bright t-shirts, when having one friend was enough—the years when I did not care about what the rest of the world thought about me. Now, I find myself stuck living in a time where my presence online is more important than who I am. I feel the pressure of the whole world watching me, waiting for the moment I finally make a mistake.

I opened social media for the first time when I was 12 years old. As I scroll through my friends’ requests on Instagram, kids no older than 11 have sent me requests. It makes me cringe. I don’t want to sound old-school or dull, but life has become monotonous since everyone has become obsessed with social media. We all follow the same people, trends, and music; we even shop for the same clothing items. For example, I bought a $100 pair of jeans just because my Tiktok page told me I needed them. I am sure I am not the only person who has surrendered to what the internet tells them. New trends come and go; some are good, like metal straws and the ice bucket challenge. Some others just bring the worst of each person out — like the Birdbox Challenge and Pokemon Go.   

The hard pill to swallow when it comes to social media is that it has taken control of everything. But, honestly, how do you explain to someone that having less than 100 likes on an Instagram post is okay? We have created such a toxic online culture that likes define how much you are worth. Now that I am older, I can see what is wrong with that mindset, but growing up, I remember how self-conscious I was about every pic I posted and how important it was to follow the steps:

  1. Selfies. Full body pics are for girls with good bodies, and mine was not it.
  2. Editing. A plain picture is a mediocre one. It needs to be touched, and if your friend with a thousand followers does it, then it is better. If the image is not good, black and white always does the job.
  3. Time. Anything before 6 pm is lame. Cool and older kids always check and post their pictures around 7 pm, but never after 8:30 pm. Time = likes = popularity.
  4. Tell everyone. The moment you post, you need to tell the whole group chat you posted, so they can go like it and comment, which will boost your post.

Now that I am typing these “rules,” I realize how stupid they sound. It also reminded me of one of my favorite songs – Crazy by Simple Plan.

Tell me what’s wrong with society
When everywhere I look I see
Young girls dying to be on TV
Won’t stop ’til they’ve reached their dreams

Diet pills, surgery
Photoshopped pictures in magazines
Telling them how they should be
It doesn’t make sense to me
Is everybody going crazy?

Now, is everybody going crazy? Or am I the problem?

What would happen if I did not fit into the world created for me? A world where I need to study and then work for the rest of my life; a world where I need to dress girly but not like a teenager; a world where religion is not necessary anymore and having kids is not a dream anymore. For years, I have seen how cruel the world can be, even worse if you are naive. The idea of “wanting to grow up” to finally be free was and probably still is the biggest scam I have succumbed to. At the end of the day, half of the things you see on the internet are fake, but so many people take them as the ultimate truth. And wanting to go against the majority is scary.

I dreamt about finding love, getting married, and raising kids with the perfect husband for years. However, the more I thought about these dreams, the less likely they seemed. I can summarize how each relationship I’ve had has gone using five words: a different idea of love. I had my first crush. Then, the older guy, who I thought was more mature, and since he liked me, I was also mature (none of us were). After that, the first t heartbreak — I fell in love with my best friend, and he then fell in love with my girl best friend. By 14, I was sure love was not for me. Two years later, I decided to try again; however, the naive part of me was unaware of how much things change when you enter high school.

Parties, alcohol, drugs, and sex, but love was never an option. Every Friday, while all my friends were out partying and making out with strangers, I was alone in my room watching their Snapchat and Instagram stories. What a loser, you might think. I was a loser, but was I wrong for trying to find love? Was I wrong for wanting to fall in love with someone and stay together longer than three months? Was I wrong for thinking about the future? When did society start to tell me how I wanted to love was wrong? When did love became a competition to see who could hook up with the most boys? When did still being a virgin mean that you were wasting your life? The world was not stopping, and social media kept adding to the struggle of growing up in the internet era.

I saw my friends post about their perfect relationships when I knew about all the fights and cheating scandals. I read posts about lovely moms for Mother’s Day when half of my friends couldn’t even communicate with theirs. Pictures about a current disaster were everywhere, asking for help and donations when I knew my friends were the first to ignore a homeless man begging for food. Wanting to be someone else was the norm because showing who you are meant social suicide. Many still fail to realize that the word suicide has slowly started becoming a reality for many young teenagers – teenagers who fail to live up to the expectations of many faceless trolls hiding behind a screen.

According to the Global Health Organization, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. I wish I could act surprised, but this is something well known among my generation. I was 14 the first time I thought about dying, the same age I was when my “friends” started bullying me for not using curse words, going to church with my parents, wanting to find long-lasting love, and many other views. Years later, I still think about death constantly. I know there is something wrong with me, but nowadays, everyone wants to die, so I don’t know what to believe anymore. It is a coping mechanism for me, but I know deep down I am scared. However, I don’t actually fear death and how it might present to me, but how fast it is approaching. There is no point living in a world that is slowly dying, thanks to global warming and an older generation that cares more about two girls kissing each other than the well-being of their children. Dying is this generation’s joke, and if that does not make you wonder what the fuck is going on with society, you are part of the problem.

It is 2022, and I deactivated my Instagram 6 months ago. The Coronavirus is here to stay. I eat two meals a day and go to the gym, so I don’t kill myself. I listen to sad music when I am happy. I stay up scrolling down TikTok until 2 am. I drink more coffee than water, and I ignore my parents as much as possible. I follow clothes trends, and I dye my hair. Welcome to the world where teenagers are “talking back” to their parents if they express how their actions make them feel. A world where having no social media is a red flag[1]. A world where having a college degree does not take you anywhere most of the time. A very warm welcome to the world where nothing makes sense anymore, and at the end of the day, the same question goes without an answer — What the f*ck is going on?


Arlene Maria Rosales Alvarado, born and raised in El Salvador, I left my house when I was 16 to study in an international high school in rural India through the United World College program. I fell in love with writing and film while there and once I graduated I was accepted into the University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship. I am currently 21-years-old and a junior in college pursuing a double major in Creative Media Production and English Writing. I plan on going to Grad school for Creative Writing and I hope to write a book that I can later turn into a movie. 

[1]  Red flag: a sign or warning of any impending danger, disaster or doom. This is the Urban Dictionary’s definition, which is nothing less than another fake source teenagers (myself included) use to feel like they are making a difference.

Father’s Day

By Kate E. Lore

            Maybe for father’s day I could rent a boat and take him out to the lake. We could go fishing like we did when I was a kid. Maybe I could introduce him to Columbus, and Cincinnati the way he showed my Chicago. Maybe I’ll stick to cities with C’s to start; Cleveland, Charlotte, Colorado Springs. Maybe he’d have flown out to see me read my work at Corpus Christi for Texas A&M University. Maybe he would have felt proud to watch me win first place. Maybe it would make up for that time in middle school when I tied for second place with Power of the Pen. He lived within walking distance. But I didn’t invite him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to go, it’s just that I hadn’t heard from him in so long. I guess I’d gotten too used to his absence. Like now.

            Once when I was working at Mc Donald’s, my first job, second year, I was seventeen, I saw a man who looked like him, like my father. My heart leapt up so high in my throat it choked me with shock. Without thinking I rushed out from behind the counter, and through the door. I chased this man to the edge of the parking lot. He turned around. A stranger.

            It never happened again. I don’t even double take anymore. I’ve gotten used to his absence.

            If my father were alive he would have gone to my high school graduation. If he could. If my father were alive he might have gone to my community college graduation, watched me get an associates degree, watched me get my bachelors degree, maybe I’d invite him here to see me receive a masters. Maybe he’d stay off heroin for good. Maybe he’d get his life together. Maybe he’d get back together with Karen and we could go fishing again at that pond by her condo where I once caught a carp. Where I once went swimming with my friends.

            Once I saw him in a dream. My father. I kept asking why I hadn’t seen him in so long. He wouldn’t tell me why. He kept changing the subject, shifting the way dreams do, morphing again and again into something else. When I woke up I remembered. A cold shock of water. I remembered his absence.

            Maybe if my father were alive I wouldn’t have made such bad choices. Maybe if my father were alive my sister would be better adjusted now as an adult. Maybe her anxiety would ease like a slow release of air. Less pressure. Maybe if my father were alive I’d have asked him for his advice on Los Angelis. What to see and do in this non-C city? Maybe I’d tell him about my professors, maybe I’d tell him about my friends, that one homeless guy, that one ex, her, him, them. Maybe I’d tell him about you.

            Maybe I’d answer the phone every time he called me no matter what. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing. Maybe I’d never turn my phone off. Maybe I’d keep the volume up, always, no matter what. Maybe I’d keep it on vibrate too. Maybe I’d carry a battery pack. Extra charger. Maybe I’d make up for that period of time in which I refused to speak to him. That long never goodbye. The silence that grew and grew and became forever. A silence so long I can scarcely remember the sound of him. An absence gotten used to.

            Maybe If my father were alive we’d have a huge graduation party and invite over all our family and friends. We’d plan it over the phone. Maybe we’d face time, months of arrangements and research. Maybe we’d fight about the theme. Maybe I’d want to keep it simple but he’d want more. Maybe we’d compromise and settle on a cookout by the lake. A fish fry. Maybe the charcoal would burn too hot and our smoke would bellow up into the sky, a trail, a cloud of silver lining, something to be seen from Cleveland, from Chicago, like a flag of pride, a boast, a scream. Maybe we’d run and charge like there was never anything to fear in the first place, no reason to avoid, nothing to make up for, maybe we’d jump out so far and so wide each splash was an explosion, each wave tidal, something louder than a phone call, an absence that could never be missed. Water like a river running for millions of years carving deep into the earth the words we never said, the words we owe each other, I’m sorry where it can never be missed, never forgotten.


Kate E Lore is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. With many publications in both genres, Kate has been featured in Orsum magazine, and Longridge Review. Originally from Dayton Ohio, Kate is currently earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University. Kate got her bachelor’s from The Ohio State University.

A jack-of-all-trades Kate splits her time up between fiction and nonfiction, screenplays, flash prose, full-length novels, painting, and comics.

Kate is openly queer and neurodivergent. She grew up the youngest of four, scraping by on low income, raised by a single widowed mother.

Kateelore.com, @kateelore (Twitter), kate.e.lore (Instagram), https://www.facebook.com/writerlore/

Zone Valves

By Graeme Hunter

In early 1991, I interviewed for a faculty position at the University of Western Ontario.  During my visit, a real-estate agent drove me around some residential areas in northwest London.  I remember being impressed by Orchard Park, a quiet, leafy subdivision within cycling distance of campus. 

I was offered the job, and accepted it.  A few months later, my wife Francine went to London to find us a house.  Unfortunately Orchard Park turned out to be too expensive for us.  Her search narrowed down to two houses in White Hills, less leafy and a bit further from the university.  She faxed me the details, and we made our decision.    

At the end of the summer, Francine and I moved to London and took possession of our new house.  It didn’t have much curb appeal: aluminum siding, a prominent garage, no street-facing windows on the main floor.  But I already knew that from the photographs that Francine had taken.  The unpleasant surprises began when we went inside.  The living room was dark, with stuccoed walls.  The bedrooms each had a different colour of carpet and a different type of garish wallpaper.  Every renovation or repair had been done in the most half-assed manner imaginable.  For example, the en-suite powder room, which I referred to as “the Black Hole of Calcutta”, was floored with sheet linoleum that curled up at the edges, because whoever installed it hadn’t bothered to remove the baseboards first. 

Me: “This is so ugly!”

Francine: “I don’t remember it looking like this!”

But the low point was the dining room.  It had a carpeted floor, and walls that were adorned with gold-patterned mirror tiles.

Me: “These tiles look like something you would find in a New Orleans cat-house.”

Francine: “How would you know?”

More unpleasant surprises lay behind the house’s walls and under its flooring.  The wiring was aluminum, a known fire risk.  The bedroom walls had never been primed, so stripping the wallpaper also removed the paper backing of the wallboard, as well as some of the underlying gypsum.  Worst of all, the house had electrical baseboard heaters.  Despite having access to vast amounts of free power from Niagara Falls, the province of Ontario had some of the highest electricity rates in the world.  Heating our new house through the impending winter was going to bankrupt us. 

We got rid of the baseboard heaters and installed a more efficient forced-air system.  Now we had affordable electricity bills, but we also had gaps in our baseboards, holes in our walls and ceilings, and exposed ductwork running everywhere.  This in addition to the bordello tiles, grotty carpeting, Age of Aquarius wallpaper, and all the other problems we had inherited. 

In short, the place needed a lot of work.

Fortunately, help was at hand.  Francine’s dad, Nick, was co-owner of a home-building company.  He’d come to Canada from Italy with fifty dollars in his pocket and no marketable skills.  By claiming to be a trained carpenter, he’d found a job on a building site, where he faked it until he learned the trade.  After many years, he and a paesano were able to start their own business. Thanks to hard work, luck and bribes to municipal politicians, they became millionaires, at a time when that word was not yet synonymous with “home-owner”. 

Nick and his wife were happy to come to London every weekend: she to play with her granddaughter, he to work on the house.  The problem was that I was expected to help him, and I was emphatically not a handyman.  Things got off to a bad start when Nick asked me for a hammer.  When I brought him the only one I owned, he laughed.  “That’s a child’s hammer!” 

Way to emasculate your son-in-law, Nick!  Don’t you want any more grandchildren?

Thereafter he brought his own tools, and we set to work: building a wall between the kitchen and dining-room, installing a French door, enclosing the new ductwork, tiling the carpeted floors.  To elaborate on the plural pronoun: Nick did all the actual work, while I brought him the tools he needed.  Once I had learned what “spikes” and “two-by-fours” were, and the difference between Phillips and Robertson screwdrivers, I was allowed to graduate to simple, hands-on tasks – such as using a proper, man-sized hammer to drive “spikes” into “two-by-fours”. 

Nick believed in building things to last.  Maybe it’s because he was Italian: the Coliseum is still standing, after all, and Rome’s first-century Pantheon looks like it was completed yesterday.  The wooden frame Nick made to enclose the heating ducts was so robust that I could hang from it and do chin-ups.  He brought the same philosophy to a closet he built in the family room.  I decided that, if nuclear war broke out, the family would take shelter there.  London might become a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but our family-room closet would still be standing.

Eventually Nick lost interest in spending every weekend working on his daughter’s house.  Now I was on my own.  Francine would have helped (or so she said), except that she was pregnant again.  Apparently that was my fault!  But I’d served my apprenticeship, and now knew the rudiments of home renovation: rough carpentry, drywalling, some wiring, a bit of plumbing.  One of my solo projects was replacing the flooring in the Black Hole of Calcutta.  When I took up the linoleum, which had a garish pink floral pattern, I was baffled to find beneath it another layer of the exact same lino!  Below that was a layer of blue vinyl tiles.  By the time I reached the subfloor, I felt like Schliemann at Troy. 

Eventually I was proficient enough to build my own wall, although I had to get Nick out of retirement to hang the door in its opening.  As far as I know, my wall is still standing, although I wouldn’t expect it to survive World War Three.      

Throughout the disruptions of all these renovations, Francine and I consoled ourselves that this was just our starter home; in five years or so, we’d be able to move up in the world.  But the mid-nineties were lean years for Ontario, and its university sector wasn’t spared.  Even with help from Francine’s parents, it was nine years before we were able to think about house-hunting.  By that time we had replaced every surface in the house.  No more, I vowed.  I’m hanging up my toy hammer.  In the next house, I don’t want to do anything.

We found that house by accident.  Cycling to work one morning, I came across an “open house” sign at the end of a street in Sherwood Forest, which was even leafier than Orchard Park.  I detoured along the street and found the house.  It was all brick, built on a centre-hall plan.  When I got to work, I phoned Francine.  We arranged that she’d pick me up at lunchtime.

I’d made a mistake.  The house wasn’t open to the public – the sign I’d seen indicated a viewing for real-estate agents.  But even though the property hadn’t been gussied up yet, the owner agreed to let us see it.  A potential customer is a potential customer, after all.  For the most part, the interior was as attractive as the exterior.  Hardwood flooring throughout, crown moulding, large windows, a separate dining room, stained-glass panels flanking the front door.  The basement was only semi-finished, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker – the house we were living in didn’t even have a basement.    

There was only one thing wrong with the house – the asking price was more than Francine and I could afford.  We made a lowball offer; the owners counteroffered.  We found some spare change down the back of the sofa, and made a higher offer; the owners made a new counteroffer.  But it was still too rich for our blood.  We told our realtor to forget it, and I went off to a conference.  A couple of days later, I phoned Francine from New Hampshire, and she told me that the owners of the Sherwood Forest house had decided to accept our second offer.

“Can they do that?” I asked.

Well, it turns out that they could.  And, as a result, we had our dream home. 

It was the beginning of November when we moved in, and it soon became obvious that the family room, which had been an addition to the original building, was unpleasantly cold.  Unlike our previous house, this one had a hot-water heating system.  And for some reason, the hot water wasn’t reaching the radiators in the addition. 

So we called a plumber.  He told us that we were lucky to have hot-water heating, because that was the best system.  When we asked him why it was the best system, he explained that radiant heat was “warmer” than that produced by forced-air furnaces.  I studied chemistry in my youth and retain a passing familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics.  But I don’t understand how any form of heat can be “warmer” than any other form of heat, unless it’s actually, you know, at a higher temperature.  

The plumber also explained that the family room, as well as about half of the original main floor, was on a separate “zone” from the rest of the house.  Flow of hot water through each of the zones was governed by a valve, which was opened and closed by a thermostat in the corresponding part of the house. 

Unfortunately he wasn’t able to fix the problem.  Nor, as it subsequently turned out, were other plumbers who worked for his company, or plumbers who worked for different companies.  No matter how much they tinkered with the system, the family room remained an uninhabitable meat-locker.  Giving up, we installed a gas fireplace.

The fireplace kept the room warm for many years, although the noise of its blower was a bit annoying, particularly if you were watching television.  But I had bigger problems, principally Francine being diagnosed with cancer.  Five years after she died, I remarried, and my new wife moved into the house.  Sue didn’t seem to understand that the stone-cold radiators in the family room were just a fact of nature.  She thought we should get them fixed.  So we started over again, this time with a new team of plumbers.  Over the next few years, these gentlemen (and one lady) replaced various pipes, pumps, valves and gauges with shiny new pipes, pumps, valves and gauges.  Unfortunately, all this work on their part, and expense on ours, resulted in at best a temporary warming of the family-room rads. 

But at least by now I had learned enough about my heating system to converse intelligently about it with the plumbing profession.  It seemed to me that the problem must be the zone valve controlling the addition.  After all, if the shiny new boiler was heating water, and the shiny new pump was sending that water to the rest of the house through shiny new piping, surely the leading suspect was the valve controlling flow to the family room?  However, a succession of plumbers “tested” the zone valve, and assured me that it worked perfectly.  Look, Graeme, try it yourself.  You just have to turn this wheel.  Hear the click?  That’s the sound of the valve opening.  See, the wheel continues around until it’s back at the starting position.  So the zone valve is fine.  That will be three hundred dollars, please.  Cash, check or credit card?

But, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, if every other part of your home-heating system has been replaced, then the one part that hasn’t been replaced, no matter how merrily it spins around, must be the culprit.  I phoned the plumbing company once again and asked them to send someone to replace the zone valve.  The woman in the office promised to do so, and assured me that, as it was a standard part, a new zone valve didn’t have to be ordered – the plumber would have one in his (or her) truck. 

When the plumber arrived, he insisted on “checking the system” – in other words, performing a billable diagnostic procedure that I didn’t want or need.  Then, when he admitted that maybe the zone valve was the problem, he told me that he didn’t have one with him, and would have to come back another day.  But in the fullness of time it came to pass that the old valve was removed and replaced with a shiny new one.

When the plumber was packing up his kit, he told me that, just out of curiosity, he’d disassembled the old zone valve to see what the problem was.  It turns out that the teeth of the spinning wheel were supposed to engage with those of another wheel mounted perpendicularly to it.  However, the teeth of the invisible second wheel were stripped.  Thus the visible wheel was turning, clicking, and doing absolutely nothing! 

“How about that?” I said, parting with another five hundred dollars.  Then I went upstairs and put my hand on the deliciously warm metal of the family-room radiators, doing their job at last.


Graeme Hunter‘s essays have been published in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly, Talking Soup, The Writing Disorder and Canadian Notes & Queries.  His web site is https://graemehunter.ca/.

To my son,
whose name I do not know….

by Yolanda Wysocki

“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.”

—Joni Mitchell

In 1970, annual numbers for children being
placed for adoption in the US increased to a
peak of 89,200, then quickly declined to an
estimated 47,700 in 1975.

In 1970, the dominant psychological and
social work view was that the large majority
of unmarried mothers were better off being
separated by adoption from their newborn

“In most cases, adoption was presented to
the mothers as the only option and little or
no effort was made to help the mothers
keep and raise the children.”

62% of children adopted through private adoption
were placed with their adoptive families within a
month of birth.

Researchers find that generally children adopted
before the age of six-months fare no differently than
children raised with their biological parents.

68% of adoptees are read to every day as young
children, versus 48% of children who are not adopted.

73% of adopted children were sung to and told
stories to every day, compared to 59% of
children who were not adopted.

Making me faint on the “L” platform
on my way to work,
you announced your existence
and got my attention.

Arrested, robbed,
fired, evicted;
at the time you were
one piece
of bad news
among many.

A “foot doctor”
(with the largest feet I ever saw),
and some other MD,
illegal abortionists:
no phone? no car? no money?
“no way”
your fate was determined

as well by your father,
who had said he was sterile,
then refused to give me
the hundred bucks he had borrowed
and told everyone
I was lying about you.

an ad:
“Young people wanted to restart farm in rural Wisconsin”
a stroke cancelled their plans,
Divine intercession,
stroke of luck, kindness
whatever you call it,
I went alone.

Volkswagen bug of a trailer,
plopped in the middle of cow fields
six miles out of town.
know something?
my mother and your mother,
pregnant, alone in the country
she was terrified,
me?  finally, at peace.

I loved you
with your miniature combat boot kicks.
I wanted you to have what I could not give you…
a loving home, security, love, two parents…
so much more than I had to offer.

I didn’t want to pass on
the dysfunction
I carried inside me like a twin nestling
Alongside you
But you carried
abandonment, didn’t you?

Endless labor,
screaming alone,
an aide sitting silently
watching from the corner;
Finally they knocked me out
and you were born,

Your bassinet turned to the wall.
After carrying you and loving you,
I couldn’t NOT see you.
I insisted.
At long last there you were behind the glass,
one quick glance.
As I turned away to ask a question,
they took you away…

Six weeks later, living with my parents,
who should have been
proud grandparents
never telling them about you
but a friend from Wisconsin
broke my trust and called,
we all acted
as if nothing had changed,
everyone knew
everything had.

Four years later,
watching a TV show on adoption,
my first memory
of having

forgive me.
You are in my thoughts,
my heart and prayers.
May our paths cross again.
With love,
Your birth mother

There is a recent news photo from
Afghanistan of a crying baby still in diapers
being passed from a set of parent’s hands
over razor wire to another set of hands
belonging to an American soldier.

There are no photos of all the children
taken, stolen, snatched, beaten away from
their parents’ grief in countries all around
the world, including times of slavery.

There are no photos of children being sold,
given away by their parents to traffickers
because of poverty, greed, despair.

Sometimes children are passed into hands
that will protect them, feed them, clothe
them, love them, and sometimes into
hands that will abuse them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why did you leave me/let me go/reject me/abandon me?

First it wasn’t personal in that I had never met you; the decision was made long before you were born.  Know I love you but I couldn’t give you what I wanted you to have. I hope you received those in abundance!

  • What are my birth parents like? We weren’t famous or rich or anything special. Me an 18yo naïve young girl on my own for the first time. Your father, 15 years older, a contractor who denied your existence. I was never a drug addict or alcoholic or any other kind of addict you may have been worried about.
    • DO You ever think about me?  OF COURSE I DO!  I have always kept you close in my heart, though I had let go of the sorrow years ago. I only hope you have had a great life so far and it would be nice to finally meet you.
    • Do I have any brothers or sisters? No you are an only child, but you have cousins and great cousins. Your grandparents have all died. 
    • How do I answer questions about my “real parents?”  The folks that raised you are your real parents. I am your birth mother.
    • Why don’t I look like anyone else in my family? I am sure you now know that you are adopted. Both I and your father are short people with curly hair. I have never seen your adoptive family, though I helped choose where you went. I hope they’re not all tall and straight-haired skinny people!

Frequently thought but Never Asked Questions: PLEASE FILL IN THE BLANKS.

  • How did you find out you were adopted and how did you feel?  Did you feel a need to forgive me? And did you?
    • What were your worst fears about me? Are you willing to know the truth?
    • Were you happy and well-loved as a child? 
    • Did you have brothers and sisters to grow up with?
    • What was the best day of your life? Worst? How/Who are you now? 
    • Are you happy with your life now?

Illinois Adoption Reunion Registry

Were you born in Illinois? Or are you searching for someone born in Illinois? Adopted.com is proud to offer an Illinois state adoption reunion registry where you can meet by mutual consent without having to open records. We have provided a form on this page for you to check your matches. If both parties want to meet then you can find each other on Adopted.com! Adult adoptees who are 21 years or older are able to request a non-certified copy of their original birth certificate.

Find Birth Parents Guide
Describes how adoptees can conduct research about their birth families and prepare for reconnection. Search and Reunion in Domestic and International Adoption [Webinar]
Center for Adoption Support and Education (2018)
Discusses reasons that adoptees choose to search for birth relatives, outlines the search and reunion process, and describes common relational dynamics present during reunions.


Yolanda Wysocki has an MA in the Study of Human Consciousness, and two BA’s. She retired from a career in Social Services, Counseling, and Life Coaching in 2020, and is now pursuing a creative and spiritual life focused on writing, photography and meditation. Although she has been writing—poetry, bits of fiction, interviews—for several years, discovering creative non-fiction last year felt like a perfect fit. Her second- ever-to-be-published essay was recently published in Stories That Need to be Told 2022. She lives in the Portland Oregon area.

The Scholar

by Margaret King

The scholar wishes she had begun writing poetry many years ago, that she had been writing it all along, all along. The scholar regrets that she buried her true self under intellectual thought, and for years, thought using words like “beautiful” was weak and silly and a ploy to get someone into bed. She mistrusted beauty for so long, because she couldn’t really feel, because she feared ridicule and rejection, and because study was her strength, or so she thought, so she was told throughout her childhood and college years. 

The scholar had never been pretty or popular or especially gifted in sports or in being nice or kind or selfless, and so, she buttressed herself behind books and essays and philosophy, because rejecting her scholarly arguments was not a rejection of her, but of mere ideas. As scholarly arguments were built on the shoulders of other scholars’ work and thoughts, there was a solidarity to it. Rejecting a thesis was challenging the great thinkers before her, and that was exciting and the point of research, anyway.

Still, the scholar concludes that she was an asshole a lot of the time during this period–not intentionally, but is only now learning how to be a better person. After all, all her emotions and love and appreciation for the beautiful and broken things were there all along, just sleeping so far under the snow, so frozen, that they were hibernating and rarely came out for nourishment. The scholar can always tell people her poetry is fiction, and that way, if they scoff or become angry at something she has written, she can claim it isn’t autobiographical. Hopefully. For the most part. 

The scholar used to hate winter growing up, but now she has a child, and the child’s sheer joy at waking up to snow, his cheerful intrepid donning of layers to march outside and embrace the cold, make her excited, even if vicariously. The scholar should buy him new snowpants today, as her town just got its first snow unexpectedly early in the season. 

But instead, the scholar is sitting here, writing this informal essay about how she’s no longer afraid to talk about all the beauty she sees around her.



Margaret King enjoys penning poetry and flash fic. Her recent work has appeared in MoonPark Review, Levatio Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, and Great Lakes Review. In 2021, she was nominated for a Pushcart for her eco-flash fiction story “The Sky Is Blue.” She teaches tai chi in Wisconsin. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Isthmus.

Reviewed by Richard Rose

Nights of Plague

by Orhan Pamuk

Published by Faber | ISBN: 978-0-571-35292

Though it is not always true to suggest that from adversity comes great literature, there are many instances where extreme circumstances have led to a deluge of writing, good, bad and indifferent.  Obvious examples, such as the first world war, from which emerged some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century providing a visceral and lasting impression of the horrors of conflict, were vividly expressed in the works of Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Erich Maria Remarque to name but three. Later conflicts were equally well documented by writers such as Laurie Lee, George Orwell, Norman Mailer and Stephen Wright. What all of these works have in common is the ability to demonstrate the futility of man-made tragedy and what Hannah Arendt with great prescience described as the “banality of evil”.

While the causes of disease and infection are often less easily defined, responses to plague and pandemic have given us a rich vein of literature over many centuries. The fourteenth century writer Giovanni Boccaccio in his great work “The Decameron” captured the fear of the Brigata as they sought to escape the ravages of plague, much as he had done with his movements across Italy. Three hundred years later in his “Journal of the Plague Year” Daniel Defoe provided a vivid account of life during the epidemic that ravaged London in 1665. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter explored love and loss during the influenza epidemic of 1918 that claimed more lives than the first world war.  Later writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “Love in the Time of Cholera” in which the lovers Fermina and Florentina provide a personal response to the fear of disease, and Albert Camus who provides vivid descriptions of life under lock-down in the French Algerian city of Oran, have provided rich accounts of earlier times of pestilence.

It was then, only to be expected that a modern global pandemic, and more especially one that has taken place in the glare of the world’s media, might attract the attention of today’s writers. In the UK, poets, including Simon Armitage, Roger McGough and Hollie McNish reflected on the impact of Covid-19 on their own lives. As might be expected, it is this personalisation of a devastating period of history that has led to much of the writing to emerge thus far from the experiences of the last few years.

The Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk in his latest novel “Nights of Plague” has adopted a refreshingly different approach. By deftly mingling fantasy with history, he has created a Mediterranean story located on a fictional island during the declining years of the Ottoman empire. Pamuk is of course rightly renowned for his interplay of the imaginary with reality. His Museum of Innocence is a real place located in his native Istanbul but contains artefacts linked exclusively to characters from his imagination. In his latest work Pamuk has created the island of Mingheria and even provides his readers with a map to show its location off the Northeast shoreline of Crete, one of the many real places that figures strongly in the text.

Through the telling of a slow burning tale that perfectly captures the tedium of life under quarantine, Pamuk interrogates the very nature of a disease that challenges the understanding of the scientists of the day; Dr Nuri Bey a quarantine expert and the most sympathetically handled character in the bookt, struggles to interpret the ravages of the disease that engulfs Mingheria. In his efforts to deploy a logical approach to tackling the devastation that surrounds him, the doctor comes to appreciate that the island’s population are looking for easy answers that have minimal impact upon their daily routines. Trading a fine line between the diplomacy that will keep the local politicians on side and the implementation of scientifically justified measures to tackle the plague, he presents as a conflicted man under considerable duress. Here, Pamuk has created a character with whom anyone who has witnessed tensions during the management or mismanagement of Covid-19 will immediately empathise. With a subtle combination of humour and commentary, he also demonstrates how seemingly rational individuals quickly descend into a world of pseudo-science and mystical mumbo-jumbo in their response to situations they don’t understand. The carrying of religious texts and the use of untested potions in an effort to ward of the plague demonstrates irrationality akin to the notion of injecting bleach to tackle Covid-19.

As the book progresses Mingheria gradually falls further into a state of decline. Debates around the efficacy of quarantine and the ways in which this may be enforced dominate several chapters. The tensions that develop between central characters, with politicians reluctant to take advice from scientists and religious leaders defying the laws of the land, have a familiar ring. But it is the eventual political collapse towards anarchy, with the overthrowing of democracy through varying forms of insurrection that many readers will be led to consider as being on the cusp of fantasy and reality.

An exiled Princess, who turns out to be one of the most grounded characters in this book, is forced to reconsider many of her relationships. Not least that to her trusted bodyguard, a man who starts out as a humble major, but through circumstance, scheming and personal manipulation of the tragic situation, eventually assumes the role of supreme dictator of the island. Unsurprisingly he comes to a sad end. Here again, Pamuk plays with our emotions as a once sympathetic character is revealed to be a despot who loses the trust of the fictional people who surround him, and thereby also alienates the reader. The theme of an attempted overthrow of democratic institutes and the ease with which an ordered society descends into chaos will certainly resonate with many who read this book.

Pamuk has always had the ability to create places and situations that are both vivid and tense. In this latest novel, as in “My Name is Red” and “The White Castle” he demonstrates the influences of the once powerful Ottoman empire, and the ways in which along with other imperialist ventures these are invariably doomed to gradually fade. He is equally adept as demonstrated in books like “Snow” at weaving social and political commentary and reflection upon modern day incidents into stories that resonate across cultures. At times there are aspects of “Nights of Plague” that seem repetitious, with characters who are indecisive and at times inept. Conspiracy theories and false prophecies abound. But then, perhaps these are phrases that may be aptly used to describe the period of our most recent global pandemic.

Richard Rose, November 2022


Richard Rose is a UK based writer and university professor. His most recent books include “Breaching the Barriers: Short Stories and Essays from India” and a collection of poetry “A Sense of Place”. “The Artist’s Model and Other Stories” will be published in early 2023.

Reviewed by Julz Savard

The Other Mother: Melodic Prose Deconstructs the Meaning of Motherhood and Family
by Rachel M. Harper

            The Other Mother– a multigenerational, multi-perspective narrative–is as poignant and nuanced as its structure is unique and transpicuous. A moving family drama organized into seven books with seven chapters each, the mix of points-of-view shatters the heteronormative, nuclear family, emphasizing the complexities and vulnerabilities of motherhood.

            The book begins with The Son – Jenry Castillo: a Cuban-Black piano prodigy and freshman at Brown University on an essential quest for his biological father, Jasper Patterson. A premise not uncommon, but one that quickly turns to the other mother, title encapsulated in the novel’s driving force. Upon meeting his grandfather, Winston Patterson, a tenured History professor at Brown, Jenry learns that Jasper’s sister, Juliet, raised him as a young child with his mother, Marisa, her ex-partner.

            Confused and angry at his mother for having kept this secret, Jasper grapples with having two mothers. The following books provide retrospective accounts of what transpired between Marisa and Juliet; ultimately Juliet didn’t feel passionate about Marisa and chose to focus on her career as a touring pianist and composer. Feeling rejected, Marisa took Jenry back to Miami where her parents live for the next eighteen years, cutting Juliet off entirely. Juliet looks desperately for them, but her search peters out as her career takes off. In each account, characters are interwoven and connected.

            In Book 3: The Father, Jasper battles with AIDS but dies in a lake accident at the family cabin. Juliet falls into alcoholism and leaves Marisa. Winston, The Grandfather, hid from Juliet that he kept tabs on Jenry’s childhood through mementos and letters, as well as his financial support to Victor, The Other Grandfather, Marisa’s father, who hides his regular correspondence with Winston about Jenry from Marisa. With Winston’s support and presence (albeit from a distance), Jenry inevitably comes to Providence to study at the same university both his mothers did and to meet his “other family.” Hence all the lies, secrets, and betrayals unravel.

            Harper achieves characterization equally flawed and just. The story is laced with an overarching theme of doing what is “right” to protect someone, but later learning that the protection was merely self-preservation, deferring and avoiding the potential pain of losing that someone again. Harper delicately illustrates the variations of doing right by yourself and others out of “love” that sadly ends up hurting those involved. Choosing to leave your partner because you can’t love her the way she wants; keeping your child away from their other parent because you’re a package deal; hiding what you know from your daughter so she can beat her addiction and succeed at her talent; secretly corresponding with the man who can give your grandson a better future; never telling your son that his biological father isn’t whom he thinks. So many circumstances, so much at stake, so much risk in telling the truth, and yet when the truth comes, it sets everyone free.

            The narrative presents all sides–every truth and fabrication–creating imperfect characters and messy relationships. Welove in different ways. What can feel like betrayal, Harper reveals: Relationships are complicated. People. Families. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. When you’re a child, you can’t see how much work it involves, just keeping everyone connected.”

            Through compelling and complex character dynamics, Harper integrates larger themes on race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Successful men in their fields–from Winston’s and Victor’s perspectives–struggle being Black in America, and with the disillusionment of emigration, respectively. They try to reconcile their children to themselves, questioning lifestyles that severely defy theirs, or refusing to understand, either due to a generational gap or a cultural norm being breached. From Jasper’s, Juliet’s, and Marisa’s points-of-view, the struggles of being gay, the physical implications in Jasper’s situation, the inability to fully see oneself as an equal parent, the estrangement and rejection from family in which the riff between daughter and mother feels eternal.

            Grief underlines the narrative collectively. Whether because of separation, the death of a loved one, or an unfulfilled desire, grief allows the reader to sympathize greatly and deeply. Juliet’s sorrows and struggles are constant, causing her to give up her one true love: music. Her character arc is the most prevalent and responsive in that she learns to put family, love, and partnership first; it keeps her sober, married and faithful to her present partner, Noelle, and their future family with their adopted son, Jonah. Harper lyrically describes grief, loss, longing, regret, and guilt in an array of similes and metaphors, for example, “The guilt feels like a wool scarf knotted around his neck, one he will wear for the rest of his life.”

            The descriptive language–raw and visceral–in the sections that pertain to Juliet are the sharpest. Harper uses musical terms to define Juliet’s feelings and mental states. She conveys Juliet’s fears and desires about Jenry–the intensity, the real stakes now that he’s back in her life and how she’s desperate to not make the same mistakes.

            Juliet’s perspective drives the narrative, while other sections, although rich and beautifully detailed, distract from the main plot. Jasper’s account seemed a stand-alone section, pertaining less to the arc than defining his relationships. Yet the structure of the book would’ve been sacrificed (its seven-seven order) without the last three books: Winston’s, Victor’s, and The Other Son – Jonah’s. The history in these sections confused the facts around Jenry’s birth. They also made the rest of the story predictable. If much of the story had been told in the present, it would have allowed for more interesting conflicts between characters. By the time we get back to the present from historical sections, we have already forgotten what knowledge certain characters possess and their feelings towards certain events.

            The ending shifted tonally and didn’t involve or give credit to Marisa, suffering from cancer––or Victor, who played a big role in Jenry’s upbringing. It seemed to alienate them, closing Marisa’s arc with a scene of her discouraging Jenry from continuing at Brown since his first semester was difficult, and then resigning that her son will inevitably grow closer to Juliet because of their shared talent, and possibly her family. We only get the conclusion that Jenry still has a good relationship with his mother and her parents, Victor and Ines, because he is flying to Miami on Christmas Day in the last chapter.

            At the heart of this story are choice, belief, and freedom. What we choose directly or indirectly affects others, especially when that choice is about them. But what we believe has the power to eradicate whatever choice we made that resulted in something damaged or undesired. When Juliet finally believes that she is Jenry’s mother, she is freed from the guilt of her past and the eighteen years she lost. When Marisa sees Jenry play prolifically at the school’s Winter Contest, she believes that he has always been connected to Juliet, despite their long separation and that they don’t actually share blood. Even when the two mothers choose not to tell Jenry that Jasper is not his real father, it is a choice they once again make to protect him—but it’s Jenry’s belief that he is biologically connected to Juliet and Winston that allows him to thrive and to accept his life now. Winston’s belief that Jenry is his actual grandson helps lessen the grief of losing Jasper, as he feels there is still a part of him alive in Jenry.

            This whole thing is about belief,” Harper writes. “—not fact, not proof—and in that way it puts her and her father on the same side. She believes Jenry is her son, and her father believes he is Jasper’s son—it doesn’t matter that neither is correct in any technical issue. The belief is what matters, and what they do with it—the life they live as a result of it.”

            Harper’s novel will engage fans of generational sagas and family dramas where long-buried family histories and secrets are unearthed, and where past choices explicitly affect the present and future of others in a snowball effect. The novel excels at revealing motherhood—or parenting––truly: falling in love with a person you’ve helped to create, and, in doing so, loving yourself in ways you couldn’t imagine; knowing you will sacrifice absolutely everything for them.

            The Other Mother is a respectful, generous nod to same-gender couples, single parents, and adoptive parents. Family is not the people you simply inherit but the people you choose.


Julz Savard is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from Ateneo de Manila University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She works for a nonprofit as a Communications Manager while completing her first Young Adult novel. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, Chalk Magazine, and Meg Magazine.

Review by Jacob Butlett

Heaven’s Burning Porch
by James Dunlap

Texas Review Press, 2022

Replete with visceral images of his native Arkansas, James Dunlap chronicles intergenerational, male trauma in his wonderous poetry collection Heaven’s Burning Porch (Texas Review Press, 2022). A remarkable achievement in storytelling and poetic lyricism, Dunlap’s poetry features striking appositives and gut-wrenching revelations of childhood malaise and spiritual angst. The book’s central mood, ominous and melancholic, looms over each page like a blood-encrusted axe teetering on a high shelf, keeping me on the edge of my seat.

It would be hard, if not foolish, to overlook the craft decisions Dunlap employs throughout Heaven’s Burning Porch. Most notably, he weaves carefully constructed descriptions reinforced with consonance and similes. In “The Dark Herd,” Dunlap talks about his father and dead animals, another unnerving, impressive motif in the book:

                            Daddy razzes my hair too hard and he smells like corn cobs and gin,
                            puts up his calloused palms for me to punch. He grabs me up and heaves me
                            over his shoulder like a stringer of dead rabbits.

The image of a boy dangling “like a stringer of dead rabbits” is shocking enough. But sound repetition, like a symphonic, hypnotic refrain, makes the images and their connotations even more memorable—unless, of course, such repetition is overused.

Beautiful sounding verse for its own sake can have a wonderful effect on a reader. But drawing deeper connections between sound and sense—personal narrative and musicality, for instance—can be for both writer and reader exhilarating and even aspirational. Notice in “The Dark Herd,” for example, the repeated L-sounds: in “smells” and “callused” and in the double similes “like.” Dunlap not only wishes to showcase consonance but to make his images and their similes stand out.

Some critics, however, may argue that Dunlap uses too many similes, that they stand out too much. I would disagree with those critics for one key reason: the similes are nonetheless formidable—refreshing and clear. In fact, I value Dunlap’s figurative language and its profound impact on the reader’s imagination. Similes appear frequently throughout the book; many of his sentences end with direct similes introduced with the word “like.” In “Elegy,” too, Dunlap uses awe-inspiring similes to place readers in a literal landscape with a captivating mood:

                            There is so little light left in the field. April rain
                            rubbing its velvet antlers on the windowscreen,

                            wind in the trees like the rasp of a hog’s punctured lung,
                            fog over the ground like a herd of talcumed horses.

In addition to the dreamlike comparison of rain to antlers, Dunlap imparts intoxicating tension through hyperbole: the stressed UH-sounds in “punctured,” “lung,” and “talcumed” used in his creative comparisons of wind and fog to a rasping hog and a gathering of horses, respectively.

Another poem with a captivating mood is “Front Porch Picking: 2 am: Summer,” in which Dunlap sets a scene with memorable images:

                            The wind, the night, falling away star-threaded, in bone-fanged fields.
                            Childhood porch, childhood sorrows to attend with.
                            Bats trawling through bottomless dark, stitching the twilight with wires of blind noise.
                            I’m here for the inventory of my sickly estate: the heat-killed pig in the back sty,
                            his head split to the thrapple rotting to clusters of shining blackberries,
                            his head a hive for bees picking his tongue clean sweetly, crystal strands
                            of drying maggots braided down the rainwater light of not-yet-morning.

The poem’s transparent, precise diction grounds the reader in a scene with heightened psychological stakes. In fact, a lot of the settings in the book embody Dunlap’s anxiety and consternation. As incorporated in “Front Porch,” words like “bone-fanged,” “sickly,” and “maggots” brilliantly reflect Dunlap’s emotions.

Dunlap’s vulnerability is apparent. From a narrative standpoint, his relationship with his father and grandfather captivates me: even though these determined male figures helped to raise Dunlap, Dunlap’s imaginative, critical perspective allows the reader to empathize with him and his gradual transformation from a disillusioned child to a brilliant adult writer. In “Night of Effigies,” he discloses:

                                                        I’ve lived my whole afraid my daddy’s shortcoming
                            are somewhere pumping through my own blood. The empty, impotent rage,
                            the brain fever—I want to shake loose of it. Momma said shooting stars
                            were pieces of heaven’s burning porch crumbling and falling to earth.
                            I’ve spent years sick and wanting to leave.

Dunlap attempts to reconcile his past with his present. His sense of longing and nihilism makes the poetry collection feel even more human, more dynamic. Dunlap does not completely loathe his family but instead wishes to forge a life not dominated by the demands of others, including of his own kin. In “Boy,” he remarks:

                            Sometimes I think my daddy doesn’t know joy
                            and doesn’t understand why I think my body is made of chickenwire
                                                                                                       because it bows but doesn’t break.

Dunlap, too, does not wish to break under the weight of the past. Gender expectations can be, for instance, a sign of tradition and survival, a way to show loyalty and integrity to a community. But when one dares to challenge or at least question such expectations, one can face solemn consequences for better or worse. Forced to kill animals, for example, Dunlap challenges the strict gender norms imposed upon him by his father and grandfather, the latter he addresses in “We all Live Leaner More or Less”:

                            I don’t trust you, I don’t trust you, grandpaw
                            taught me the persuasiveness of the back of a hand,
                                                          how knuckles are harder than anyone expects.

                            A prayer is no good if you beg
                                                           a man that live on his knees will die on his knees
                            and when you have to die pray to god you die in the night,
                                                                          pray to god nobody sees it.

Even though strict gender norms have aided human survival for ages, Dunlap’s book seems to ask: “When do male gender norms cease to be helpful and start to become hegemonic, a way to perpetuate toxic masculinity and intergenerational shame?” Dunlap attempts to answer this question not by preaching at readers but by reimagining his life.

In addition, Dunlap infuses raw emotions in poems about other people who, too, struggle to be happy while still holding on to their faith, religious or otherwise. In “Beatrice and Cloy’s Essay of Night,” Dunlap talks about the titular couple and the despair that lingers below the surface of their marriage:

                            Cloy didn’t know she smoked in the bars and out in the shed, leaned between ricks of firewood
                            and hanks of hog-casing strung up like Christmas lights. And each Sunday she prayed a little less.

Dunlap interweaves essay-poems with his own personal narratives to make his traumas feel even more relatable. The long lines in his essay-poems are meant to carry a lot of essential information about the characters, including Beatrice’s conflicted religious faith. Ironically enough, shorter lines would make the information feel even more cumbersome. Therefore, expansive imagery and narrative nuance often require an expansive form to make the content more readable and diverting.

I love James Dunlap’s Heaven’s Burning Porch. The music, images, emotion, and figurative language help to make Dunlap’s poetry collection fantastic. One of the best poetry books I have read all year, Heaven’s Burning Porch deserves to be read again and again.

Contributor’s Bio

Jacob Butlett (he/him) is a Best of the Net-nominated poet pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). Jacob’s creative works have been published in many journals, including The West Review, Colorado Review, The Hollins Critic, The MacGuffin, Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, and Plain China.

The Peshaman Fragments

by Greg Sendi

Following the highly publicized disappearance of Elias Peshaman late last year, this unfinished manuscript was found among a small number of cloud files authorities reviewed for possible information related to his whereabouts.


It is a mouth radically different from other human mouths — infused with an eerie otherworldliness. The mouth attracts attention precisely because of its unsettling difference. It seizes the attention of others because, like a catastrophic car accident, we can’t look away. To some, this mouth is hyper-real and in its weird fleshiness, suggests an authenticity, the way a blood-rare steak suggests “real food.”

When at rest, the mouth often does not relax but returns to a puckered, circular kissing shape that suggests it is at once both open and closed, an orifice of both inbound and outbound potential. Let’s be honest, this mouth also has an anal quality to it and is always pantomiming an expulsion of waste. It is always conveying the ejection of impurity, mirroring his promises to eject things and people.

There is also the tongue. Disabled by the neuro-impairments that prevent its full control, the tongue throbs, bends and extrudes in ways that reinforce the expulsion conveyed by the lips.

In its totality, the shape of the mouth as an emblem of disgust and discharge is also connected to his frequent interest in what comes out of human bodies, especially the bodies of women. It enacts his revulsion at excretion, for example, or menstruation or breast feeding.


altogether ill at ease about what is happening with us


The water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a large aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin. It is known chiefly for its ability to overwhelm the surface of bodies of water, pushing out native species and depleting its water ecosystem of oxygen, suffocating all fish, water creatures and other plants.

So too, all the things he is — liar, chiseler, malignant degenerate, traitor, deadbeat, daughterfucker wannabe, child rapist — may be viewed as precisely evolved for indifference to the question of what a “pond,” is actually for. The old blackhats (Ratched, Moriarty) are quaint by comparison.


His skin, like the fixtures around him, in the primitive way imaginable, conveys that he cannot escape how gold rushes in upon him, following him like a cloud of gold dust seeking the man who is both its source and its destination. He is Chrysos, Xipe Totec, Midas, Shen Wanshan, Goldfinger, communicating with every image not that “I’m like my people” but rather “I’m radically unlike my people or any people.”

But in its obvious artificiality there is more. With his skin, he is sending us a message deeper than, “I am a golden man.” The message also says, “I am wearing a me-shaped golden suit.” His skin invites you to imagine an inner creature, but simultaneously humiliates you for accepting the invitation.

To some, the skin is an alarm light alerting to a dangerous duplicity — the way the coloration of certain animals alerts other animals not to eat them. To others, the situation is more complex. Via its alchemy, broadly speaking, there can be a gratitude, even a love, engendered by the ways he affirms the fundamental duplicity, and the inevitability of the way things are.

The skin serves both as camouflage (allowing him to blend in with the other perceived liars — like certain poisonous toads blend in with a pile of leaves in the forest) and as a beacon calling attention to itself as camouflage (providing a basis of assurance and trust — as if he might be the one true leaf in a pile of poisonous toads).


read marcus aurelius of each particular thing ask what is it in itself what is its nature what does he do this man you seek


In totality, we know this as “The Uncanny Valley,” a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the phenomenon by which robots become deeply disconcerting to us at the point where they come closest to mimicking human features.

The Uncanny Valley teaches us to think about how we are different (if we are) and how we are the same (if we are). Perhaps it teaches an instinctive revulsion at the not-quite-human — an instinct that may have prevented our early ancestors from breeding with apes. Though perhaps also (if not instead), it teaches us revulsion at ourselves, at what we are capable of. Perhaps it forces us to ask: When face to face with a monster masquerading as your companion, what do you do?

Mirroring the nausea created by our experience, his experience as a sociopath may be one of looking at us across his Uncanny Valley, where he is unable to see or feel the full humanity of any person — to distinguish emotionally between a chair, a car, a bucket, a fish or child. To operate across his Valley, he creates simulacra of human engagement to deal with people because he is unable to generate actual human responses.

Little by little as he deprives our pond of oxygen, he becomes less able to conceal the fact that when he looks at us, no matter who we are, he sees the same lifeless mask we see when we look at him, useful to him or useless, using our own shames and weaknesses and hatreds against us the way serial killer might use the skin of his victim to make a lampshade.


my god my god to be haunted by the end of everything we are and have created together it is like choking finally after all it will be like choking my god they are gouging his eyes with a flagpole i think

Here Peshaman’s manuscript ends, providing scant basis for development of a general synthesis. While pleased to share this important manuscript with specialist and lay audiences, overall, we urge caution in the extrapolation of broad-brush conclusions from what was clearly a work left unfinished and in disarray at the time of his disappearance.


Greg Sendi is a Chicago writer and former fiction editor at Chicago Review. His career has included broadcast and trade journalism as well as poetry and fiction. In the past year, his work has appeared or been accepted for publication in a number of literary magazines and online outlets, including Apricity, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, The Briar Cliff Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Clarion, CONSEQUENCE, Flashes of Brilliance, Great Lakes Review, The Headlight Review, The Masters Review, New American Legends, Plume, Pulp Literature, San Antonio Review, Sparks of Calliope, and upstreet.

Deconstructing Gertrude Stein

by Stephen D. Abney

“A rose is a rose is a rose.”  In this paper, we explore the intricacies of this oft-quoted statement by Gertrude Stein through a discursive textual analysis[1],[2] of each word in serie, in an attempt to definitize the meaning of each,[3] while realizing its connectivity to metaethics.[4]  Having set the paradigmatic table, as it were, we begin.

A:  In American education, A refers to the top grade in an ABCDE or ABCDF grading rubric.  In some school districts and colleges, A can be modified to A+ or A-, with A+ then becoming the highest possible grade. 

However, use of A to signify the highest or best is not universal in the United States.  Consider these counterexamples: In minor league baseball, the A leagues fall below the AA and AAA leagues.  In high school athletics, schools are often classified by size for competitive purposes, so that a high school with 50 students does not compete against one with 5,000; this is particularly true for football, although state athletic associations frequently use a classification for other interscholastic sports as well.[5] 

Similarly, in financial markets, A represents the sixth highest credit rating for a bond in the Standard and Poor’s grading system.  AAA, AA+, AA, AA- and A+ bonds are all better than A bonds.[6] 

While this level of detail is not required to parse Gertrude Stein’s intent, we can nonetheless safely conclude that “A” represents a grade[7] of some sort. Which classification system she was referencing is a detail to be examined later.

Rosé[8]: A wine with a pinkish color, between that of a red wine and a white wine.  This coloration occurs as a result of the red grape skins coming in contact with the juice less than is the case for actual red wines.  Few current wine classifications use letter designations.  However, the St. Emilion Classification of 1955 notably held 1st 1e Grand Cru Classe A as its highest class, just above 2nd 1e Grand Cru Classe B.  As Stein died in 1946, this particular rating schema could not have been her inspiration.  Nevertheless, as Stein attended both Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins, and lived in France for many years, it is certainly conceivable that a precursor to the St. Emilion wine grading system is intended.

Is: The singular, first-person, present-tense form of the verb “to be.”  Here, Stein cleverly uses one short word to convey several powerful concepts.  First, she alludes to singularity, perhaps in the sense of uniqueness, but also, perhaps in the sense of unwedded bliss.  Then, she reminds us that a personal experience is being portrayed.  This is not a mass event, nor is it second-hand, a vicarious experience belonging to someone else and only shared with the author afterward.

Further, she does not write “a rose are,” which could be second person, or plural, or both.  Rather, this is intimately first person.  She claims reality for the rose.  She also provides a time element.  The rose is … now![9]  The immediacy of her writing could not be clearer on this.  Finally, Stein provides existential truth.  “A rose is.”  If she had stopped there, she would have pronounced a truth well worth remembrance.  However, she continues, ever more deeply.

A:  Singular, indefinite pronoun.  Again, Stein emphasizes singularity.  Note how easily she combines the singular “is” with the singular “a.” Now, however, she denies uniqueness. A unique, specific item would typically be denoted by “the,” not “a.”  She has moved us swiftly from consideration of unity, to a discussion of universality.  A rose stands for all roses in this sense.  We see Plato’s cave shadows[10] in that any rose is an exemplar of all roses, a standard-bearer for rosedom, as it were.  Stein clearly recognizes the inherent tension of living one’s self-interest while living in community, the same tension France experienced during her life there, as communism and capitalism struggled to win French hearts and minds. 

Rose: A flower of the genus Rosa.  A symbol of romantic love[11] since ancient times, the rose is perhaps the most purchased flower in the world.  However, it is unlikely Stein is alluding to purchased love[12], whether via prostitution, dowry, bride price, or through the Western ritual of dating in which both wine and roses play prominent roles.  She appears rather to refer us to the single rosebud, a potent symbol of chaste love, love that has not yet fully blossomed.  Elsewhere, Stein wrote, “What is marriage, is marriage protection or religion, is marriage renunciation or abundance, is marriage a stepping-stone or an end. What is marriage.” 

The Cherokee rose, Rosa laevigata, a symbol of the state of Georgia, is ironically an invasive species from China.  The irony[13] of existentialism finds “full flower” in this selection of a cultivar named after people driven from Georgia by President Andrew Jackson and his minions[14] following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830[15] and originating in an area from which migrants to Georgia were excluded.[16]  Stein uses this imagery to demonstrate historic solidarity with those oppressed peoples.

Is: In mathematics and logic, equal or proportionate.  One plus one is two.[17]  A is to B as B is to C.[18]  One should not, however, reduce “a rose is a rose is a rose” to the tautological x = x = x, which would be to trivialize Stein’s profound insights.  Further, she does not appear to intend comedic relief, as seen in “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”[19],[20] Egalité in the political sense seems to be intended here.[21] 

If Stein is using rose in its symbolic sense to represent romantic love, then she clearly espouses marriage equality.  In this, love is seen as a natural state, an innate human need to minimize suffering.[22]  As Wilde may have said, “Any love is good love.”[23]

Arose:  In Christian theology, the belief that Jesus resurrected from death.[24]  Unlike the Phoenix story in Greek mythology, this renewal occurs once.  As a singular event, “arose” completes Stein’s theme, initiated with “is” and “a”. 

It is not surprising that deconstructionists from weird[25] societies, who have uncovered Christian symbology in works by authors as diverse as de Pisan, Faulkner, Achebe and Carle,[26] find a religious undertone in Stein’s seminal phrase.  It would perhaps be more surprising had they not.

As depicted by Stein, the Christ story also contrasts with the Prometheus story in which the nightly rebirth only extends his punishment.  If Stein were alluding to Prometheus, then the theme becomes much darker.  By giving of himself (figuratively, by providing fire to humans), Prometheus is condemned to give of himself (literally, by having his heart ripped out each day).  Whereas having one’s “heart ripped out” is one possible outcome of a spurned romance, we cannot reject the hypothesis that Stein intends her audience to recall such feelings in their own lives; however, we much reject this as the main thrust of her statement.

In a larger sense, Stein avers resurrection and rebirth evoke awakening to a new reality, an elevation to a higher plane. Love and, dare we say, spirits, remind us that “being is becoming.”[27] This enlightenment, this fulfillment, provides the basis of Stein’s notion of Hegelian Aufhebung[28], with its dual sense of lifting up and self-abnegation.

Note that “arose” in its spiritual sense brings us full circle to the spirit, the rose, at the beginning of her epigrammatic expression.  Clearly then, when Stein says, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” she means “Love intoxicates and uplifts my spirit,” and not, as others have supposed, “Mon Dieu, I love this wine.”

[1] Derrida, “Of Grammatology” (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967)

[2] Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (1927)

[3] Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir (1969)

[4] Blackburn, Essays in Quasi-Realism (1993)

[5] Florida, for example, maintains eight classes in football with 1A for the smallest schools and 8A for the largest One oddity, however, is Iowa’s classification system for high school eleven-person football, which has five classes designated A, 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A, so that 1A schools are larger than A schools.

[6] The competing Moody rating system uses Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, so that Moody’s A3 is roughly equivalent to S&P’s A.  Both systems use variations on B and C to designate bonds that are riskier than A-level bonds.  Note that Moody does not use A by itself as a grade.

[7] In its commodity grading programs, the US Department of Agriculture uses the letter A­­.  Inexplicably, the USDA has three grades for eggs, which humans eat, and 45 grades for cotton, which they do not. 

[8] In this researcher’s studied opinion, Stein defies convention, as always, by omitting the acute diacritic on this e; other scholars contend omission of this glyph was an editing error. Regardless, getting the é right is essential to understanding Stein.

[9] Heidegger’s term “dasein” is particularly cogent in this context.

[10] Plato, Πολιτεία (circa 380 BCE)

[11] De Meun, Roman de la Rose (1275)

[12] For an opposing view, see McCartney, Can’t Buy Me Love (1964)

[13] Kierkegaard, Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates (1841)

[14] No, not those Minions©®™

[15] US Congress, Greatest Hits, Indian Removal Act (1830)

[16] US Congress, Greatest Hits, Chinese Exclusion Act (1882 – 1943)

[17] Euclid, Elements (a long time ago)

[18] Whitehead and Russell, Principia Mathematica (1910)

[19] Marx.  Every good academic paper must have at least one reference to Marx.

[20] For a different take on this, see Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (1905), often translated as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, or Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912).

[21] Recall the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, was supplanted byTravail, Famille, Patrie in Vichy France and that Stein was living in France with Toklas at the time.

[22] Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique. (1762)

[23] Wilde, “Poems.”   While Wilde’s work was condemned as plagiarism during his lifetime, the actual origin of this phrase is lost to history.  See also: Overdrive, Bachman-Turner, You Ain’t (sic) Seen Nothin’ (sic) Yet (1974).

[24] Augustine, Confessions; Jerome, selected works; Origen, De principiis; various other dead white men.

[25] Diamond, The World Until Yesterday (2012).  WEIRD is shorthand for Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic.  Diamond credits this construct to Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s 2010 articles in Nature and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, respectively entitled “Most people are not WEIRD” and “The Weirdest people in the world.”

[26] Joan of Arc (1429), The Bear (1942), Things Fall Apart (1958), and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) respectively.  

[27] Hegel, as explicated by de Beauvoir

[28] Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812


The Land of Stone and River, poems by Claudia Putnam
Moon City Press, 2022
Winner of the Moon City Poetry Award
96 pages; $14.95
ISBN: 978-0-913785-63-8
Cover Art by Nancy Martin: New Land IV, watercolor.

Reviewed by Risa Denenberg

Claudia Putnam starts her poetry collection, The Land of Stone and River, with an elegy and a prediction. In the three-lined first poem, “Hoard,” she notes a mound of “pennies / packrat-piled beneath the shed,” and declares this is a “Sure sign of the end.” In the second poem, “Elegy for Snow,” a speaker from a future time (maybe closer than we think) tells someone the story of “In the time when winter was winter—.” She continues her poignant narration with,

You know nothing of quilts, either.
Nor can you know of that quiet,
related somehow to cold
and to particular greens of evergreens,
particularly to chickadees
who used to perch there, rotund
with secrets of winter.

Although these two poems are the book’s starting point, the remainder of the poems are bookmarked by them—musings on past things lost and fearful things to come, enveloped within the natural world that is both stunning and terrifying.   

There is a set of twenty paintings by Bhavani Krishnan titled, Twenty Mountains and I am guessing this is the reference for the title of first section of poems in the book. In that sense, some of these poems are ekphrastic, or perhaps a more apt term would be meditative. The paintings are mostly muted shades of blue, grey, and sand. And yet there is a touch of pink or yellow in a few of them. In style, they resemble the book’s cover art. In only one of the twenty do we see two distant figures, walking along a path. Similarly, in The Land of Stone and River, people populate the poems like ghosts. Many are ghosts.

In “This Isn’t Really Happening,” Putnam writes, “Each year / the river runs thinner, / fleeing its shrinking glacier.” Warnings of catastrophes abound throughout the book. In this section, the totem animal is a crow, though the warning is for all of us:   

Poor lost crow, these are not
            the best of times
to be falling asleep.

It is the sixth poem in the book in which we learn of the death of a child called Isaac, “who sprang / fully formed into our lives / and died. In “Unawake,” a commingled homonym, Putnam’s words poignantly and disjointedly display how such a death—an infant—weighs so heavily on the child’s parents yet receives so little support from the rest of the human world.

[…] if it is odd to have a dead kid without a funeral believe it or not that is one thing in America with family thousands of miles away that can fall through the cracks camel a mother’s back and there is no heaven.

The feeling that life was muted in that moment is overpowering. Some time later, healing alone with a broken ankle, Putnam’s thoughts turn to others’ loneliness:

We turn dead eyes 
to so many lying solitary. No break
really heals. We try to go on
with our plans.

It always interests me when a poet pays homage to other poets in their work. In this work, Putnam nods to Jane Kenyon, Octavio Paz, Carolyn Forché, Robert Bly, and artist Jayne Wodening, as if to seek their comfort in her grief.

Interesting too, since a crow reappears throughout the book, is her riff on Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is titled, “Ways of the Lion,” referring to the mountain lions of American—cougars, lynxes, and bobcats. Her lynx is not a totem, but an animal to be feared when hiking in its territory. The last two stanzas read:  

It doesn’t care if you’re an environmentalist.

For a while she carried mice,
but she didn’t feel
any safer.

Putnam may or may not call herself an environmentalist, but she has a righteous respect for what the environment consists of: plants, animals, and landforms.

The second section of poems owns the book’s title, The Land of Stone and River, where Putnam’s reverence for these elements runs deep. A multipart poem titled, “As the Wind Comes Among Us,” establishes the project of this book—to move forwards and backwards through origins and extinctions with the widest possible lens, seeking an elusive peace.

In the land of stone and river, godless
known by wind, that is, the continent
we name Gondwana, near the place we call
Equator, the range we term Ancestral
Rockies rises,

groundwater seeping beneath its flanks mixing—
in this memory—minerals to
iron oxide, turning in Time
to hematite—desire, surely—
rosy on the range we christen

bloody in our Time, still the Time
of the Conquistadores, and
it is dizzying.

Dizzying indeed. Were we all to study the history of earth so deeply, would we find peace? Of course not, though we would be wiser for doing so. But we must move on if we are to keep up with Putnam. So much so far is ballast for what’s to come in the last section of the book, Nervestorm. There is a warning—a quote from Oliver Sachs—in the epigraph of this section:

Migraine and neighboring disorders [epilepsy, manic depression] … are distinct and individual, but nevertheless have borderlands in which they merge into one another.

I’ve read a good bit of Sachs over the years, and I know the connection between migraine and epilepsy, but manic depression? Still, here it makes sense. In a series of poems titled, “Migraine,” “Limbic,” and “Nervestorm,” we find the protagonist weathering a St Elmo’s Fire storm; we travel through the limbic system; and we witness an “[Inner?] child writhing / hands on head / neck turning head snapping […]”. Such unpacking of the electrical system that is the human brain is rare.

This final section also unpacks suicide, conveying how knowledge and insight do not prevent—and probably instill—a deep desire to die. In “Suicide Note,” “the gun whispers from its safe / I am / here for you.” And in “The Battle of Brintellix,” Putnam asserts,

Nothing is more noisome       than knowledgeable people
believing themselves to be       best at guiding in grief.
Over that awful summer       I ordered suicide
instructions from the       internet,
favoring bags filled with       floaty helium,
though I also thought       then, of guns

In “Backcountry,” Putnam speaks to a dead friend,

Your son is dead now, suicided. Exit
bag drawn over his head.

In life / this would have destroyed you.

Speaking later in this poem, she says what is most true about herself: “You were a poet, sensitive, visionary. / You and I, so proud of our poetic // instability. We thought the world so sick.”      

If you want to experience the awe I felt while reading The Land of Stones and River, you will have to study this book. You will have to google many unfamiliar terms. It is not an easy book to read and will not bring you peace. That is why you should read it.

Order book here –


Claudia Putnam lives in western Colorado with her dog, Birdie. The Land of Stone and River, which won the Moon City Press poetry prize, is her debut collection. A short memoir, Double Negative, also published in 2022, won the Split/Lip Press CNF prize. She has also published a poetry chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World (Finishing Line Press, 2013); and a novella, Seconds (Neutral Zones Press, 2022). Her poetry and fiction can be found in dozens of literary magazines including Rattle, Spillway, RHINO, Barrow Street, The Fourth River, and Iron Horse. She’s been the recipient of a George Bennett fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy and a Ragdale Foundation residency, and has taught in the Writing Program at CU-Boulder.


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and Reviews Editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the poetry collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. A new collection, Rain Dweller is forthcoming from MoonPath Press in 2023.

Putting the Laughter in Slaughterhouse

by Sara Watkins

There’s a dinky beige bookcase in my room. It sits directly next to the window, it’s flat top level with the sill. It makes a perfect end table for the wooden end table next to my bed. At this point, it’s basically just a mismatched table with shelves, completely filled and overflowing. I’ve always had too many books to shelve let alone count, so when I moved in I made up an order for the books; the top shelf is nonfiction, bottom shelf is fiction, and the weird extra space where the bookcase doesn’t quite meet the ground is oversized. Then, I put all the books in a big pile and sat in the middle of them for a while, because sometimes I get halfway through doing things and then I don’t feel like doing them anymore, especially cleaning. I started looking through all the books.

I collect books like most people collect pocket lint: I never know how much I have until I pull it all out to look at it. Books are way cooler than pocket lint though, especially mine. Most books have a story, that’s kinda the point of a book, but my books are special; they have two stories– the one inside, and the one I create while reading. My copy of my book is instantly more awesome than your copy of that same book because it’s mine. The notes inside it, the memories and sensations, are invaluable to me.

In an act of supreme procrastination, I decided to split the books into favorites based on my new system of of shelve-genres. “The best ones go in the front,” I said to my cat, who was supervising the entire adventure from my bed.

It was tough. Every book I own is a great book, even if I don’t particularly like it. It’s literally the brainchild of some weary author-parent, and I try not judge people’s babies: it’s bad form. That said, some books are more special to me than others because they resonate beyond their stories. I have been fortunate enough to find books that give me goosebumps just to remember. Books whose messages, stories, character, and tone all aligned so perfectly that I, miles apart and years later, thought to myself, “This is important to me.” It’s incredibly gratifying to identify a piece of yourself within someone else’s work.

So, I was sitting there holding a giant scan of Kurt Cobain’s diary when I decided this. Reading his personal journal had left absolutely no impact on my life, so I put it on the bottom of the oversized shelf, face up, directly on the floor. Feeling productive, I put all the books I’d be least likely to reread anytime soon in size order, and then pushed them all the way back to fit the others. The dinky bookcase doesn’t have a back and doesn’t sit quite right under the wall, so when all the books are pushed back, others can be slid in on top of them horizontally. All of the leftover books went in that slot, according to shelf-genre, of course.

Since then, the careful order has descended into chaos. Books are constantly pulled, marked, dog-earred and discarded in passion or in boredom. I knew things were bad when I started reaching for the books in the back, Getting them out was always a huge issue because I had to peek behind the ones in the front to see what was there. Every time, I ended up cross-legged on the carpet in the center of a pile of books. It started happening so often that my cat stopped coming to watch. One particularly bad night, I pulled out the oversized books. I don’t usually read these because they’re super niche: the giant red book copy of Kurt Cobain’s Diary, a large book of concept art for a Japanese manga that reads from right to left, and the hardback edition of a favorite comic arc. In frustration, I thrust my hand back into the shelf and stretched. There, against the wall, a small book that had fallen through the back of the shelf. I pulled it out. It was pocket-sized and red, with a yellow skull on the front. Slaughterhouse Five.

Sweet relief! From the very first time I read the very first page of Slaughterhouse Five in high school, I knew that I was in love. It was and always will be my most favorite book. My boyfriend, a grade above me, had to read it first and I’ll confess, I stole his copy. He kept it in his room, right on his wooden dresser, a red spot in the chlorine-pool blue room. It sat there, bright and bold against his black binder and his gray textbooks. At school, our English classes were in the same room, so every day I’d walk in and see rows of Slaughterhouse Five sitting in the metal cages that extended from the bottom of the blue chairs. I asked the teacher to borrow a copy but there weren’t enough to go around. Even the school library was out of copies. It was like the world was tempting me with an unreadable book, and that only made me more curious.

“Well, how is it?” I asked my boyfriend on the train home one day.

“I haven’t started reading it yet,” he said.

It went on like this for weeks! I’d see it still just sitting there, and I’d ask about it, and he’d answer nonchalantly and change the subject. Finally one day I said, “Are you guys still reading that book in class?”

He laughed but kind of strangled, like this wasn’t the first time today somebody had brought that up, and said, “We were actually supposed to give it back but I keep forgetting .”

“Just give it to me.”

He did! What a present! My goodness, the book did not disappoint. WWII, time travel, and aliens are just the start. What really gets me about Slaughterhouse every time I read it is the narrator. The first and last chapters of the book are told with the Vonnegut as the main character, because this book is semi-autobiographical, meaning it’s mostly true– minus the time travel and aliens, and fictional events. He really was a soldier in WWII, he really was captured by the Germans, he really was held as a POW in a slaughterhouse and he actually was rescued after the bombing of Dresden.

Stylistically speaking, Vonnegut makes a lot of interesting choices that stood out to me immediately; his tone is conversational, his story is discombobulated and out of order, and he uses apostrophes as quotations. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He describes every scene like an omnipresent ghost. Most of the book is harrowing and strange, which I think is one of the larger points of it, but, some of it is downright hilarious.

I mostly read while sitting on the train, with the little red book bent backwards in my hand, a highlighter or a pencil in the other. I’d sit and scribble notes and reactions as stops and times passed unnoticed. One of my favorite, and most marked passages, is when the narrator is describing the main character’s drunken adventure home:

                                    The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy                                     windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he                                     became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not                                     possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door,                                     searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find                                     the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he                                     was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found                                     the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him                                     as he passed out.

 He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.

“He’s an absolute madman!” I said to my teacher, my boyfriend, my cat, anyone who would listen. “I love it!” Every page offered some new delightful turn of phrase, apropos description, or thought provoking comment. I read it, and reread it, and even did a presentation on it. I vowed to hold onto my copy, filled with my reactions and notes. It was an oath I took seriously. I could be like Billy Pilgrim, depositing myself into random moments of time.

I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen in love with a book, but it can be disastrous. Like a lot of relationships, it’s great until it’s over. When it is, all that’s left is the memory of the anticipation, and of the understanding. You can reread it but you can never get to know the characters quite the same way as the first time. You want more but often, that’s not an option. Slaughterhouse never hurt me like that and it’s probably why I kept it around. Each page was like a long night talking, each chapter was a date. By the time I finished the book, I felt satisfied like good sex and a cigarette. But nothing lasts forever. I guess what happened between us was my fault, because I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to share.

He had a long, boring day of work ahead of him; the kind where there’s no more work to do but no one is allowed to leave, so you sit there and shake your leg like that’ll make the time pass faster.

“I will let you borrow my copy of Slaughterhouse if you want,” I offered so generously.

But my altruistic nature proved to be our downfall: that’s when things fell apart with Slaughterhouse and I. It makes sense, I’ve heard that introducing a third party to a relationship can often cause problems, but I didn’t expect that from them. They stayed together for months.

I’d call my boyfriend, who never stayed in one state for too long, and say, “you’re gonna bring him home to me right?”

“Of course, Sara,” he’d say patiently.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes, Sara,” he’d say less patiently.

“You’re not finished with him yet, are you?” I’d ask, jealous and hopeful.

When I went out visit him in whichever city it was that time, we got a hotel room situated far from the downtown area. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I hadn’t brought any books. We hoisted our suitcases onto the big bed with the wallpaper-design sheets and started emptying them out. My boyfriend slid Slaughterhouse from his suitcase and situated it perfectly on the corner of his squat end table, directly under the light.

“You brought it!” I yelled, nearly jumping onto the suitcases to reach for it.

“I did,” he said, “but I was thinking that I’d just hang on to it over here on my side for a while.”

I put my hand to my heart. “Why would you do that?”

“Well… I didn’t finish it.”

“You didn’t…finish…it?” Images of me laying curled up late at night, clutching the red book and my blanket, disappeared as the neurotransmitters in my brain popped and died in disbelief.

He burst out laughing and handed me the book. “I’m just messing with you. That reaction was priceless. Slaughterhouse was great.”

We talked about it for a while, and the whole situation got me so excited that I ended up reading the entire book again that night after he went to bed. I read it later on the plane home, too. It seemed a happy to resolution to my short breakup with Vonnegut. We continued on as if things were the same; my pencil marks still etched the pages, and my highlighted sections still shone, but I noticed the differences too; the extra tear on his back, the fading of his spine, the extra creases in his pages. He was worn and used.

When I got home from that trip, I decided to broaden my options. I collected every book I could find in my house into a giant pile and sorted through all of them. To this day, Slaughterhouse cannot be found. I’ve checked all his hiding places, travel bags and end tables, shelves and crannies. I’ve looked for him often, I’ve looked for him recently, but he does not seem to want to be found. I’ve read other copies of Slaughterhouse, I own an ebook now so this once can’t escape, but it’s not the same. I’m hopeful that one day my copy will turn up, so I can travel through time with Billy Pilgrim again.


Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and EIC of Spoonie Press, a literary magazine for chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is also a big fan of deviating from the norm for her own comfortability and entertainment. Her writing explores themes of disability and autonomy using wry surrealism and general weirdness to champion the idea that, despite our differences, we are not alone. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering: A Journal of DisabilityMASKS Literary MagazineVast Chasm, Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Unlikely Stories. Sara can be reached via www.sarawatkins.net or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.

What’s In a Name?

by Graeme Hunter

1.  Graeme…

My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born.  Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing.  Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.

But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered?  Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy.  In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children. 

So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy.  I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke.  “Honey!  Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”

In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life.  Here’s how that works.

Person behind a counter:     “Name?”
Me:                                          “Graeme Hunter.” 
Person:                                   “How do you spell that?”
Me:                                          “Graeme?  It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.”
Person:                                   “G-R-A…” 
Me:                                          “…E-M-E.” 
Person:                                   “And what’s your last name again?”

Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up.  And that seems to be true.  I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant.  Take that, “Grey Ham”! 

In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon.  In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it.  When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore.  They called me Greg. 

Then Starbucks became a thing. 
Me:                  “A grande latte, please.”
Barista:           “Can I have your name for the cup?” 
Me:                  “Graeme.” 
Barista:           “How do you spell that?” 
Me:                  “I don’t care how you spell it!  It’s a disposable cup!” 

No, I didn’t say that.  I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine.  When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg.  But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G.  It seemed that I couldn’t win.  Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave.  I had an epiphany.  Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name!  You can’t mishear Dave.  You can’t misspell Dave.  And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.

People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it.  It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”.  Other people elect to give me a pet name.  One day my girlfriend called me at work.  The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!”  When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman?  And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”

My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp.  At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons.  Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John.  Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  I didn’t take this personally.  I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.   

2.         …Kenneth…

It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name).  Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth).  Ian is the Gaelic version of John.  Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon.  Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland.  The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history.  According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.

King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier.  After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland.  He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny.  Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England.  The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair.  Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.

When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’.  I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters.  One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”

I said:  “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”

“Hmm … Kevin?”

But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’.  Is that nominative determinism, or what?

3.         …Wyness…

Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name.  My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name.  But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name?  Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents?  On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”?  Was that short for Wyness? 

I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?”  Whatever.  Pick a number.

It took a long time for me to learn the whole story.  My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May.  When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname.  During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory.  There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother.  May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.

I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name.  Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness.  I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth.  But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names.  So at some point I just stopped using it.  As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter. 

The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport.  Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years.  That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time.  Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.

And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.

4.         …Hunter

Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight).  But there is a tartan.  Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions. 

If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan.  The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases.  The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland.  But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter.  There’s even a castle.

In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter.  David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle.  Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour.  After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’.  We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance.  Clan Hunter business only.” 

OK, bit of a mixed message there.  On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear.  On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”?  Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee?  We decided to go on.  What’s the worst that could happen? 

The road ended at a large manor house.  No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door.  David pulled birth order and made me do that.  As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate. 

I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat.  In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.

“Hi!” I said brightly.  “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”

“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent.  He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English?  “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”

“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.

This seemed to do the trick.  “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said.  “Just let yourselves in.” 

He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle.  We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century.  David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home.  Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere.  There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest.  For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle.  (Well, he was, being older than me).

I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation.  In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”

Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter.  He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.

St. Peter:         “Name?”
Me:                  “Graeme Hunter.”
St. Peter:         “How do you spell that?”


Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press).  His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup.  He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass.  For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.

Sports of Sorts

by Thomas Backer

            After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher.  They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven.  I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.     

            The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching.  The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz.  The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt.  The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.  

            Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down.  “It’s only a baseball game, son.”

            I looked up.  “Oh dad, it’s much more than that.  It’s my best dream come true.”

            Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.

            A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot.  He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too.  Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.  

            We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.


            Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery.  Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team.  We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class.   We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball.  During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle.  Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves.  The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.”  Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.

            The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet.  He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game.  At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”

            I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.” 

            Another player snorted.  “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday.  Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”

            Crapper smiled a wicked smile.  “They all look the same underneath.”  He turned to continue driving.  

            Did he mean that looks don’t matter?  Wholesomeness counts more than looks?  Or did he mean girls with no clothes on?  Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with.   Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation.  He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood.  If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject.  We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.

            Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade.  They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.   

            The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000.  They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252.  Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy.  Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24.  The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29.   The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20. 

            Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.  

            On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes.  “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”  

            Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.”  He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road.  He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn.  That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one.  Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section.  Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.

            Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time.  A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team.  We yelled, “What!  How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.

            Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:

                        We are the Crusade girls

                        You’ll like our hair in curls.

                        We wear our dungarees 

                        Away above our knees

             The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers.  At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor.  He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard.  At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game.  He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn.  The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan.  The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back!  The floor’s clean.”  The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan.  The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian.  They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation. 

            All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”

            The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game.  “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet.  The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.”  The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere.  The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.” 

            The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points. 

            They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents.  Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.”  People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.”  At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack. 

            Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position.  Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in.  We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.  

            Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior.  Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look.  “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges.  Why would you do something like that?  Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            “It isn’t?”


            I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball.  I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area.  We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies.  We hated their guts.  Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle.  In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat.  He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher.  “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.”  He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game.  Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.

            Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom.  Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof.  Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home.  A few girls showed up but left early.  

            Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs.  Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery.  We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field.  He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it. 

            The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word.   Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk.  “This is a Catholic school you ingrates.  No senior prom for you.  I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.”  She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us.  “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.”  She slammed the door as she left.

            So what, I thought.  She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared.  Just don’t take away baseball. 

            In our senior year I started at third base.  During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit.  Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen.  At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?”  I gave him a quizzical look but nodded.  “You’re up.  Take the first pitch.  It’ll be a nice one.”  Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field.  Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement.  I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.

            In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails.  During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me.  As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.”   Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.


            A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast.  Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going.  Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            He said, “It isn’t?”  


Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana.  After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya.  Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting.  The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese.  Two fiction stories appeared:  “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft.  Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose.  Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero.  Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.

Mailable Motorcycle Art:
Two-Wheeled Postcards from Around the World

Story & Photos by Paul Garson

Redlands, California 1900

Postcards were utilized as means of advertising more than a hundred years ago as demonstrated by his example printed by a California shop offering both bicycles and motorcycles.

Before there was Twitter and text messaging there were postcards. Tons of them. In fact, many millions have been posted from almost every country in the world, the appearance of postcards stretching back more than 150 years. While there’s no special term for collecting motorcycles, postcard collecting and their research has one… Deltiology. And at last count it happens to be the third largest collecting hobby in the world, next to coin and stamp collecting.

Naturally when you have postcards you have the postal stamp. The first, known as the Penny Black, was printed by England in 1840 while privately produced postcards that included images first appeared in Austria in 1869 and the die was cast, the phenomena of illustrated postcard skyrocketing in popularity around the world. The first colored postcard was introduced in 1889 while images of the newly erected Eiffel Tower helped to greatly expand interest in postcards. The first cards showing real photographs began appearing in 1900.

In 1906 postcards benefited from another boost with the appearance of the Eastman Kodak foldable camera, amateur photographing booming and the resulting images transferable to postcards. In 1908 the U.S. population was listed at 88,700,000. In that same year, some 678,000,000 postcards were mailed within and from America. The era was called the Golden Age of postcards, but that all faded  a bit with the advent and spread of the telephone as a means of rapid communication, but then the introduction of color postcards bumped it back up. The advent of the Internet and today’s electronic cards have had an impact, but postcards, recognized as an art form unto itself, still remain popular, especially with collectors who have nearly 150 years of postcards to choose from and a bunch of them motorcycle related including the following.

As a motorcyclist of some 40 years, I focused on postcards with images that spoke (or bespoked) to me over the years, some of which follow…no stamps needed.

1908Embossed Postcard – Made in Germany – Mailed in the U.S.

This special embossed color postcard was postmarked from Cuba, Missouri at 5:00 PM Sept. 7, 1908 by a person who signed her name Jannine to a Miss Edith Barker of Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The depiction of a wicker sidecar is accurate as many similar “chairs” were built to carry family and cargo. As for the “P F” on the gas tank, no reference could be found to link it to a real motorcycle made in Germany or the U.S. and its may the initials of the artist. The card itself was apparently printed in several different languages and sold internationally.

1910 – 86, 414 British bike riders have registered their machines. By this year 31 U.S. motorcycle companies are in still in production, although several have fallen by the wayside

1913 – Bike registrations in England have jumped to 180,000, nearly a 100,000 added in the previous three years.

 1914 – WWI French Postcard – “Missed!”

The caption in both French and English relates to a motorcycle courier outrunning

German sentry’s rifle shots as he speeds on his mission through enemy lines. The artist’s name is listed…de Carrey apparently excerpted from another work titled “The Mirror.”     

France is rich with its own motorcycle history with literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whom have come and gone, but many leaving exceptional machines.  One famous mark was the Gnome et Rhône originally known for their aircraft engines. During WWI, some 100,00 of their 9-cylinder Delta and Le Rhône 110 hp rotary designs powering the majority of all aircraft in the early years of the war.  Even larger engines powered WWII aircraft. In 1920 they introduced their first motorcycle, the Gnome et Rhône 500 cc while various other models were produced up to the early 1950s,

World War One French Postcard – On Leave a Soldier delivers flowers to his ladyfriend via his Rene Gillet. Tank on rear may be extra fuel or gas for the headlamp.  The R G’s first appeared 1897, V-twins by 1904, eventually the side-valve 750 and 1000cc machines popular with the French army.   

1915 – WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper

While the iconic Harley-Davidson first appeared in 1903, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, it solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of  General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, preferring the Indian.

1915 – U.S. motorcycle registrations had skyrocket to an estimated 180,000. But by the 1932, of over 300 total original builders, only two will have survived: Indian and Harley-Davidson.

1917 – “Motor Cycle Scouts in Action”

The colorized postcard dated Dec. 6, 1917 was sent from Greenville, South Carolina, site of a U.S. military training camp. While the driver of the sidecar rig ducks for cover, the rifleman aims his Springfield carbine at some imaginary enemy for this posed photo.


When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, Indian gave its entire production to the military, almost bankrupting itself, selling them at cost and leaving civilian showrooms bare. Harley took a different strategy, providing 50% of its production, the rest going to the public. The Harleys, powered by 1000cc v-twin engines produced 15hp. The factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military including gun and stretcher carrying models.  Harley-Davidson supplied about one third of the 70,000 machines ordered by the U.S. military, the remaining two-thirds divided between Indian and Cleveland.  Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 going to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.

Henderson Four Goes Hill-Climbing – Original Photo Postcard – Apparently a Model F circa 1913-17

Three Up on a 1927 Böhmerland Attire – Original Czech Postcard

Various models of the Böhmerland were built from 1934 until 1939 in Czechoslovakia. So where did it get its “styling” cues? Well, literally out of thin Czech air. Seems the builder, one Albin Hugo Leibisch started with a clean sheet to draw up his vision of the ultimate road bike, one that could carry up to four passengers. Rear “rockets” actually house the fuel. The 37 cubic inch engine specs include bore and stroke of 78 mm × 120 mm (3.1 in × 4.7 in.), good enough to pump out 16-20 HP.

While our side of Iron Curtain called it the Böhmerlander (Böhme related to the name of Bohemia, part of then Czechoslovakia), back in its home country it was known as the Cechie. The factory was located in the Czech city of Krasna Lipa aka known as Schonlinde since it was in German speaking area of the country “absorbed” in October 1938 by Germany. Some 3,000 bikes were built, however few surviving to the present.

1940 – Finland – Love at First Bike

A rider appears well-attired for motorcycling complete with goggles, gloves and helmet although his passenger sits in a less secure side-saddle position minus any protective gear.  The colorized postcard was dated June 7, 1940 and sent from the city of Turku, the oldest settlement in Finland, and located in southwest coast of country at the mouth of the Aura River. In 1996 Turku was declared the official Christmas City of Finland, then designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011.

Only a couple motorcycle references to Finnish motorcycles could be found and one happened to be made in none other than Turku, the company being Tunturi, its history beginning in 1922 and leading to successful bicycle production. In the 1950s the Tunturi led the Finnish domestic market leader in mopeds. They are best known in foreign markets for their range of physical fitness equipment development including stationary bicycles now sold in 40 countries.

The other Finnish manufacturer was Helkama Oy best known for its bicycles (Helkama Velox), and also for umbrellas, cables for ships and communications, household appliances and some car parts. During the 1970s and 1980s a Helkama trial bike won several trial races. The company also made several mopeds that were very popular in Sweden until production ceased in the 1990s.


1941 – U.S. – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun

As early as 1937 the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end the Milwaukee company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.”

By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields.


1953 – England – Triumph Thunderbird 650cc – “The Best Motorcycle in the World” An illustration from the Triumph factory’s 1953 catalog appears on a commercial postcard.

The previous 500cc vertical twin Triumph powerplant was bored out to 650cc to appeal to the power hungry American market. Designated as the 6T Thunderbird, the name conjured up the Triumph’s stellar engineer Edward Turner during a visit to the U.S.  The new model was debuted in Paris at the Monthery racecourse where three factory riders average 92mph over 500 miles after the riders had ridden from the factory in England to the track and then back again, providing some high profile press for the new machines which was further enhanced when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird in the “The Wild One” in 1953, although the conservative owners of Triumph officially objected to their machine appearing in a rowdy biker movie. However they did not complain about the big jump in Triumph sales that followed the release of the film. The last Thunderbirds were made for English consumption in 1966 by which time the even more famous Bonneville had taken center stage.

1961 – England – Norton Manxman – Mayfair Cards of London – Courtesy of Norton Motors, Ltd.

The caption on the reverse of the card reads: “Every feature of the 1961 Norton was a direct development of Grand Prix racing. It was the know-how gained from winning races all over the world which gives a Norton bike race-bred performance which is second to none. By 1961 the Norton had won 32 T.T. races.”

The Manxman derived its name from the famous Isle of Mann race course, the island also home to the famous tail-less Manx cat. Norton also built the famous Manx single cylinder racers that earned the company so many victories. On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman with the vaunted Featherbed frame was launched for the American market only. It was later followed by the larger displacement 750cc Norton Atlas in April 1962 because of the American market demand for more power. However the Atlas proved too expensive to build, profits meager and the cause of growing financial problems for the company. Fortunately in 1968 the new Commando appeared to save the day, at least temporarily.

1970s – U.S. – “The Coke Machine”

An example of a limited production privately produced postcard shows the creation of Angela Johnston and David Cargill of Des Moines, Iowa. The 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead’s 74 cu. in. motor was pumped up to run the quarter mile in 12.09 seconds at 120 mph. The caption on the reverse reads, “A metal sculpture. A kinetic array of Coca-Cola nostalgia. A collage of advertising. Certainly, things go better aboard a customized Harley.”



Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.


by Catherine Filloux

July 2017. The flight from JFK was marked by the initial thrill of taking the A train subway from 145th Street in Harlem to the Rockaways for $2.75, and then for an additional five dollars cash mounting the Air Train to Terminal 5.  I cut straight to the bottom of the island of Manhattan, the subway crossed underwater into Brooklyn, through Queens, destined for the beautiful Rockaways. 

A week before I had gone to the Rockaways by ferry from Wall Street for $5.50, sailing South into the Bay past the Statue of Liberty, turning East along the Brooklyn coast of Coney Island and docking at the Rockaway peninsula to discover a beautiful and strange beach I’d never known. 

“…[N]o more than a detour on the long, featureless road of my loneliness.”  

This sentence would help inform what the novel I was reading was about, or what the heroine of the novel was about.  I had started to read the novel on the A train to JFK, and I read that sentence just as the plane was preparing to take off to San Diego.  What did the author Rachel Cusk mean?

This dilemma was just one of many dilemmas I was coming up against as I put down the book to begin writing this play, this monologue for which, honestly, I did not have a map nor course plotted; could not captain the ship—not that I sail.  My father had sailed a catamaran from France across the Atlantic with a crew of five and a dog, entering the same Bay past the Statue of Liberty.  I, however, had no operating principle for how to proceed with this text and no sense of belief that there were any guiding principles at all.  Had the world exploded?

Writing for me had been, up to now, tied to how I existed as human.  I wrote plays and by excavating subjects, I built creations that lived and breathed.  And these creations became similar to children–though I have none, so how can I say for sure?  

Yes, I do feel they are my children.  

And yet plays are not children.  Your average person, I think, would say plays are not children.  And those who have given birth to children, to other human beings, might find my feeling naïve, even insulting.

Another dilemma thrown nearly into my lap on the airplane from JFK was the young woman sitting next to me.  She was perfectly made-up, and groomed to appear as if a beautiful, sleek doll.  Her eyebrows appeared finely threaded, she wore a diamond in each ear and on her wedding finger.  She wiped down her seat and the area around her seat with a sanitary wipe.  It seemed her next step would be to start to wipe me down as well.  She then called the person on her phone screen which said “Daddy,” and then her mother.  I could not see if the screen said, “Mommy.”  She began to take photos of herself with her phone, altering her face with certain effects, large, round black-framed eyeglasses, and then devil horns.  She merged herself and her husband sitting next to her in more photos, with dual devil horns. Then I could hear her make a video of them saying together, “Going to San Diego.”  She started to play what appeared to be a vegetable version of Candy Crush, while simultaneously watching “The Zookeeper’s Wife” on the TV screen in front of her.   I barely know Candy Crush and do not know if I was right about the vegetables.  She had a third screen on her lap, a tablet, where she watched make-up tutorials that played in kind of stop-and-go slow motion.  

All this distracted me, momentarily, from the sentence about loneliness I had just read in the novel.  When I looked back at it, I thought I certainly wouldn’t describe “the road of my loneliness” as featureless.  

One of the over-arching dilemmas in the sea of them was that all these screens scared me, but I was beholden and bonded to the one I was now trying to write on, and the other one I received my messages on.  These screens were the equipment of a career, a life.  But it was inevitable that the man—whose blonde, previously orange hair was ever-present—always showed up in a kind of grand guignol effect on these screens, come what may.  A kind of supernatural shock of:  when would the next shoe drop in the dreaded Trump show?

I lived in a 300 square foot room in Harlem with no access to light from any windows, which looked out on brick, and on what seemed to me to be an abandoned scaffolding. Perhaps, yes, this was in fact after all “featureless loneliness.”  

Directly across the hall, our doors practically touching, lived an extended family, also in a similar-sized room, however with a large supply of furniture and electronic equipment.  They cooked meals in large proportions whose odors wafted plentifully into the hall, and people of all ages came and went at all hours, in a disciplined round-the-clock schedule of work, school and life.  It made me happy to see this bang-for-its-buck living situation and it appeared at least from the other side of the door that these were people with a place on this island. 

The memoir, the autobiographical, exposes one’s own personal cast of characters.  And so, as one gives birth this time—so to speak—to this, I ask the question, if this is even a decent thing to do?

When I arrived in San Diego, my sister kindly left the cell phone lot to pick me up in her red Fit with the Thule roof-rack still atop of her car as she approached, having arrived weeks earlier from Montana.  She wore a turquoise and black dress, which accented her beautiful tan, and flat black sandals which accentuated her turquoise toe polish.  Her short dark hair fell in ringlets.  She said that my mother had talked of coming with her to pick me up, but instead, in the front seat of the car was my father, 92, wearing shorts, which I had not seen him wear in maybe four decades.  He wore new and attractive sports shoes, if worn with socks that my sister had suggested he fold over.  

His hair, which has always been beautiful and thick, was white, wild, extending in wisps in all directions.  He spoke so quietly from the front seat I could not hear him, after I hugged him.  He was hard of hearing, and, in the past years had started to speak more and more softly.  My sister said that it was not a great use of my mother’s physical energy to come to the airport, with her walker.  

My parents’ house looked quite the same.  It had been nearly my first home, where they’d moved soon after I was born—a 1960s tract home my parents had paid more than they could afford, to have a view of cows on a hill in the distance.  Cows on a hill were as unlikely now as reaching any sanity on the repealing of Obamacare, which was our topic of discussion in the car from the airport.  

Unfortunately, my father could not hear what my sister was saying, and she implied to me that a fight with him had ensued recently about some aspect of this topic.  This was hard to believe because we were in my family all absolutely and unanimously on the same side, Anti-the-grand-guignol with orange hair.  But my sister implied through muted whispers and facial expressions in the rearview mirror—not that my father could hear or would notice—that the fight had to do with a fierce stubbornness on his part to be understood precisely on a sub-topic surrounding the repealing of Obamacare that was obscure and relevant to him, but not clear to us.  My father is a scientist.  

It was very late by then and my mother was asleep.  This was the first time in my life she was not there to greet me.  I took the narrow single bed in what we called the Obama Room.  This room had long ago been my younger brother’s room.  It shared a wall with my parents’ room.  

It had become an office with a computer, and also a kind of sub-room for my mother, who hung some of her clothes there.  It also was crowded with a huge, striking dark wooden armoire from my father’s rural France.  As everywhere in the house there was an overwhelming number of books on shelves that had been created to accommodate more and more. 

On the bed was a colorful bedspread with an enormous image of Obama’s face and lettering saying: “From Slavery to the White House.”  The comfort of sleeping under the Obama blanket, while flanking the wall with my elderly parents, who slept as well as they could despite their illnesses and age, was on some level exquisite.  

It was almost as if from this vantage point, in the Obama Room, under the Obama blanket that enveloped me, with my parents flanking me, I could expunge the grand guignol clown, Trump, at least momentarily.  

I started reading from my book again when my father knocked on the door.  I said, “Come in,” and he entered with a large yellow flashlight, which looked brand new, and said, what I already knew, that he liked everyone in the family to have their own, separate, flashlight, in case there was a problem in the night.  I nodded and took the flashlight, which I tried to find a place for on the tiny night-table already full to the brim.  

He asked that I make sure it worked.  I turned it on.  He then looked at me and said that it would also be necessary to turn it off.  We share the same sense of–all be it–elliptical humor.  I turned it off and thanked him.  I kissed him goodnight and said, “Bon Siar,” which was a pet phrase we used to say goodnight.  He started to leave and then turned back and came to hug me and kiss me.  He said, “I am so happy you are here,” as he left, “and it is I who thanks you.”

This would be I thought to myself the opposite of featureless loneliness, and, also, something that I had not seen or heard my father do before.  It was innocent, sweet.  Then he closed the door.  

As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to my mother’s side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.”

The next morning the ant infestation in the kitchen that had been acknowledged the night before had become worse.  My sister identified the crack in the grout from where the ants were emerging—an “all systems go!” signal having been sent out to their armies, it seemed.  She skillfully unleashed blue tape from a bulky roll and stuck it along the grout to halt their passage.  

After breakfast, my sister suggested that we go to town to see an exhibit of murals at the Historical Society.  Her daughter, my niece, was taking a photography class in the adjoining building.  The challenge of my mother’s 2:40pm appointment with a doctor called King was thoroughly discussed.  The clinic where we would take my mother had once been identified by a piece of famous artwork, a gigantic bronze sculpture, that had been erected at the clinic’s front door.  The sculpture had the appearance of, how else to say it, a large piece of shit–and had been razed.  And so, my mother, without judgment, identified the clinic for us as the one with “la crotte” in front of it.  This immediately made sense to us and my sister and I decided we had plenty of time to see the murals at the Historical Society and still make it to the doctor’s in time.  

My sister was sure that my father could not be readied for the trip at hand and suggested that I go out and talk to him about getting dressed.  I searched for him in a variety of places in the house, and garden.  

He had the tendency to move around quite stealthily, so that people would say they had just seen him in a spot, but when you went there, he was gone.  I found him on the side of the driveway inspecting some plants.  I explained that we were going into town to see some murals.  He was not wearing his hearing aid and asked me to explain who was going on the journey, where we were going, when we would leave, and then asked me to repeat the details again.  I explained that the goal would be to get dressed and be ready to go by 10:30. He nodded vaguely as he continued to inspect the plants.  I insisted on the details once more and left him.  I told my sister of my success and she said there was zero chance he would be ready.  

She went back out to the driveway where he still was and explained the rigor of our plan.  As I went to shower, I heard her calling to him as she re-entered the house, “You need to focus.”  It struck me as extraordinary that my little sister, who had always been advised and ordered around by the patriarchy—though perhaps that is a reductive way to put it–was now blatantly telling my father to focus, in perhaps the exact tone he might once have told her to.  

When take-off time had passed, we helped my father to get dressed, to locate certain items such as his wallet; place glasses in his clean shirt pocket, and make sure that he had witnessed the secure locking of the windows and front door of the house.  He had fallen recently and bloodied his face, leaving a scar, and we urged him to take his cane, which he flatly refused, putting it back where we found it.  After some psychological ministrations he took the cane, which he used with remarkable ease.  

After parking and helping my mother out of the car, unfolding the walker, and setting her on her path, with my father, we went to a small chapel my mother wanted to revisit. There we lit a candle and I read a sort of prayer that was written above the candle area.  We all meditated, and I believe my mother said Amen.  We were in an Episcopalian church and my mother is Catholic.  It seemed to me at this point that we and the candle were encompassed in a universal religion, that of a miracle.  We were all, as it were, standing—to a certain degree—on our two feet, that is: not on all fours, with no apparent falls, no fights, relatively on schedule, and at peace under the tutelage of the candle flame and the candle directives.  “Protect us and remember us.”  

At the Historical Society were the drafts of a mural created for the federal government by WPA Belle Goldschlager Baranceanu, in 1940.  By chance, “The Seven Arts” mural was above the stage of my high school where at 16 I played the Fortune Teller in The Skin of Our Teeth.  My hair streaked with gray, I was asked by my director, Mr. Stewart, to sit on the lip of the stage for my monologue.  “I tell the future…” The next word of my monologue was “Keck.” This was not a stage direction.  French being my first language, I always wondered if I was missing something I should already know.  Keck was a laugh?  A cackle?  I’m not exactly sure what I did for that.  “Everybody’s future is in their face…Your youth, —where did it go?…Next year the watchsprings inside you will crumple up.  Death by regret,—Type Y.  You’ll decide that you should have lived for pleasure, but that you missed it…”  In the school paper, my name and performance were singled out–information I happened upon by complete surprise.  

I don’t remember what they said.  

“You know as well as I do what’s coming…But first you’ll see shameful things.  Some of you will be saying: ‘Let him drown.  He’s not worth saving…’ Again, there’ll be the narrow escape.  The survival of a handful.  From destruction,–total destruction.” 

As a girl, I loved dirt; the taste in my mouth.  The smell of grass, mud.  To find a fort in the canyon above our house, where I could hide—and live.  Scanning the countryside on a camping trip–Baja, Mexico, the desert—for places to go.  Taught by Maman and Papa to live in a car, a tent, in the dirt, with one bag of possessions.  

I was 16, the Fortune Teller was old, and she didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought.  

As I grew up my body was always up for scrutiny.

“Salad will make your thighs rosier.”

“You have the hips to make great children.”

“Sorry that your kids will have no breast milk.” (i.e., considering the [small] size of your breasts.)

“Don’t wear shorts that show those [same] thighs, and if you do, that’s your fault for getting pinched on the behind or on the nipple as you walk down the street.”  That’s what my mother said to me.  And that’s what the men had told my mother when she was a girl.   

Honestly, that was just “normal” to me. 

After the Historical Society, we hurried forth to the building with the former piece of shit- sculpture.  Despite my mother’s handicapped placard to park, we could not locate a legitimate spot—though I saw from the corner of my eye that a “valet” option was open to all.  I paused slightly to comprehend “valet” parking from anthropological and sociological perspectives but had no time before unfolding the walker, accessing the nearly denied cane, unfolding limbs from car seats, setting bodies upright, organizing a march into the luxurious, sprawling clinic, as my sister solemnly promised to park where she could, and find us.  

The hospital affiliate was an industry of appointment counters, sub-stations, hand sanitizing machines, coffee gazebos/shops, wings with prominent lettering to show donors—so that a certain name was attributed to a certain body part, or illness. My parents and I began our ascent to the Mr. and Mrs. So and So Parkinson’s Center on the third floor, my mother walking very fast, listing forward on her walker and my father walking very slowly because of the cane. When he had fallen and badly bloodied his face, my sister had fainted, and he had also injured his finger.  As she was fainting, my sister promised my mother that she would soon be back on the scene to help.  Nonetheless my father had remarkable stamina to heal, and his facial scar was nearly gone.  

My parents were soon whisked in to see the doctor and my sister joined me in the waiting room.  She fell into a well-deserved light nap, and I seized the moment to make a phone call to see if I could find a larger space for a reading of a musical, we were doing in a bit more than a month.  The answer was a definite no, which was fortunate because just at that moment our names rang out in an unexpected announcement on the PA system. I couldn’t tell at first if it was heralding an honor or a problem.  My sister and I were directed through a coded security door and found my parents with the doctor, who told us that he was in love with our mother.  We nodded in hearty agreement and laughed when he continued looking at my father saying, “that she was already taken.”  The doctor made a quaint and somewhat pantomime of a hand turning pages indicating that my mother was doing too much reading, and not enough moving.  

A frustrating or vindicating—not sure—realignment of medication was prescribed, along with the suggestion that our mother join a special boxing gym tailored for Parkinson’s.  The doctor left us in a kind of elliptical abandonment, and we remained unsure if the visit had ended, though my mother assured us that he would return.  The four of us sat huddled in the small cubicle, and my mother began tallying the new dosages of medication and new times during the day that they needed to be taken, a process aided at home by a specific talking alarm to remind her. 

Ultimately, the doctor visit was pretty much over though he did return to call his own mother-inlaw to ask her where she herself boxed at her special gym.  By the time we got back into the car a lethargy—and a deep desire I’m sure for my mother to settle down to turn more pages when she got mercifully home–had been established.  The traffic was very bad, and we inched home in what could be named for myself only as a dark and numb defeat.  I donned my bathing suit and running shorts and my sister, my niece and I re-entered the car and were at the beach very soon. 

The weather had grown foggy, sunny, gray, and then bright, a kind of ever-shifting humid swirl.  I ran as far as I could to the North, along the shore until the rocks stopped me because I was barefoot.  Then I ran as far as I could south into the flocks of beachgoers at the hotels with their designated seating; past the kayak clubs, and finally the lone father-and-son snorkelers.  I ran fast and hard, as if I had suddenly become a long-distance runner, with a new career.  I could feel myself becoming a dedicated runner who would run forever, I thought, away from everything, gaining a great perspective from the running, that of more than anything having escaped.  My body felt like a well-oiled machine, fit for a very grand exit.  I then plunged myself into the Pacific which was so frothy with salt that I felt I was in a saline bubble bath of the California me, and the water warm, warm, warm, warmer than it had ever been in the half century I’d known it.  

“The ants come marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah…” was a tune I had not attributed much weight to, nor even thought I really remembered.  And yet they maintained their presence despite the blue tape my sister continued to lay atop the holes in the grout that she continued to find.  In the night, a relatively small trail emerged from the bathroom ceiling to the tiled floor, almost a hallucination since they were gone in the morning.  But they had been pushed from the kitchen, so they were re-routed.  Another morning there appeared another small trail, returned to the kitchen—seemingly delighted to have found an empty wooden cutting board with the remnants of cheese.  

(A beat.)

What is the wild child?  This discovery perhaps in the morning upon waking, of failure?  That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship—not that I sail—will manage to change her trajectory towards peace and progress.  

And the coming up short. 

My mother shuffles, I can hear her coming from far away.  When she is near, she keeps hold on the walker, but teeters.  

(A beat.)

I remember I’d just had two wisdom teeth pulled on the spur of the moment.  I called to tell my meditation teacher I could not come to class.  There was a pause. “It’s best you come,” he said.  

Those around you, those who love you, who know you, know your “sins.”  They saw them happen.  They already know what happened.  Do you have to write them down?  

The patriarchy rips apart the feminine?  Bad behavior, yelling, abuse, intolerable situations children are subjected to.  I was that child turning on the fan in the bathroom and even the water sometimes so as not to hear.  

And on this trip to San Diego, I did it again, though was different.  I was no longer destroyed by these two people my parents, despite my father’s new kind of 92-year-old rage.  

I had only love for them, and yet the fan was a nice way to be alone, and not distracted by voices for a spell.  

I now enjoyed the familial company, the constant hairpin turns based on what was needed at any given second for those who were merely trying to stand on their own two legs; to manage the days, punctuated by the medication alarm voicing its feminine confirmation, “Alarm acknowledged, the next alarm will be…”  

When I returned to New York from San Diego, I learned from two writers that a homeless woman was in the community writing room where I wrote.  

And then as I got up from writing this, to go the restroom there was a man in the hallway who asked if I could provide him with a key to the men’s room.  The writing room was suddenly on the map.  On the phone, my mother tells me that at 9:15 am, the doorbell rang, and her friend offered her and Papa a boudin blanc, then dashed off.  White blood sausage.  Then Maman asks if I have ever eaten a horse.  I’m not sure how the subject so swiftly switched, but answer: “No.”  Her father believed horse was good for anemia.  During the war, they ate what they could, she says.  My father, on the speakerphone, if barely audible, says that, yes, he has also eaten horse. 

“Avec leurs fers—horseshoe and all.”  As I hang up, I think I hear my father call out my name, so I call back.  My mother says no.  My mother also tells me she would have preferred black blood sausage.  

In their fireplace, which they no longer use to make fires, my parents have an effigy of Donald Trump.  On Sunday, the day I was leaving San Diego my mother sat in her usual armchair.  My father had just sat on the hassock next to her.  She had beckoned him to come sit there so that they could read the goodbye card I wrote for them.  After my father read it, he called our attention to the words: “fille aînée.”  Oldest daughter, which is how I signed.  If you change the “n” to “m,” it is “fille aîmée, beloved, he said. 

My father grew up in landlocked France, a place called La Creuse. He read an ad, joined a crew to sail a catamaran, with red Chinese sails, across the Atlantic.  He wrote a book about his crossing La croisière du Copula published by Julliard and translated into English.  I postponed reading the book for a long time.  He wrote of his joy–a word, I did not recognize.  This is after he entered New York Harbor.

Then he met a Frenchman who made the perfume Arpège, who also had a plastics business.  My father dreamed of designing a fiber glass sailboat, made a handshake deal and built the 50-foot sailboat himself.  The perfume man then seized this boat from him and broke his heart.  He stopped sailing and became an oceanographer in San Diego. His wild heart converted to measuring.  He made instruments to measure tides.

She would not come to the airport.  With her Parkinson’s, the walker and her imbalance it was too difficult.  

California.  New York.  But even before I moved East over thirty years ago there had been this seismic, cosmic question.  How to go away?

My father did come to the airport.  She remained in the chair. 

I love you.  How I would hope that my voice or my eyes or my lips against your cheeks would let you know for good.   I think of you all the time and this is not loneliness.  

The day after I left my parents, my father threw a box of Fiber All at my mother because we said he was no longer allowed to drive.  

When my mother’s family repatriated from Algeria, they were given a wooden crate.  Her parents’ simple wooden bed set was put in that crate and sailed to Toulon, France.  In Toulon, France, in my last year of high school I passed my Baccalaureate in Philosophy, to try to become the French me.  The bed sent from Algeria later made its way to San Diego.  My mother said the morning I left, “What does it even mean now, that I am ill, and I need a new bed?  It will all go away.  It has no value.”  But she also meant that it had no monetary value but something else.   

Once I was no longer a child, crying was alarming to my parents.  

Back in New York I can feel tears under my eyelids, the drops like birds when you hear a big group of them in a thick tree but can’t see them.  And in my heart, in my chest, is a welling up, an explosion waiting to happen. 

There are two parent doves outside my parents’ window.  When Papa is alone, he goes out to the patio and walks towards their nest and whistles to them.  I wish I could show you how he whistles but only he knows how to do that.  

The following spring, in Harlem on my birthday, I walked in a big blizzard to the subway.  The flakes were large and puffy.  Along the way I saw an expansive film crew setting up a shoot.  I heard a crew member saying they’d be shooting all night.  This, in a building with an abandoned jazz club, which was a historical landmark and had the vestiges of a red sign outside.  In the weeks before I had seen people doing some fixing up of the sign and the dilapidated interior.  I assumed from this repair work that the club was going to re-open.  The next night, while Ed Norris in the director’s chair shot his film starring Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis, the building burst into flames and a firefighter lost his life.  The next morning the whole area was a closed-off investigation.  

Four days later I went in a Lyft, with my husband, to get our taxes done at our accountant near Grand Central.  The traffic crawled as all the roads were blocked.  A procession and a funeral for the firefighter were being held at St. Patrick’s.  Firefighters poured down the streets.  

Then that afternoon I took the MegaBus to Washington D.C.  My friend’s mother had gone to Cornell University with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The next morning, we walked to the Supreme Court, went through many forms of security, relinquished all our belongings, and sat in Justice Ginsburg’s box.  When the first lawyer began his argument about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Ginsburg immediately interrupted him and asked him a question.  Later we met Ruth in her quarters, and she showed my friend a book of photos from Malta, where she had traveled and where my friend was going. She showed us the boxes where she stored her research materials for each case.  And a photo of her great grandchild.  She wore a beautiful textured jacket, with distinctive buttons, brown pants, and brown heels.  Her eyes looked out penetratingly from her eyeglasses.  She was so kind. 

On the MegaBus back to New York, an Asian woman got very sick, vomiting in the bathroom.  Her male partner administered acupuncture to her.  A girl child who was the only one in her party who spoke English said we should call 911.  The bus driver decided to take the woman and her family to Baltimore.  At the bus shelter we called her a cab and arranged for her to go to a motel.  By the time we got back to New York City it was very late.  The remains of the now burnt-out building with the abandoned jazz club were being placed in dumpsters to be carried away.  The fire trucks and fire men were there as if in a vigil for what they could no longer do.  

The next year in late summer I was invited to Hawaii for a writers’ fellowship by Barry Lopez and one of my publishers Manoa to honor my work in social justice.  Barry had recently written a new book called HORIZON: “What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air.”

In Maui, as you descend from the Kihului airport on the Hana Highway past Hana Town you reach Mile Marker 41, in Kipahulu, on the mountain side.  From the porch of the guest house where I was staying at Marker 41, you could see a thin steel tower rising above the coconut trees, the plumeria, the avocado trees and the orange trees, as the birds sing.  The tower is from the remnants of the sugar cane industry.  

If you continue past Mile Marker 41, you reach an unpaved road that climbs and descends before becoming paved again and going inland past Haleakala, one of the world’s largest volcanic craters.  And then back towards the Pacific Ocean to return to Kihului airport.   

Descending on the Hana Highway there are tall silvery eucalyptus trees that have blueish veins of translucence when I look back at them.  The Rainbow Eucalyptus trunk peels away to a green layer which eventually fades to blue and to other colors, before returning to brown and starting the process again.  

In San Diego, California, I grew up with green-leaved eucalyptus trees with ash colored bark in the median along La Jolla Scenic Drive, on our way to the right turn to our house on Sugarman Drive.  Sometimes the trees were shrouded in fog and sometimes the trees were ashen.  You could smell the trees, and my mother made paintings with eucalyptus bark.  We carried home swaths of eucalyptus bark that had fallen on the ground, which was an orange brown, with small orange-rust colored pebbles.  My mother made pebble mosaics framed in wood.  We also glued beach glass and shells, into the image of the Pacific Ocean and a sailboat, which was placed into a wooden frame outside on the patio.  My father made the frames.  At the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, you can see a hanging of eucalyptus bark which looks like the white fur of a sheep.  

Off the Hana Highway near Hana Town, the Pacific has white sand at Hamoa Beach; black sand at Waianapanapa State Park; and red sand at Kōkī Beach.  From Kōkī Beach you can see the small island of ‘Ālau.  

In Honolulu the kind host at the hotel who directs us to the coffee apologizes for the humidity not usual for the island, he says, due to climate change.  We thank him and say: please, you don’t need to apologize for the weather.  

In HORIZON Barry Lopez writes:  “I felt I wanted to look again at nearly everything I had seen.”  

In France, in Guéret, in the department La Creuse, my father’s father Emile shared the garden behind his house with us, the garden where he grew lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and more.  There was a cherry tree, and he had beehives to make honey.  Granite is present in La Creuse and also in California.  I think of my ancestors when I see granite. 

At the farm stand shortly past Mile Marker 41 in Kipahulu there is tender lettuce for sale and taro.  Right before this farm stand is the grave of Charles Lindbergh.  A German man we meet at the grave, which is minutes from the guesthouse where we were staying, volunteers that Charles must be “lonely.”  We walk to the edge of the cemetery/field on the ocean side and see the lookout to the Pacific.  Our airport in San Diego on the Pacific is named Lindbergh Field, and there is a large mural of Charles Lindbergh in a pilot’s uniform. 

Hunter who lives across the road from the guesthouse is building a type of art gallery directly on the side of the road in a circular tin hut, with a sculpted door of faded turquoise.  The hut is surrounded by sculptures, hangings of found objects, boasts a deck, some chairs and a wooden whale with a rock for its eye.  Because Hunter is often working along the side of the road many tourists ask him for directions to places including the Lindbergh grave.  He hears a lot of different remarks about Lindbergh, which he says he lets pass.  

When I traveled to Oran, Algeria, I went to see my mother’s homeland.  I went to the top of Santa Cruz and looked down at the Mediterranean.  There were pine trees.  There is bougainvillea in Hawaii, La Jolla and Oran.  My father made a wooden trellis above our patio in La Jolla, where the bougainvillea took hold and covered the area between the house and the sky, sometimes the sun could barely break through.  And with time the vines that had taken hold of the trellis would winnow away, but then later spring back.  

Come to think of it there was also bougainvillea in Toulon, France, where my mother’s parents and her sister lived after they were repatriated from Algeria.  

Hawaii, La Jolla, Oran and Toulon are sun-filled lands.  The bougainvillea has pink, purple, orange, white and fuchsia flowers, depending where you are.  

In Hana Town we go to the Catholic Mass in the white church, St. Mary, at 9am and go across the street to the Wananalua Congregational church at 10am to hear the service mostly in Hawaiian.  We had visited the Catholic church a few days before and met a woman arranging flowers, as well as the priest.  The priest says that he will be giving a mass at the tiny church across from the guesthouse where we are staying in Kipahulu at 11am, where generally only two people attend.  He will then go on to another even more remote church down the road.  We visit that church when we go around the other side of the island to get back to Kihului.  There are old, sacred graves marked with black lava rock.  The church door is locked, and all is silent but for the waves.  

At the Catholic Mass in Hana there is a little girl in a pretty dress standing with her grandmother who plays the ukulele and sings.  The little girl is only happy when she is in possession of a gourd so she can drum along with the songs.  When other children have the gourd, she acts as if she is in violation of her holy rights and makes tragic faces and cries.  She taps her grandmother to get her attention and the grandmother continues to sing, sometimes giving her a comforting touch. 

As a girl I went to the white Catholic church in La Jolla called Mary Star of the Sea.  Once a eucalyptus tree fell onto the church.  There was a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with a blue cape, above the altar:  broken pieces of ceramic, which fit together with interstices.  The blue cape blended with the blue of the sea in the mosaic.  I looked up to her from my pew, holding my mother’s hand.  

As children growing up, my best friend across the street and I embarked on many projects.  We learned Batik from a family friend and in my backyard, we were able to boil the wax, which we would trace onto the lined designs we made on white sheet scraps.  We would crinkle the sheets into a ball, to make cracks in the wax.  Then we would dye the fabrics different colors.  We would hang up the fabric to dry in the sun and after it dried, we would boil out the wax, then iron our designed fabrics.  My friend and I were industrious and enthusiastic, and I remember at the end, we would throw the water into the gutter my father had designed behind our house.  

There was a large steep hill behind our house, and the earth went from very dry to sometimes receiving serious rainfall.  Drainage of water was a complicated issue for my father.  When he first arrived in California, he planted the whole hill with a variety of ice plant, which flowered in purple, yellow and pink, as well as aloe vera plants and other cacti.  

I have always loved cacti.  In the California desert such as Borrego, where we would hike and camp, there were ocotillo, which flowered in red in the Spring.   My mother always pointed them out.  My parents loved plants.  And she loved purple thistles, which were found in the mountains.  She would ask my father to stop the car so she could pick some.  I also love thistles.  They are delicate, wispy and prickly and stand out for me as my mother’s gift.  

At the place where I write in New York City, The Writers Room, there is a woman I have come to know, who has written about women in solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system and is now writing about climate change.  Her husband is an active protestor and is put in jail on a regular basis.  He asked me to read a one-person play he wrote about his experiences, which have sometimes been dangerous.  He went to trial and won his case.  He writes to me, when I am in Hawaii, ending his email with: “off to get arrested again tomorrow morning…”  Soon after he sends me another email: “Just back from jail,” with a picture captioned: “Shutting down 59th Street outside the Plaza Hotel at the beginning of today’s Bloomberg Global Business Forum.” 

The protestors are holding a banner that reads: “Unite Behind the Science.”  

The public school in Hana has Hawaiian murals on many of its schoolroom walls.  The indoor classroom and the outdoor world meld in Hana.  The world in Hawaii is often not divided between outside and inside.  The rain in the night can be so fierce and yet when I say the Hana Highway will be very slippery, I am not necessarily right.  Some signs along the way that say “Yield” or “Slow Down” are covered with mud, or dust, or stains from vegetation.  

Barry writes: “He was never able to determine what he meant by his life.”

In the Bishop Museum I see a model of Hawai’iloa, the wa’a kaulua, a Polynesian double hulled canoe.  

La Creuse where my father grew up is inland in the center of France.  When he sailed that catamaran across the Atlantic to the Bay of New York, he entered past the Statue of Liberty.  Then in Havre de Grace, Maryland, he built one of the first fiber glass sailboats.  For me there is great beauty in his sailing across the ocean to the place where I was born.  In that beauty is this phrase: “I have never been able to determine what I meant by my life.”  You would have to know Guéret, in France, its rural, peasant, natural beauty to know how strangely beautiful it would be to take a boat across an ocean, born from a landlocked village.  You would have to know that his father Emile fought in both World War 1 and World War 11.  That his brother was in the Resistance.  

And when my mother looked down from Mount Soledad, Solitude, to our town La Jolla, The Jewel, and the Pacific she saw her own country Algeria, as she did from Santa Cruz, in Oran.  It is impossible to determine the meaning, but only to say it all exists and is real.  

“To create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives,” Barry says. 

Growing up, I had a fierce personal wish to prove my bilingual Franco-American nature.  I decided to graduate a year early from high school in San Diego to get my French Baccalaureate in Toulon, France the following year.  I chose the focus of Philosophy, doubled up on the French Literature obligation, and succeeded.  Before, in those two years of high school I took an elective typing class in the early morning, which I remember as one of the sweetest classes of all.  I made my way through all the Philosophy studies in French, trying to understand as well an 18-year-old could.  Hard work has always had a core meaning in my family.  As well as dissecting the meaning of words.  Both held crucial importance. “Va chercher le dictionnaire,” was a common directive.  We were a family that laughed at our mantras and still do.  I came back to California after the Baccalaureate.  Then I went to New York City, to that harbor where my father passed the Lady Liberty.  I likewise traveled all over the globe and across the United States to try to understand what might be my responsibility in this world, which my parents couldn’t help but open for me.  What is my obligation as an artist?  I talk about the word “complicity” because I am myself complicit.  

I have often dwelt in darkness and for this piece I thought I would write in the direction of what I have titled as beauty.  Barry writes, “Beauty refers to a high level of coherence existing everlastingly in the world.  Pay attention to small things I tell myself.  Look closely at what are clearly not the answers to some of your questions.  Do not presume that later you’ll be able to read about something you’ve witnessed today.” 

The love of my family is not a question.  The deserts, the beaches, the mountains of California, and those in Mexico where we drove on what for me was “the perpetual camping trip.”  We four siblings would eke out our small territories in the car, in our one bag of clothes, in our tent, in our food supplies.  And the way our parents delighted in the avocado, the mango; and the shrimp in San Felipe, Baja California.  When I traveled to work on a motobike in Cambodia, I consolidated my supplies in the same way.  The love of my artistic collaborations points to discoveries that feel like landing in new territories and exploring them, then finally coming to the edge of a beautiful new sighting.  When on the way back to Kihului, the silence; the end of the land as when the cavern came upon us on the back road and my sister said, “Come a little further down the path,” and she smiled at me, and I went. 

“Mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty,” Barry wrote. 

When I was working on a passage in a new play, I tried to unlock a mystery.  It is interesting how long it takes sitting at your desk to try:


                        Is the real problem that we humans are unable to change?


                        That might be one of the favorite questions of white privilege.
                        I have seen plenty of humans have to change.  And those
                        humans are asked to do so again and again.



                        So, this current feeling of moral exhaustion is also white privilege.   

And at my writing space, when I go to get a glass of water in the kitchen, I watch the other writers who come in to also get water or make a cup of tea.  We often exchange a simple joke, or comment, or just stare at one another.  Sometimes it feels we are staring at each other through that mystery, trying to place words on a page, in our uncertainty. 

The airplane is flying toward JFK, New York City.  Before, the other airplane flew from Honolulu to San Francisco.  Hours were skipped and light changed.  

“How to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself,” writes Barry Lopez. 

For a long time, I have written plays about genocide.  The central characters:  Raphael Lemkin, Thida San, Sarah Holtzman, Pol Pot, Luz, Alexandra, Jasmina, Joseph, Eve, Doug and the Prime Minister were some of my guides.  There was bloodshed and horror and the complicity of the United States and of my own self–always seeing how I had not seen.  Selfishness roars up in front of you, when you have convinced yourself it wasn’t there, or was even the opposite.  Those central characters: Lemkin etc. are awareness and they have felt real because I have loved them.  At the San Francisco airport hotel on C-Span last night, I watched news about the impeachment proceedings, and the defense by the grand guignol of what he called a “perfect” phone call to the Ukraine.  I watched and I knew that the unreal was being taken as real.  And then I turned off the light to go to sleep.  The hotel bed shook a bit throughout the night.  When I mentioned it to the man at the hotel desk as I was leaving, he said, “An earthquake?”  I said, “No, it went on all through the night.”  He said he’d make a note of my room number.  And yet a note might not provide an answer.  It appeared to be an older building on the side of a large freeway, on the second floor, which was the top floor.  Did the room sway the way San Francisco buildings are said to be engineered to withstand tremors?  

There is a banyan tree, past the mango tree U-turn in Kipahulu, that is enormous with a cosmos of branches and tiers.  You pass it on the way to the ocean and the remnants of a landing where boats unloaded their sugar cane haul during the 1800s.  I own a glass inkwell that says: “Cartier 1897,” purchased for five dollars from the neighbor Hunter across the street from Mile Marker 41.  The land behind his house was a dump for the people who worked in the sugar cane industry, and he collects them, by which one can inscribe things in ink. 

There is no “drama” in living life.

Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020.

My mother died 4 days later.  As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to her side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.”
And she would tell me something, a directive
That would send me back to sleep.
To translate, J’ai fait un mauvais rêve,  
is to experience the difficulty of our language.
“I had a bad dream.”
And so is our life together,
Our in-between life
which exists between language.
She who taught me to love it, to write it
I can remember writing the words with her
Her enthusiasm, passion, practicality with language
Was beyond contagious, it was infectious palpable, breathable.
She is in my every breath
And has given me this mixed
language, which I will continue to disentangle,          
Oh, Maman!
The in-between Cat Stevens song, 
she would sing the refrain with us with such delight
“Oh, baby, baby, it’s a Wild World”.
It was, is.
To contain this is to contain Infinity.
To start is, not to end.

(A beat.)

What is the wild child?  That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship, will manage to change the trajectory towards peace and progress.   

August 2021.  I am walking through the door.  And there is Papa.  


CATHERINE FILLOUX is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for over twenty-five years.  Her plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally.  Catherine has been honored with the 2019 Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship; the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre; and the 2015 Planet Activist Award.  Filloux is the librettist for four operas, produced nationally and internationally; her most recent Orlando is the winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer award.  Recent plays include: White Savior at Pygmalion Productions in Salt Lake City, Utah; her web drama about deportation and children, “turning your body into a compass” livestreamed by CultureHub, and “whatdoesfreemean?” produced in New York City by Nora’s Playhouse.  Filloux’s plays have been widely published and anthologized.  Her new musical Welcome to the Big Dipper is a 2018 National Alliance for Musical Theatre finalist.  She received her M.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Dramatic Writing Program and her French Baccalaureate in Philosophy, with Honors, in Toulon, France.  She is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders, as well as an alumna of New Dramatists. 


Forged for Strength

By Jean McDonough

I take knives seriously. My collection is crafted by a German manufacturer that has forged blades since the early 1800’s. I know how to identify a high-quality knife, as well its specific function—carving, chopping, slicing, peeling, cleaving, cutting, or deboning—based on the size and shape of the blade. Good knives are crafted in a complex forging process where a metal alloy—ideally both carbon steel for ease of sharpening and stainless steel for durability—are melted and poured into forms. Forged knives are far superior in strength and durability than knives stamped out of thin sheets of metal.

I like the feel of a forged knife. It follows the contours of my hand and is smooth in my grip. Quality forged knives have a bolster—a band of metal in the center of the blade—where my thumb can rest above and my knuckles behind it. A bolster in the center of a knife not only offers the blade better balance, it also protects me from injuring myself when I am cutting apart the legs, wings, and breasts of a chicken for roasting.

In the dark background of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterpiece that memorializes Basques killed during the Spanish Civil War bombing of Gernika, there is a bird. It stands awkwardly on a wooden table between the defiant bull and a wounded horse. While birds usually symbolize freedom, this particular bird—what most critics claim is a dove of peace or even the Holy Spirit rising above a war-torn field—is trapped. It raises its head in anguish and one of its wings, likely broken, hangs down at an odd angle. I also want to see a dove. I want to believe that peace will someday overcome my own dark hours of self-hatred, but to me the bird in Guernica seems like nothing more than a lowly form of poultry, perhaps a chicken produced for mass consumption despite no comb on the top of its head or fleshy wattles hanging under its neck. There are several differences between the bird in Guernica and a dove. Both the neck and the crudely drawn legs of the bird are longer and more pronounced than those of a dove. Dove tails also tend to have tapered points while the bird’s tail in Guernica has a small plume of feathers similar to that of chicken.

What is even more convincing that the bird is a chicken, however, is the context in which it appears in Picasso’s painting; the bird—it is certainly very ugly and unrefined—stands on a table, its beak stretched toward heaven as it waits to be slaughtered. There is a searing white line—what looks like a sharp knife—that cuts across the base of the bird’s neck. The bird is about to die and no one seems to care. Like some primitive petroglyph on a cave wall, the bird recedes into the dark background of history and is forgotten, while the horse writhing in the dust and the soldier staring up at heaven are seared into the memory of those who witness Guernica. The women of the painting who are also immortalized, one fallen out the window of a burning building and the other fleeing her bombed city moments before she is struck in the back by bullets. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable agony of the weeping mother holding her dead child. Who can forget her breasts twisted into missiles or her mouth ripped into a scream? The weeping woman will be forever remembered as the pietà, the mother of God with her sacrificed Christ child, while the terror-stricken bird in the background of Picasso’s Guernica will be left to die alone.

Nobody cares about chickens.

Sometimes my thoughts are elsewhere when I am using a knife to cut off the legs, wings, and breasts of a bird I am preparing for a meal. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I concentrate more on what I have always struggled to keep alive, something so ephemeral as an endless blue expanse of possibility deep inside me. Emily Dickenson once referred to it in a different way when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” Perhaps Dickenson’s definition of hope is too sentimental and naive—worn to a cliché by the modern tendency toward cynicism—but when I am cutting off the wings of a bird, I sometimes look for this small, feathery thing inside me. Usually, though, I am too caught up in the dark things of my “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” those aspects of myself that limit my endless blue expanse: anger and sadness, an alienating sense of otherness, self-judgment, and then—most shameful—an inability to truly love. How have I hated others? How have I hated myself? My knife slips on the wet, rubbery skin of the dead bird that I am handling, and—despite the forged strength of the metal, the weight of my full tang blade, and the centuries-old reputation of my German manufacturer—

I cut myself. When this happens, I usually slice open the tip of my thumb. There is always that searing shock—a bright white silence before pain—and then blood lets out from under the pale flap of my skin.

Someone once asked me a strange question.

How do you know that you have a heart?

Because I never have actually seen my heart, I was unsure how to respond. Even though my heart is a bodily organ that supposedly keeps me alive, beating 4,800 times an hour and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood every single day, the only way I can actually verify that I have a heart is because I have been told this by experts in the field of medicine. These same experts claim that my heart is the size of my fist and that it can actually break, caused not only by disease—as one might suspect—but stress. It is true, though, that I do have anecdotal evidence my heart really does exist. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I cut myself and the blood lets out. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I am startled awake in the middle of the night and something with wings beats hard and fast inside of me. Something in the middle of the night pounds in my chest. It will not let me sleep and I am unable to set it free from my body. Without actually seeing my heart, though, I suppose there is always a small possibility that what I believe is not actually true. Maybe I don’t really have a heart after all.

Certainly there are many types of internal struggle that are sometimes expressed in unusual ways such as midnight panic attacks, obsessions and fixations, dissociations or feelings that the world is not real, and even self-mutilation as a coping tool to release unbearable tension. Those of us who have endured any sort of high school literature class can probably identify a long list of internal conflicts that might result in such symptoms. Some are moral in nature, others are sexual, existential, interpersonal, religious, or political in origin. While civil war is not normally considered an internal conflict, at least not in the context of literature, it is still a conflict that takes place in a particular body—the country in which one lives—with all its systems and structures that are similar to a living organism.

There is an ancient metaphor of political thought called body politic where the state is conceived as a biological—usually human—body, though the use of it has declined since the Middle Ages when the authority of both the monarchies and the church were challenged. One of the earliest and best known examples of the body politic metaphor appears in the fable The Belly and the Members, attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In this fable, the other members of the body revolt against the belly which they think is doing none of the work while getting all the food. The hands, mouth, teeth and legs initiate a strike, but then when they grow weak from hunger, they realize that cooperation with all the body members is vital for a healthy existence. In the fourth century BCE, Plato further articulated this political metaphor in the Republic and Laws, emphasizing fitness and well-being over the illness that occurs when different parts of a political body fail to perform the functions that are expected of them.

It is not without reason, then—if one is to follow the logic of Aesop’s comparison—for the country in which one lives and breathes to be considered a living organism. Civil war might also be understood, through extension, to be the internal struggle of a body set on destroying itself until there is a reconciliation of conflicting desires. There is perhaps no better example of this type of struggle than the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica. During a three-hour German aerial attack that was sanctioned by the soon-to-be dictator General Francisco Franco, Gernika was leveled to the ground with anywhere between thirty-one and forty-six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombing was later internationally condemned as one of the first aerial attacks against innocent civilians. Approximately 270 or 85% of all the buildings in Gernika were destroyed. Fires from the incendiary bombs were not extinguished until two day later and the scope of the destruction of the city was so massive that it is still unclear how many people died. George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed the bombing, estimated that at least eight hundred people had been killed, though this amount does not consider those who were either buried in debris or incinerated in the bomb blasts. The estimate also does not take into account those victims who were visiting on market day nor those who later died of their injuries. Further complicating an accurate assessment of those who died as a result of the bombing, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, publicly downplayed the number of casualties, even suggesting that Basques had set their own city on fire, an outrageous claim of collective suicide.

Suicide—the attack and killing of one’s own body—might also be considered a variation of civil war if the body politic metaphor can be considered reciprocal and then reversed; if a political state can be considered a living body, then perhaps a living body can be understood in terms normally associated with a political state. In 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath—overcome by her husband abandoning her for another woman, sickened with the flu, and filled with despair during a dark London winter—jammed towels and rags under the door of her kitchen to protect her small children who slept in another room, turned on the gas in her oven, laid her head inside, and killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Months earlier, Sylvia Plath had written a poem titled Cut that describes a time she injured herself with a knife while slicing an onion. Initially awakened by the cut—“What a thrill”—Plath later parallels the pain of her injury with images related to historical periods of American war and conflict. Her psychological turmoil is reflected in European and Native Americans conflicts, as well as the phrase “A million soldiers run, / Redcoats every one,” referring to the red uniforms of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. She also admonishes the Ku Klux Klan for their hate killings that result in a bloody “stain on your gauze,” perhaps the common principle of equality that weaves together a range of diverse people in the United States of America. Plath then goes on to confront her own “Redcoat” blood cells that have seemingly fled her body: “Whose side are they on?” she demands. While these phrases suggest an internal struggle, a kind of civil war within herself reflected in the United States’ continual fight for freedom and equality within its own borders, Plath’s mind has become so emotionally detached, so cut off from her own physical body, that she can only view it as an enemy.

Plath’s internal conflict parallels the conflict between countries during that particular time in history. Her poem Cut was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when for nearly two weeks during the John F. Kennedy administration, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war after an American U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear bombs in Cuba. The self-inflicted cut on Plath’s finger seems to allude to a world grown progressively more violent. It may also reflect the turmoil of her own internal landscape.

Cutting up a bird with a forged knife should be a pleasure. High-quality knives are crafted to glide through flesh with both ease and precision. Before I can even begin cutting up a chicken or turkey with my knife, however, the animal must first be raised, slaughtered, and then delivered to a butcher shop, or—in our era of modern convenience that is so disassociated with death—a grocery store chain with bright refrigerated display cases of shrink-wrapped animal parts. Much has been said about the slaughtering of poultry for mass consumption and none of it is pleasant. While there have been efforts in recent years to more humanely grow and slaughter an estimated nine billion chickens every year in the United States, they are often raised in darkness and small cages. The birds are forced to gain weight so quickly that their growing hearts and skeletal systems cannot keep up with the accelerating size of their bodies, often resulting in congestive heart failure and physical deformities at only six or seven weeks of age. When their excretions are not removed from their cages, they sometimes go blind from the ammonia fumes that burn their eyes. Under these extreme and stressful conditions, the birds are often debeaked so that they cannot peck each other to death.

Once the birds reach their desired slaughter weight, they are taken off food and water in order to empty their digestive tracts and reduce the potential for contamination. In the middle of the night they are captured, loaded onto trucks and sent to processing facilities where it is common for eight thousand to fourteen thousand birds to be killed per hour with a high degree of automation. The live birds are transferred to a track of continuously moving shackles where they are hung upside down by their legs. They are then sent through an electrified water bath that stuns them before they are slaughtered, either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular vein and the carotid arteries in the neck. If one of the birds manages to escape death in this automated process, a facility worker quickly kills it by hand with a knife. The birds are allowed to bleed out for approximately ninety seconds, depending on the size and species. Then they are sent through a scalding bath that removes their feathers.

One of the final steps of poultry processing is evisceration where all internal organs and entrails are removed from inside the bird. In order to do this, the preen gland at the base of the tail must first be cut out of the body. This procedure opens up a slit in the bird that is used to pull out organs such as the heart. The removal of internal organs can be done by hand, but is usually performed by automated devices that can cut out the organs of about seventy birds per minute. Internal organs and entrails are inspected and separated. The edible organs—also known as offal—include the bloody heart, kidney, gizzard, and liver. They are removed from all the other inedible organs. Stomachs are sliced open and their contents, along with the yellow lining, are removed. The lungs of the bird are separated from other visceral organs with a vacuum pipe. When the internal edible organs pass inspection, they are often packaged and reinserted back into the cavities of large birds sold for consumption.

Before placing a bird in the oven for roasting, I wash and dry it in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Then I remove the neck and giblets from inside the cavity of the bird. Giblets are all the edible organs. They include the heart, liver, gizzard, and sometimes the kidneys. Most people do not know that a gizzard is an organ that aids digestion. Poultry swallow a large amount of small stones and grit when they graze. These stones remain in the gizzard, grinding against each other to help birds digest their food.

The neck and giblets of large poultry are usually shrink-wrapped together for easy removal. In the particular bird that I am preparing, though, the neck is separate from the packaged giblets, so this is what I reach for first inside the hollow carcass. The neck seems strangely displaced, as if the entire bird had been turned inside out. When I pull it out of the body and hold it in my hand, I pause for a moment. It is long, muscular, and slightly curved. This peculiar neck, with its thin, bluish-pink skin still firm to my touch, is a faintly familiar appendage—oddly sexual—like something I once enjoyed long ago, but now struggle to even identify. Because I have no use for it now—neither a comforting stock nor sensual jus to flavor—I toss the severed piece in the trash.

While the gizzard of the bird seems so foreign and I am uncomfortable with the neck in my hand—it both titilates and embarasseses me—the heart is what I really want to see. When I pull it out of the vacuum-packed plastic storage bag tucked deep inside the cavity, I realize it is what I would expect of my own heart: small and muscular, deep red in color and slightly narrow on one end. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and I am light-headed; there is a strong metallic smell that I recognize from my own dried blood. The heart, though, might not even be from this particular bird; in poultry processing facilities, the body parts get mixed up during slaughtering.

There is a story of King Soloman who ruled over a conflict between two women living together in one household. They both claimed that the same baby was their own flesh and blood. In order to determine the real mother, Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the infant be cut in half so that each woman could have part of him. One of the women, who was not the real mother of the child, agreed to the judgment of the king. If she could not have the child, she did not want anyone else to have him, either. In a great act of selfless love, the second woman begged Solomon not to kill the infant. Instead, she asked that the king give him to the first woman. In this way, Solomon determined that the real mother was the second woman, the one willing to sacrifice her life with her child in order to save him from certain death. The king then ordered that the sword be removed and the baby returned to his real mother who was filled with joy. There is no story in the Bible, though, of a mother not wanting her own child.

Mothers always want their children.

During the violence of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of desperate mothers in Bilbao—their husbands sent off to fight during the conflict—entrusted their children to the care of strangers in a foreign country. Bilbao, a port city on the northeastern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, bustled with steel mills, shipbuilding, and maritime trade. Because it exported large quantities of goods and natural resources to other parts of Spain, one might have even referred to Bilbao as the belly in Aesop’s fable. In the spring of 1937, only a few weeks after the destruction of Gernika, Basques continued to endure aerial bombing and machine gun strafing by German and Italian air forces that were sanctioned by General Francisco Franco, who had led the Nationalist’s revolt against the legitimate democratic government. In addition to aerial attacks, the Nationalists set up a naval blockade of Bilbao, restricting ships from entering the port. With the added pressure of infantry steadily advancing from the south to push back the Iron Ring, a defense network of Republican fortifications surrounding Bilbao, food deliveries were unable to reach the city by either sea or land. Franco’s goal was to starve Bilbao into submission.

On May 23, 1937, this desperate situation convinced Basque mothers that the only way to save their children from death was to send them away—tearing their very hearts from their bodies—to live with strangers in a foreign country, the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the British government had signed a non-intervention agreement and the care of these children was solely the result of the generosity of the British public. In total, four thousand Basque children were sent to live in England and Wales with not much more than hexagonal tags pinned to their clothing that stated an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra. The children, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again, departed Bilbao on the SS Habana for Southampton in crowded conditions on a dilapidated ship that was intended to accommodate only eight hundred passengers. Some of the children—crying, tired, and terrified—were so young that they did not understand why their parents were sending them away. When they arrived in Southampton, they were inspected by doctors for lice, disease, and malnutrition. They were given vaccinations, sorted into groups, and sent to different facilities across England and Wales. While some of the Basque children were never reunited with their parents who were either killed during the war or never found, and some older children simply chose not to return to Spain—the country that had brought them so much pain—it is a testimony to the selfless love of these mothers that every one of their children’s lives was saved.

Sylvia Plath did everything she could to save the lives of her children. On that dark winter day in London, she waited until her children were asleep in their beds to turn on the gas in her oven. With a considerable amount of forethought and love—before she laid her head down to die—Plath stuffed socks and rags under the door to her kitchen so that her children, Nicholas and Frieda, would not risk inhaling the poisonous gas that she so desired for herself. In the end, though, all her effort was not enough. On March 16, 1984, Sylvia Plath’s forty-seven-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes—who had been only one year old when his mother died—hung himself in a house thousands of miles away from that dark London apartment. While it is unclear why Hughes committed suicide, the causes of mental illness are often too difficult to sort through—they get mixed up with all the other abandoned remains—it is likely that his mother’s death still haunted him. More poetically stated, the writer Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”

If internal organs can get mixed up during slaughtering and lives can get mixed up during war, I wonder if there is ever a bird—one of those cold and hollow carcasses—that accidentally ends up with two hearts. It must be possible, I would think, despite the precise automation of modern processing facilities. I ask this because I once found myself with two hearts, one slow and one fast. The fast heart was too small for me to even feel in my body. I did not know it was there until someone told me. This other heart—the small and fast one inside me—was not really my heart and I did not want it there. The heart must have known that I did not want it because one day it stopped beating—all on its own—and I had to have it cut out of my body with a knife. I never held it in my hand. I never measured it against the weight of my own heart. When I was offered the remains of everything cut out from inside of me—when I was offered the remains to put in a grave—I turned my head away and said that I did not want them. When I said that I did not want the heart, it was thrown in the trash with all the other remains that no one wanted.

I wonder where this heart is now.

I wonder if there is ever a dead bird that ends up with no heart at all.

During the Spanish Civil War, those who opposed the fascist uprising were often executed and thrown in mass graves. When archeologists unearth these lost souls, it is often hard to separate the bones. Sometimes bones are missing. Sometimes the remains are all mixed up. In 2020, Spanish archeologists in the small village of Uncastillo—located in the northeastern province of Aragon—uncovered one such mass grave. It contained the remains of ten women whose bones were set free. They were mothers, daughters, and wives who were killed on August 31, 1936, during the early days of the war. While the exact total of those who died during the civil war will never be known, most historians estimate that at least 500,000 people were killed between 1936-1939, and that at least 100,000 bodies still remain missing in unmarked mass graves.

Historical research of the Spanish Civil War has largely left untold the story of war atrocities toward women. Until recently, Spain did little to recognize any war crimes—male or female—after the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, the government politically arranged “The Pact of Forgetting,” with the goal of ensuring a peaceful transition back to democracy after years of Franco’s iron-rule dictatorship. Parties on both the left and right of Spain’s political spectrum agreed to not pursue investigations or persecutions related to the civil war. Essentially they wanted the past to stay buried in the past. This is not what happened, though. Families of those who had been brutally killed by Franco’s uprising and subsequent dictatorship—some executed and thrown into mass graves—would not forget. Eventually in 2020, the Spanish leftist coalition government agreed to finance the exhumation of mass graves in an attempt to “restore democratic memory.”

On that fateful day in Uncastillo, the ten women—whose bones have recently been unearthed—were dragged from their homes and shot by a firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow pit in the neighboring town of Farasdués. The mass excavation revealed one particular skeleton of interest, a woman with one arm outstretched under the neck of another woman buried next to her in the pit. To someone not normally experienced with the haphazard positioning of bodies tossed into a mass grave, the woman’s gesture might appear to express solidarity, even in death.

While it is unclear why this particular woman was shot—some were targeted because of their political leanings, activism, or as substitutes for a male relative—there is no mistaking the horrifying angle of her skull. Tipped back against the dry earth—jaws spread wide in an eternal scream—the head is that of the woman cradling her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica. The likeness is unmistakable. This woman, though—the one shot by a firing squad and later buried in a shallow pit—has a bullet hole through her skull. There are also a few remnants of the dress that she wore when she was killed: seven white buttons that are oddly recognizable when taken out of context. They trace a winding path up the woman’s spine.

The artistic technique of collage, where different materials, such as paper, fabric or wood are taken out of context and applied to a surface with glue or paint, was frequently used by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early twentieth century. Both artists are, of course, well known for developing the style of art called Cubism. One of the characteristics of Cubism is that it is emotionally detached from the subject it portrays, focusing more on physical qualities than internal conflict. Eventually, however, Picasso and Braque realized that the expression of Cubism had become too analytical and lacked emotional depth. In 1912, they began applying collage to their drawings and paintings in order to add additional layers of meaning. They used scissors to snip, trim, and clip pieces of modern life: newspapers, journals, wallpaper, and sheet music. They used utility knives to cut up pieces of cardboard and linoleum. Picasso and Braque then took these cut pieces of life from the places they frequented—cafes, hardware stores, newsstands—and pasted them directly on the canvas. Sometimes they even painted or drew over them with charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. These collage pieces were what Braque called certitudes, recognizable images from modern life.

In 2011, Spanish archaeologists excavating an old cemetery in Palencia, found a surprisingly recognizable object in the dry and dusty grave of a young mother, Catalina Muñoz Arranz, who had been shot by a firing squad on September 22, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Next to her skeleton—where most likely there had been the pocket of her dress—was a small baby rattle. Brightly colored and shaped like a flower, it contrasted with the dry Spanish soil and Catalina’s dull gray bones. The toy rattle had been for her youngest son, Martín de la Torre Muñoz, who was just eight months old at the time of his mother’s death. A witness to the execution remembers that Catalina held Martín in her arms when she was chased by local members of the Falange who were sympathetic to Francisco Franco. When Catalina, who had been accused of attending leftist demonstrations, fell while fleeing her pursuers, she handed Martín to her neighbors who saved the child’s life. Catalina was arrested and killed by a firing squad, the bullets shattering her skull. Martín, who is in his eighties with no memory of that day, now has the baby rattle that was intended for him as a child. When asked about Catalina, he said with tears in his eyes, “If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy.”

Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society who excavated Catalina’s baby rattle, affirms that it was a remarkable discovery; no other similar object has been unearthed from the Spanish Civil War. García-Rubio also acknowledges the emotional significance of the baby rattle when she says, “It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war.”

When Picasso cut paper collage pieces from typical forms that are universally identifiable—the way a baby rattle is always a rattle, for example—and then applied them to a new context, he achieved multiple layers of meaning. There is always the original meaning of the object—a rattle is still a rattle—but the image of the rattle in a grave alongside the skeleton of the baby’s mother creates a new context that is both dark and disturbing. Picasso synthesized images of many familiar objects—guitars, bottles, and human bodies—with snippets from newspaper columns, true crime novels, and literary essays. This superimposition of meaning and material, when effectively balanced, creates an uncomfortable discord of competing interpretations.

Balance is important in a knife.

Quality knives have approximately the same amount of weight in both the handle and the blade. If a knife is properly weighted, when I place my extended index finger under the knife at the hilt and hold it horizontally with the cutting edge down—essentially resting the knife on the top of my finger—the knife should remain balanced and suspended in mid-air, neither falling forward nor backward when, with the other hand, I remove my grip on the handle. A balanced knife is important for repetitive movements of force when my hand—and perhaps my soul—tires from the work of cutting up something that was once alive.

Picasso experimented with collage when painting Guernica, but only with the women in the painting, each one emotionally overcome by the brutal and relentless attack on their city. The artist applied floral wallpaper to the body of the woman fleeing a burning building, transforming the cut paper into a head scarf that hung from her shoulder and covered an exposed breast. He also applied wallpaper to the torsos of the weeping mother and the woman trapped in the burning building. It is unclear, though, why Picasso only applied collage to the women characters in Guernica. It is possible that these pieces of wallpaper were meant to represent the destruction of everyday things in their lives, such as tables, chairs, and clothes—or even children—-that were torn apart by bombs. Whatever the case, these cut papers that Picasso applied to the women did not survive his creative process. He later tore the pieces from their bodies like clothing in a violent attack. The women of Guernica are forever exposed—running, mourning, and wailing—in all their vulnurability.

In order to determine if a knife is sharp, I hold up a sheet of paper and—from top to bottom—cut cleanly through it. While this test may seem like nothing more than a clever parlor trick, if the knife fails to slice cleanly through the paper—if there is any resistance such as torn or ragged edges that might reveal internal conflict—I know my blade needs to be honed with a sharpening steel. Honing my knife makes difficult jobs much easier, but it also requires a good deal of skill. When I hone my knife before cutting up a bird, I hold the sharpening steel at a vertical angle with the handle at the top. I then place the edge of the knife blade at a fifteen-degree angle to the steel. This precise angle is important for proper honing in order to maintain a sharp edge. Once I have the correct angle, I slide the blade down the steel with a sweeping motion. With years of practice, I have learned to do this quickly and efficiently. A total of four or five passes on either side of the blade is usually enough to realign and straighten the edge until I have a razor-sharp knife that will easily cut through resistant cartilage or flexible tissue that connects and articulates the joints of animals.

For particularly labor-intensive tasks that require additional force—such as severing limbs—I prefer a blade where the metal extends through the entire length of the knife and is seamlessly bolted between the handle on either side. This characteristic of a high-quality knife is called full tang, as opposed to partial tang where the blade either ends at the hilt or only slightly deeper into the center of the handle. Full tang knives have better balance and are stronger than knives that have only partial tang. They are also better able to overcome the resistance of bone and those memories that do not always soften with time.

Sometimes when I am cutting up the wings and legs and breasts of a bird, the joints refuse to separate despite the sharpness of my knife and the weight of my body pushing down on the flesh and bone. Sometimes the bird refuses to yield to me. I feel a lightheadedness when the watery blood pools on the cutting board, a kind of queasiness and sudden awareness that a child once inside me—not some vulnurable animal slashed at the neck and left to bleed out, not some small feathery thing or broken-winged bird rendered with oil on canvas—a child, long dead and receded into the dark background of my past, still has the will to live. It still has a heart.

I am unable to see the heart of the bird in Guernica.

The bird must have a heart, though—even if I cannot see it—because it cries up to heaven, knowing that it is about to die. I see that its eyes are painfully twisted and one of its wings is already broken, but because I cannot see its heart, I am not sure that it is there. I can only see that blinding white reflection where there should be a heart, where there should be an endless blue expanse deep inside me. This blinding white reflection is my own knife—full tang and forged for strength—slicing the neck of the bird.

I tell myself it was only ever a memory.

Because my knife is forged for strength, when I extend one of the legs of the bird, I am able to easily cut through the skin. I cut through the skin just enough so that when I pull the leg away from the carcass, the ball joint pops from the socket. This helps me to determine where exactly I need to cut. When I have correctly positioned my knife, I completely slice the leg from the body as close as possible to the backbone, repeating the same steps on the other side of the bird. Then I separate the thighs from the lower legs by slicing through a line of fat that marks the joint between them. Once I have removed the thighs, I place the slaughtered bird breast-side up and remove the wings. I do this by pulling them away from the body and using my fingers to feel for the joints that I cut right through. Finally, I turn the carcass on its side—in its own pool of blood—and look for a line of fat that runs from top to bottom. This is where I place my knife to cut through the rib cage, separating the breast from the backbone. I repeat this process and remove the other breast. There is nothing really left of the bird now and I have grown tired from all the effort. I never did find its heart.

With this living thing that was once a bird, then a child, then a memory—or perhaps it was first a child and then a memory and then a bird—all the pieces get so mixed up that not even a high-quality knife—forged for strength and forgetting—is enough to do the job. There are days when I am startled awake in the middle of the night with the frantic flapping of wings, my own heart that will not slow its beating. There are days when I see a bird. There are days when I see a child. When this happens—when I see a child—I abandon my knife and resort to using my bare hands to loosen and pull the bones free.

Sometimes not even that is enough.


“10 Interesting Facts About the Human Heart.” Flushing Hospital Medical Center. 22 June 2018. https://www.flushinghospital.org/newsletter/10-interesting-facts-about-the-heart. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Armentrout, Jennifer. “How to Cut a Whole Chicken into Pieces.” Fine Cooking. https://www.finecooking.com/article/how-to-cut-a-whole-chicken-into-pieces. Uploaded 14 October 2021

Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” The New Yorker. 12 February 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sylvia-plaths-joy. Accessed 23 October 2021.

“Cuban Missile Crisis.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library. Accessed 23 October 2021.

Davies, Hywel. Fleeing Franco: How Wales Gave Shelter to Refugee Children from the Basque Country During the Spanish Civil War. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, 2011. Print.

Dickenson, Emily. “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” Emily Dickenson: The Collected Poems. 1924. Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1993. Print.

Domínguez, Nuño. “The Rattle that United a Mother Shot in the Spanish Civil War and Her 83-Year-Old Son.” El País. 24 June 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/06/24/inenglish/1561378371_010230.html. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Farago, Jason. “An Art Revolution Made, Made With Scissors and Glue.” The New York Times. 9 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/29/arts/design/juan-gris-cubism-collage.html. Accessed 4 November 2021.

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, 2018. Print. 

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Ekin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2021. Print.

Katz, Brigit. “Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 August 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-open-one-mass-graves-spanish-civil-war-180970175/. Accessed 13 November 2021.

Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. Dutton, 2002. Print.

McMechan, Ian. “‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath: Ian McMechan Discovers not Just an Ironic Personal Summary but a Concise History of America in this Short, Neglected Poem.” The English Review. Vol. 16, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 21+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A136339231/LitRC?u=anon~93010af1&sid=googleScholar&xid=d44370ca. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.

Mead, G.C., Editor. Poultry Meat Processing and Quality. Woodhead Publishing Limited. Cambridge, England, 2004. Print.

Medina, Juan. “Women’s Mass Grave Sheds Light on Female Victims of the Spanish Civil War.” Reuters. 17 December 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-mass-graves-women/womens-mass-grave-sheds-light-on-female-victims-of-spanish-civil-war-idUSKBN28R14W. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Murray, Lorraine. “Factory-Farmed Chickens: Their Difficult Lives and Deaths.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saving Earth. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens. Accessed 14 October 2021.

The New American Bible. Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L. and Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm., S.T.D., Nihil Obstat. Saint Joseph Personal Size Edition of the New American Bible. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1970. Print.

O’Connor, Anahad. “Nicholas Hughes, 47, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Dies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/books/24hughes.html. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Palmer, Alex W. “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/battle-memory-spanish-civil-war-180969338. Accessed 13 November 2021.

Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

Plath, Sylvia. “Cut.” The Collected Poems: Sylvia Plath. 1965. Harper Perennial, 2018. Print.

Regenstein, Joe M. and Singh, R. Paul. “Poultry Processing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/poultry-processing. Accessed 25 October 2021.  

Rollo-Koster, Joëlle. “Body Politic.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/body-politic. Accessed 14 November 2021.

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Jean McDonough has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry Writing from the University of Michigan. She has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as middle school art and language arts. Currently she works as an elementary school librarian and lives in Woodstock, Illinois. Jean is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Writing as Recovery: Melissa Febos’ Body Work

By Kate Brandt

In the January 10, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Parul Seghal appeared called “The Key to Me,” and advertised as The case against the trauma plot.  I dropped what I was doing and read it instantly.  As a writer who draws mainly upon the struggles of my own life for material (my ex-husband joked that I should call my unpublished novel “The Things That Hurt Me”), I wanted to know precisely what I was being accused of. 

As I read, my fears were confirmed. Seghal laments the proliferation of what she calls “the trauma plot” in contemporary storytelling, listing many examples and complaining that their creators cannot “bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments….the trauma plot,” writes Seghal, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”

What a magnificent counterargument can be found in the essays that make up Melissa Febos’ new craft book, Body Work.  Although Febos’ essays focus on memoir rather than fiction, they very much take up the argument.  Each piece focusses on a different aspect of memoir writing, but Febos’ embrace of trauma as material for writing would make Segal shudder—indeed, Seghal mentions Febos’ words on trauma as an example of how oppressive “trauma narratives” have become.  The elegance and depth of Febos’ writing in this collection are the best comeback.

Melissa Febos, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

In “In Defense of Navel-Gazing,” Febos’ justification for writing the self is three-pointed.  One of these points is political.  She writes:

That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being, is not a coincidence.   This bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism.    

Citing works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diary of a Young Girl, and Night, she points out that “Social justice has always depended upon the testimonies of the oppressed.”

A second point of her defense: Personal writing is art.  Just because we write about ourselves, this “does not excuse you from the extravagantly hard work of making good art, which is to say art that succeeds by its own terms.” 

Her third point: It heals.  Febos cites a study done by James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, in which people were instructed to write about a past trauma.  The results:

Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times, and his results supported.  Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.

Later essays in Body Work focus on writing sex scenes, writing about others in memoir, and writing as recovery.  In the last essay, Return, Febos dives deeply into the connections between healing, art, and the divine.  This is where Febos leans most on trauma and is also the point at which I was most drawn in.  Rather than expressing embarrassment about the confessional nature of memoir writing, Febos celebrates it.

In Return, Febos recalls a longing she felt, even as a child, for a certain transcendence.  This longing found an outlet in writing, a need and obsession that never left her. As a child, Febos tell us, she wrote with “religious enthusiasm.” 

As a mature writer, writing sometimes afforded her a chance at that longed for transcendent state.  Febos describes herself at a residency, writing the story of an obsessive relationship in her life.  As she wrote, in

a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting…inside an intelligence…loyal only to the work to which it is applied…I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.

In the act of writing, she had unearthed truths about why she was in the relationship that she had hidden even from herself, and which she subsequently acted on—life follows art.   Febos here uses the word “recovery” in both senses—a healing from illness, but also retrieval of some aspect of the self that had been lost to the writer—and shows that these two meanings are intimately connected. 

My own novel, coming out next year, is autobiographical.  If I had to say what it was “about,” I would list these themes: passion, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, illusion, and depression. 

Depression is difficult to capture on the page.  So heavy, so paralyzing, so…wordless.  While writing countless drafts, that was probably where I got stuck the most—how to show what that kind of despair is like.

I spent roughly thirty years of my life in and out of therapy with a diagnosis of major depression.  A fact that, as one friend put it, was ridiculous.   It was.  I was white, middle class, heterosexual, educated, healthy, gainfully employed, and at that age, good-looking.  I had no right to feel the way I did.

But there it was—chronic insomnia; daily crying fits, drinking myself to numbness nearly every night. 

How many times during my depression was I told by friends and family to “get over it?”  When depressed, that is exactly the problem.  Intellectually, I knew: yes, I should get over this.  But I didn’t. 

In Return, Febos mentions an attitude of toughness she took to her own sexual trauma at a certain point in her life.  “Embedded in that choice,” she writes, “was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness.”  This attitude covered a deeper sense of shame she felt.  In her first attempt at nonfiction, she tells us, she wrote about the experience of being a sexual submissive for pay.  She was not ashamed of what she had done, but rather “I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions…for me, at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame.” 

I recognized both states of mind.  When I began to write, I, too, hoped writing could be a tool that would help me resolve unanswered questions and the shame I felt about my depression.  My friends were right of course—I had plenty of privilege, a lot “going for me.”  How to explain myself?  What was wrong with me, after all? 

I also had ambivalence about writing my own story.  I had, at that point, been studying Buddhism for a few years, and my teacher made a point of urging his students not to get mired in our own self-pity.  A key tenet of Buddhism is the idea of “no-self,”—that we manufacture an idea of self through the combination of sensations that coalesce in our brains.   If we are to cultivate awareness of this truth, focusing on a narrative we create about ourselves would be counterproductive.  This teacher ridiculed students who wanted to pour their hearts out to him.  I remember once trying to speak to him about things that troubled me.  He smiled gently.  “Soap opera,” he said.

I wrote about myself anyway.  I had to.  Like Febos, I wrote to free myself from the shame of own lack of self-knowledge.  In the long process of trying to know myself more deeply through writing, I found that writing changed me. 

Story has its own demands.  There must be verisimilitude.   There must be a shape.  In the struggle to bring these elements to my personal story, an interesting alchemical process took place.  Slowly, draft after draft after draft, I began to get some distance from my pain.  The hold that my story had on me, especially the despairing, self-pitying part, began to loosen.  I came to see the “things that hurt me,” as my ex so mockingly put it, were actually, in a sense, accidents. It wasn’t personal. 

In Return, Febos writes that “memoirs begin as conversations with the self…Our first confessions must be to this internal witness.”  Through this process, both textual and spiritual, we begin to see ourselves clearly, and, more importantly, forgive ourselves.  When she writes, Febos tells us, she is two selves—the one who has experienced the past, and the one who observes, processes, and sees through what she thought was there.   “By my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of her past and loving her clean” Febos is able to clearly see a former self, and have compassion.     

I had a similar experience writing my own life.  At a certain point, I realized that while much of what my Buddhist teacher had instilled in me was valuable, contempt for myself and my own story, my own version of myself, was not.  It came to me that if Buddhism was a religion based on compassion, there was no reason not to have compassion for myself as well, and that this compassion, paradoxically, made me more emotionally available to others.  What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that in Body Work, I believe Febos unearths valuable truths.   

I write, but my main occupation is teaching adult literacy.  I’ve done this work since 1990, working with adults who dropped out of high school for various reasons such as pregnancy or the need to care for a family member, as well as immigrants who received various levels of education in their own countries. 

Few groups are more in need of writing their stories.  Most of my students have suffered, and continue to suffer, multiple traumatic experiences—the traumas of racism and/or immigration; the shame of being less well-educated; the ongoing hardship and humiliation of poverty.  Teaching adults has shown me that, regardless of literacy level, the wish to be heard is universal.  When I ask my students to write; when I repeat to them the adage that my own writing teacher shared with me—tell the story only you can tell—there is often a moment of hushed surprise.  Me?  A story?  And then, permission granted, they begin. 

“The final phase of trauma recovery,” writes Febos in Return, is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life.”  This reconnection with the community is another spiritual aspect of confession as Febos conceives of it in the essay, and it is something my students understand instinctively.  The stories can be heartbreaking—multiple foster homes, addiction, losing one’s own children.  When one student reads, the rest of us listen respectfully and for as long as it takes for the storyteller to finish.  At other times in class—when reviewing comma use, or the parts of a cell—I may be divided from my students by our different backgrounds, but when we read our personal narratives, we are always a community as sacred as church. 

Seghal complains that the “trauma plot,” as she calls it, “reduces character…can make us myopic to the suffering of others…disregards what we know.”  Febos is more generous. 

“Listen to me,” she writes.  “It is not gauche to write about trauma…bring me your books about girlhood, about queer families and sex workers, your trans bildungsromans. I will read them all.”

Febos dedicated her book to her students, but this book will touch many of us—all of us who have questioned our right to speak—who have not thought ourselves worthy of being heard. It’s one thing to be censored, spoken over, silenced by others—quite another to do it to yourself.  In Body Work, Febos has freed us from that self-censure, and I am grateful.


Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in various publications, including Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama and Redivider. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023. She works as an adult literacy instructor in New York City. 

Visit her website at Katebrandt.net

Photo by Christine Petrella