November 26, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
“He dropped acid like it was going out of style. He drove trucks into trees without remorse. He was the son of a garbage collector and a country western singer, and the first time I saw him, he was passed out in the cab of his stepbrother’s pickup,” writes Jennifer Militello in Knock Wood: A Memoir in Essays.
“He’s trouble,” her friend warns her in “Theory of Relativity,” the first of twenty-nine short, lyrical essays in this collection. The comment only makes the sixteen-year-old curious and desperate to know bad boy Harry.
Militello’s essays weave in and out of three rather complex stories: a mentally ill aunt in an abusive marriage who throws herself in front of a subway; Harry, the high school rebel, who’s intense, complicated, and doomed; and the author who ends up arrested for a larceny she didn’t even know she committed.
The title, Knock Wood, refers to an old superstition. Knuckles are rapped on wood to thwart misfortune or attract good luck—perhaps a Celtic tradition, turning to tree spirits for help.
On an airplane, Militello reads a Murakami novel about a man with cancer and immediately feels compelled to knock on wood to prevent illness. However, she can’t find wood, so she finds the next best thing: paper. Yet, paper doesn’t have the power of wood, which she learns the hard way. “I had knocked on a newspaper eighteen years before, while dating Harry,” Militello writes, “and now I was waiting to pay the price.”
Knocking on wood becomes the over-arching metaphor for the ways people try to escape misfortune. They knock on wood, toss salt over their shoulders, jump over cracks in the sidewalk, recite Hail Marys, hoping, always to no avail, to be saved.
The author’s hazy, slightly nightmarish dreamscapes, such as Militello’s first date with Harry, make this book hard to put down. The girl arrives at Harry’s house to find him “with his arms elbow-deep in the guts of a car.” When they stroll to the back, he pulls a rabbit from the hutch. She insists on naming it Hazel, to which Harry replies, “It doesn’t need a name.” Soon, she learns why: “the pelt has been hung, stretched on a rack, and maggots crawled over it, cleaning it of flesh. Four solid pegs held it in place and its shape seemed obscene and exposed. Vulnerable.”
My mind drifted to Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which puzzled me at first. Both are small books: Knock Wood, 128 pages; The Lover, 144. As I studied Duras’ book again, I realized both tell stories of romances doomed from the start. Duras is fifteen, attending high school in Saigon, where she meets a wealthy, older Chinese man, and engages in a secret, complicated, and intense affair. Naively, she believes the man might rescue her family from the financial ruin that has befallen her family since her father’s death. However, she’s French. He’s Chinese, and there’s no way his family will approve their marriage.
The lyricism alone is reason enough to compare the two books, but it’s also the authors’ cool, haunting scenes, narrative distant, and spare, yet vivid descriptions.
As Militello sits in jail, shocked at being arrested for driving Harry, his friend, and their stolen goods, she studies the many names carved into the table before her: “The wood rough, the ink fading in some places, and in others, dark and clear, it occurred to me that attached to every name here was a person who had committed a crime.” She learns, she will be tried as an adult—the only one of the three who’s eighteen. “I should have explained to the cops that they’d made a mistake. That I was not one of them,” she writes. “Except, I now realized, all that made them them was their actions.”
The poet’s words are evocative, terrifying, mesmerizing, and elegantly shaped throughout. Part of me wanted just to savor the language. The other part wanted to rush ahead to find out what happens to these sad, quirky characters.
I’m not superstitious, never knocked on wood. However, I watched my grandmother pick up the salt shaker and fling tiny white granules into the air. They scattered across the floor, became smashed into the wood by our shuffling feet. After a life of factory work, poverty, and sheer exhaustion, Grandma died at fifty-seven. Yet, I like to picture her with that salt shaker held high, glowing with possibility, imagining a better end.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay “Gargoyles,” appears in the anthology, Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
November 6, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
One day, the Our Lady of Grace statue, the one that had stood in Corpus Christi Church, in Rochester, New York, for practically a hundred years, had vanished. It happened during a great migration of new parishioners, coming from neighboring Mt. Carmel and Holy Redeemer churches, which had closed. They brought with them their favorite hymns, traditions, and statuary. Soon the Corpus Christi sanctuary looked like a convention of painted plaster holy figures. That’s when Our Lady—the Mary with the bluest mantle, the humblest expression, the most endearing face, which had held Livingston’s gaze since she was an altar girl—had disappeared.
But where? Livingston, a self-described obsessive, needed to know. Like Nancy Drew, she gathered facts and began tracking down the statue. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author travels to churches and salvage businesses, such as Pittsburgh’s Used Church Items, in search of her Mary. These short, engaging essays not only invite readers along on her quest, but delve into other church-related matters, such as Catholic rituals, history, and devotion.
Livingston grew up Catholic, though admits to attending sporadically, sometimes skipping for years at a time. “So, while I came eagerly to Mass, served proudly at the altar, and noticed the way that people from the neighborhood perked up at church like wilted plants given doses of water and light, I was not—by even the most generous interpretation of the word—devout,” she writes. Just speaking of God made her “shifty-eyed and spastic.”
I know the feeling. Some thirty years ago, I converted to Catholicism, shortly before I married my husband. He was Catholic, though did not expect me to become one. I’d grown up Southern Baptist, but the hell-and-brimstone preaching always left me wide-eyed and shaken. Marrying my husband presented an opportunity to become part of something that had mystified me as a teenager. I’d visited the local Catholic Church a few times with a friend. The priests’ gold embroidered robes, jewel-crusted chalices, and mysterious rituals spoken in Latin left me in awe. Just imagine my surprise looking into the dusty gold frames hanging on the walls and discovering bits of leg bone and skull fragments. I loved Easter when the priest strolled down the aisle, shaking the thurible, raising clouds of incense, sending sweet, musky prayers over the congregants. The pipe organ’s dark bellows rattled my breast bone, leaving me breathless and dazed. Any effort to put these feelings into words would have left me blushing and tongue-tied—like trying to explain a dream.
Perhaps devout Jews have it right, not speaking God’s name. In her essay “Absolute Mystery,” Livingston writes, “Theologian Karl Rahner preferred Absolute Mystery to the word God, saying: God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names.”
After becoming Catholic, I’d sit in the pew under St. Lucy’s stained-glass portrait, where the window’s cool, watery purples and Lucy’s gentle, rose-blushed gaze fell upon me. I can’t remember how many Sundays I sat there before I noticed dear Lucy had a thorn sticking out of her eye. I’d learn she had been martyred—her eyes gouged out. She was the saint to turn to for eye problems, and when I needed help, we talked.
In Montreal, in St. Joseph’s Oratory, a heart floats in a formaldehyde flask. It once beat in the chest of Brother André Bessette, who used his miracle oils to heal the sick. Upon his death, the church honored his good heart by putting it on display. However, in 1973, thieves stole it and held for a $50,000 ransom. In “The Heart Is a First-Class Relic,” Livingston tells how the church refused to barter for the beloved heart, describing it as priceless. A year-and-a-half later, a tipster led authorities to a basement apartment, and there, inside a footlocker, they found the flask, still with the heart. A little formaldehyde had leaked out, yet the heart remained in good condition.
Perhaps the most somber essay is “Miracle of the Eyes,” in which Livingston recounts her trip to Ireland to visit the Ballinspittle grotto. On a cold, drizzly night, on January 31, 1984, a fifteen-year-old girl, wearing her Catholic school uniform, gave birth in the grotto, next to the Our Lady statue. “Ann Lovett trudged through winter fields, pain mounting with every step,” Livingston writes. “Perhaps, she thought as she approached the church—letting herself believe in the beautiful way only the most desperate do—perhaps Our Lady will help.” No one came, and Lovett and her infant son died in the cold on the grounds of the Catholic Church—the institution that made sure birth control and abortion remained inaccessible.
This essay is exceptionally grim. In general, Livingston’s essays are light-hearted, witty, told in a comforting, sisterly voice, someone you can trust, someone who speaks her mind, someone who explores those things lost and found.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
October 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
Like most great books, Nina Boutsikaris’s I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry: An Intimacy Triptych begins with a personal failure, a goal unmet. What starts as a promising romantic reunion between the writer and a childhood friend quickly breaks down into a self-reckoning. A thousand miles from home, the writer is alarmed to find that, for the first time in her life, she is unable to embody the kind of beguiling feminine presence this man expects of her. Try as she might, she finds the endeavor exhausting, even impossible. Her date’s disappointment is potent.
“I had broken the contract,” Boutsikaris writes, “failed to be the promise, the desire, the notion.”
The failure Boutsikaris speaks of is an inevitability in a world that expects so much of women for so little in return. The moment of initial reckoning for the writer begins when she understands this fallacy. The second comes when Boutsikaris realizes how, now that she is aware of these expectations, the injustices will become impossible to ignore. The hug that lasts a beat too long. A glance that becomes something more akin to a stare. Strangers calling out to you in the streets, desperate for your attention—however negative, however fleeting. The implicit question at the center of I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry seems to be: When men feel entitled to a woman’s attention, praise, smiles, how can the woman expect those things from herself?
Through all three essayistic sections of I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry, Boutsikaris tells the story of a life in which a young girl strives to be the thing men want and need her to be, operating as a machine built for the pleasure of everyone around her. The scenes the writer renders throughout her intimacy triptych will ring with unsettling familiarity for female-identifying readers, for these are the stories we have always told each other in whispers. The kinds of encounters we experience daily on the streets, especially if we are young. Regardless of whether men think we are pretty. Men who want something from us, all the same.
Yesterday in front of the co-op a man rolled a cigarette and scolded me: Didn’t you hear me? I said I like your bike.
I could see how angry he was.
Later, a man asks Boutsikaris for a smile. What woman has not been instructed to smile by a stranger on the street? And who among us has not, at least once, smiled despite our desire to be left alone—perhaps smiled because we desired to be left alone, and knew that to oblige the man with a smile was the quickest means to that end?
You should smile more. You’ll get ugly if you don’t smile more. Smile, sweetheart.
Smile for me. Make me forget.
In the face of these almost daily demands, Boutsikaris is left to grapple with the utter exhaustion of being needed by so many men she will never meet again, and the dueling sense of duty she feels to fill that need. “They all know what I’m up to,” she writes, “the power I can wield, the potion I am keeping from them.” The attention of a beautiful young woman, the thinking goes, is intoxicating. A smile seems like so little, yet can cost so much. In the absence of this attention, Boutsikaris is left wondering what is wrong with her. She writes, “Some days, though, no one needs me to smile or to relinquish their grief, and it’s those days I feel the weight of it the most. What am I to do then?”
As girls, we are trained to see attention from men as good and wanted, until it isn’t. To seek it until the attention goes too far, threatening to turn a Madonna into a Magdalene. Boutsikaris not only explores the contradictions inherent in such expectations, but also the inevitable negative consequences they hold for girls who attempt to meet them.
With strikingly sparse prose, searingly honest reckonings with the self and its internal motivations, and a deftly critical eye on the patriarchal culture we find ourselves entangled in, Boutsikaris’s I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry is a volume the reader is bound to return to again and again long after the final page is turned. It is staggeringly smart, heartbreakingly true, and an absolutely necessary exploration of what it means to identify as an American woman in 2019.
Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric and composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity and the co-editor of its upcoming anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). Find more at zoebossiere.com, and on twitter @zoebossiere.
October 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Penny Guisinger
Disorder is rarely static. The word implies a certain kind of motion: erratic, unpredictable, chaotic. This is only one of the reasons that this thing we commonly call “addiction” is, perhaps, better referred to as substance use disorder. It’s a condition that keeps the afflicted in that certain kind of erratic, unpredictable, chaotic motion.
In his debut memoir, The Distance Between, Timothy J. Hillegonds captures the terrible and terrifying motion of the life of his younger self: a self trapped in a state of ricocheting between chaos and control. The book chronicles four years of the author’s life, opening when he was only 18. Hillegonds spent these first four years of adulthood diligently trying to self-destruct using whatever tools he found: drugs, alcohol, teen fatherhood, violence, toxic masculinity, and a finely-developed skill in the art of running away from, or at least deftly steering around, the smoldering ruin of the life he was creating. In constant motion, the story starts in Chicago, then whisks us off to Colorado, then comes back. The problems that get started in Chicago multiply exponentially in Colorado, then further fail to resolve once back in the Midwest.
But before all that, Hillegonds craved a healthier flavor of motion. A teen inline skater with aspirations of turning pro, he spent his days spinning, shifting, sliding and sailing over the heads of his teammates in gravity-defying acrobatics. He explored the outer rims of self-preservation, then went farther, faster. He writes with such grace about the thrill of being airborne, just off the edge of a skate ramp: “I began to flip forward just as I cleared Dan, the last person in line, and the world disappeared, but I could still feel it, the world, could still feel where I was in relation to it, and then my eyes found the blue they’d been searching for, the horizon, and my body slowly unfolded.” Hillegonds’ writing is at its best when he releases into these long, momentum-filled passages that evoke the sense of motion present throughout the book.
His journey to Colorado was meant to start his new life as a snowboarder. Instead, he jumped into a toxic relationship with a woman with whom he drank, drugged, fought, and had a child. Then they drank, drugged, and fought some more. Enraged by the phantom pains of a father who walked out on him, Hillegonds tries to fill that empty space with stuff that could not do the job: substances, violence, arrests, jail time. He is guilty, twice, of violence toward his girlfriend. He breaks a lot of things. He enacts a lot of pain onto others and himself. Not surprisingly, nothing about this turns out well.
Except that to someone with substance use disorder, it actually can be confounding when nothing works out. The illogical, flawed thinking is one of the many things that makes it a disorder. I read this book as I achieved 2.5 years of my own sobriety, and I thought so many times about one of the first things my therapist said to me in treatment, “This disorder makes you do things that are against your own values.” It’s one of the truest things I’ve heard in recovery, and it’s writ large in Hillegonds’ memoir. He didn’t want to be an angry, violent man, just as I never wanted to be a risk-taking, irresponsible woman, but there we were anyway, in spite of our own moral codes. If addiction is a bowling ball, a good moral code is a perfectly-placed set of pins.
When Hillegonds writes about the most shocking, violent events of his past, his prose takes on the frenetic energy of those moments, as in this passage in which he’s kicking in someone’s door: “I was kicking at the door, black scuff marks that looked like exclamation points, my voice rising, getting louder, and I was screaming and pounding, and the door was groaning, the space next to the doorjamb widening each time I kicked it, and it seemed that it might break under the pressure. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and I turned, and it was Austin. He was saying something to me, his mouth opening and closing, but I couldn’t hear him, could only hear myself, my breathing fast and hard and violent.” Interestingly, the violence reads with an effusiveness that comes close to the joy expressed during the passages about stunt skating. The prose takes flight.
How easy it would have been for Hillegonds to present this as a self-congratulatory study in overcoming a glorified, misspent early adulthood, but he resists. Instead, he presents this as a study in toxic masculinity and he writes with great awareness that it was his whiteness, and possibly only his whiteness, that afforded him second and third and fourth chances that eventually got him back to Chicago and into residential treatment. It would have been similarly easy for him to blame circumstances around him – his girlfriend, his absent father, the high school that expelled him, his mother and stepfather, his dead-end job as a waiter, the dealers who sold to him, the friends who used with him even though they saw he was in trouble – but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he unflinchingly keeps us focused on the things he did and can’t undo, the pain he rained down on everyone around him. He doesn’t understand his own rage, but he doesn’t let that lack of understanding free him from responsibility.
Those of us in recovery live in a delicate balance. We have to be accountable for the doors we kicked in and the people we scarred, while also understanding that our inability to quit using, or even to moderate our behavior while we’re using, is the result of a disorder. We have to take a long, painful look at the chaos we created while simultaneously learning how to forgive ourselves. It’s not easy. I feel like the title of this book – The Distance Between – captures, not only the miles travelled and the motion created in the story it tells, but as the ending of the book asks us to look forward, the title also conveys something about that space between who we used to be and the people we can become. The afflicted, after crossing that distance, can find stillness.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the memoir Postcards from Here. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is a former Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She is blogging about sobriety at: mycrankyrecovery.com. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
August 30, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
As I read JoeAnn Hart’s page-turning memoir/crime story, Stamford ’76: A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s, I traveled back some forty years to a more hopeful, idealistic time—the late sixties/early seventies. As Hart writes, “we closed our eyes and divined a future, a utopian world with pleasure and possibility.” That vision included an end to war, and an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and equality of all people, regardless of their faith, gender, ethnicity, and lifestyle.
As a teenager, I embraced the counter-counter’s mantras: Make love not war. Love the one you’re with. Give peace a chance. Flower power. At a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert, packed with teenagers passing around cigar-sized joints, the crowd fell under the spell of the singers’ close harmonies and dreamy lyrics of love and peace. As they belted out, “We can change the world…yes, we can,” the 50,000 or so young people stood up and applauded. Yes, we can do this.
Yet, it’s one thing, as Hart points out, to sit in the glow of a warm and fuzzy hippie concert. It’s another to live the reality of day-to-day life in 1976. Hart characterizes herself back then as an idealist, seeking a higher moral ground in Stamford, Connecticut. But the town proved to be rather conservative—not all that accepting of interracial couples. Further, her boyfriend, Joe, didn’t always live up to her idealistic view:
I had entered my relationship with Joe with expectations I didn’t know I carried. On some unarticulated level, I was drawn to the idea of me and Joe as some manifestation of equality, both gender and racial. There we were after all, black and white, man and woman, side by side. The racial self-evident—but gender? Logic has never been idealism’s strong suit. Every time I’d pointed out some inequity in our relationship to Joe, something base as who had first dibs on the car, he said, “What are you going to do? Call NOW?” as he drove away, laughing. He thought the National Organization of Women was a joke, and feminism itself hysterically funny.
It wasn’t funny. It was nothing less than self-determination. It’s what, in the end, we were all after. Me, Margo, Howie, Joe. We wanted equality. We wanted justice. We wanted not to be controlled by the world as it was.
As Hart mentions, she and her boyfriend became good friends with another interracial couple, Howie Carter and Margo Olson—bohemians who smoked dope, dealt drugs, and did odd jobs to pay the bills. She writes, “For every man who climbs a mountain, there’s a woman who sleeps with a man her parents would not approve of…. Conscious or unconscious forces drew her to a man [Carter] who, by the time I met him, was downright creepy… the type of dangers that can sometimes feel like love.”
Yet, Hart didn’t expect Olson to be murdered. A high school teacher, doing research on the grave markers in Stamford’s old potter’s field, discovered her decomposing body. An autopsy showed she had been shot twice in the heart with arrows. Her boyfriend, Carter—a bow hunter—was the prime suspect. Making the case against him even worse, he’d joked at a poker game, that if he ever had to murder someone, he’d do it with a bow and arrow.
Even so, this is not a slam-dunk case. Hart spends the next thirty years wondering why Carter (though creepy) would commit such a heinous act. What could have been his motive? These questions nag at her until finally she digs into old police reports and files.
Unfortunately, Carter was involved in a robbery immediately after Olson’s murder and was shot and killed by a police officer. Thus, he was never able to tell his side to this story.
Hart does a remarkable job fitting together this odd puzzle and arriving at several plausible solutions as to “why” and “how” Olson was murdered. By framing this story not just in this specific era, but also in this specific community (one that perpetuated, at this time, racism, gender stereotyping, and police corruption), Hart arrives at some eye-opening and rather disturbing theories about what potentially happened to this interracial couple.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and in various anthologies.
August 15, 2019 § 1 Comment
by Stefanie Norlin
On the same day I found out Donald Trump had been elected president, my husband and I also discovered we were pregnant with our daughter. I’d gone to the polls the day before and, already suspecting I might be pregnant, had run my fingers over my abdomen as I filled in the last selection on the ballot for Hillary Clinton.
For you, baby, I thought. I’m casting this vote to show you that you can be anything you want to be.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I’d lost that optimism, and in the months that followed, I grew distant from friends and family members who became increasingly strident in their support of the current president’s policies—policies so contrary to our shared value system as Christians that I still struggle to reconcile it all.
It’s a common enough story, one that writer Lyz Lenz knows well. Lenz opens her new book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America in the middle of her own divorce: a personal break, she writes, that mirrored the national one. She’d voted for Hillary Clinton, while her husband had supported Donald Trump—it was the final fracture in a long series of differences.
Part reportage and part lyrical memoir, Lenz writes to understand the divide she experienced in her marriage and her faith life, as much as to interrogate why churches across America are shuttering closed. As a resident of the Midwest, Lenz sees the landscape as representative of American values and consequently, a bellwether of the larger nation’s feelings about politics and religion. Throughout the book, I sensed Lenz’s desire to understand how a familiar childhood faith had turned into one largely influenced by capitalism, regionalism, and politics—and more than that, to figure out how to reclaim a Christianity that now felt so foreign.
Nowhere is this estrangement clearer than in her chapter “The Pew and the Pulpit.” Lenz writes, “I’m hurt and angry at a Christian ethic that is so tangled in the politics of the Right that voting any other way means I am seen by my family and friends as going against the very will of God.” By working to understand this historical partnering of evangelicalism and conservative ideology, Lenz is gradually able to find solace while still bearing witness to her pain.
Each chapter of God Land is part of a gorgeous literary road trip through cornfields and manufacturing towns as Lenz seeks out people like modern-day circuit riding pastors, megachurch congregants, and a new generation of farmers to talk about the status of faith in Middle America. She often weaves personal commentary alongside these reported conversations, educating the reader about things like epigenetics and trauma, how survival instincts impact the rural mentality, and the embedded masculine nature of Christianity. Some of Lenz’s most lyrical and compelling writing occurs when describing this land or the people in it, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear these people are as much the guides of this story as Lenz is.
Together, they introduce us to a small pioneer church on Bluff Road to help us interrogate the commingling of colonization and the Church; a University of Iowa football stadium to show us how viewing God through a strictly male lens can be problematic; an Asian American reformed church in Bigelow, Minnesota, to reimagine what supporting immigrant communities looks like; and a dim churchyard on Holy Saturday to show us that it’s ok to embrace darkness from time to time.
“Faith in America is dying,” Lenz writes in her final chapter. “Populations are changing. Churches are closing. Small towns and schools consolidating…. The forces of faith, economics, politics, immigration, the internet, technology, racism, and homophobia can be so devastatingly felt. But it’s also wrong to say that this is the end. Maybe the answer is to just sit with death, to hold it in our hands, to examine it, watch it, and realize that it’s not death at all.”
Death doesn’t have to have the last word, at least not for Christians.
Stefanie Norlin is a Detroit-based writer, book lover, and French fry connoisseur. Her words have appeared in Christianity Today, Essay Daily, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her writing at stefanienorlin.com or find her on twitter at @stefanienorlin.
August 13, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Elizabeth Hyde Stevens
In the months before becoming pregnant with my daughter, I got into a stranger’s car and drove out to the Berkshires to attend an Ayahuasca ceremony with a Columbian shaman named Taita Nelson. I was writing a novel about the possibility of psychic healing after my mother’s death from Lewy body dementia. My hope was that I might reconnect with my mother. My brother had told me I was the bravest person he knew. But the truth is that I am far from fearless.
“To my knowledge no one has discovered a gene for self-determination,” Carter Taylor Seaton writes in her essay “The Girl in the Mirror” in the literary collection Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment. “I don’t think they will, either.” Fearless, published in April by Mountain State Press, is lyrical, sprawling, and forthright, essays mostly, with the occasional microburst of fiction or poetry, all featuring women bravely making their way in the world. “Some challenges,” Seaton writes, “present themselves, like coping with an alcoholic husband or ending life support for your oldest son, and you grapple to overcome them. Others you willingly accept.” After playing the Virgin Mary as a pregnant high school junior and having four children before she was twenty-three, at fifty, Seaton willingly took on the challenge to become a writer and marathoner.
With over thirty formidable writers contributing, Fearless creates a celestial-chorus-like effect, like reading #YesAllWomen tweets or Scary Mommy Confessionals. Yet, unlike the fragmentary moments of online confessions, Fearless provides the context, intelligence, poise, and perspective that only literary explorations can give. The works are short—two or three can be read in the time it takes to read a novel chapter—but long enough to show ongoing-ness of women’s badassery. Brimming with rebellion, duty, loss, fear, motherhood, divorce, poverty, hedonism, hope, and faith, the stories show women as intrepid, infragile, heroic, each writer mounting the audacity to become the hero in her own life.
West Virginians abound, although the stories reach to New York, Los Angeles, Florence, and beyond. Editor Cat Pleska, a seventh-generation Appalachian, grounds Fearless in the peculiarity of the mountains, coal mines, poverty, and pickup trucks where plucky women refuse to do as they are told, and, instead, blaze their own trail: the righteous victory of rebuffing a boss’s harassment, finding the confidence to run away from home or start a global business. Many of the stories are too complex to describe in pull-quotes: the older-self-shocking confidence of a woman giving birth “the natural way.” The pain of losing the love of your life to cancer, even though you divorced him many years before.
Daleen R. Berry writes of the moment she found out—while getting an ultrasound on her right breast – that her husband died, setting off a protracted legal disaster. M. Lynne Squires writes of a rape in which she was not sure if she should hope her roommate comes home to save her or hope to avoid being found in such a shameful state, later vowing “that moment, that experience wasn’t going to define me.” In “Star Child,” editor Cat Pleska writes of the larger-than-life friend from Stitch-and-Bitch meetings who believed in magic, flew her out to Paris, and breezily brushed off the greatest marital betrayal, a tribute to a quixotic, vibrant life snuffed out in an instant.
In “Daughter,” Rajia Hassib denaturalizes and ironizes the task of “raising” a fearless woman. Wracked by mom guilt for failing her daughter, the protagonist anxiously tries to teach her graduating senior to ride a bicycle so she won’t embarrass her new friends at college. All the while, the fully capable teen girl texts friends, likely mocking her, with both thumbs. What else, the story suggests, do we forget to teach young women before they go off into the world?
In one of the rare nods to politics in Fearless, the poem “Women’s March Washington, By God, D.C.,” by Kari Gunter-Seymour, paints a picture of a mounting women’s movement in Appalachia:
Their husband’s mouths gaped,
They board the bus, middle of the night,
Cardboard signs and children in tow,
Their bodies a poem of spine
And gut and cicada music.
Some have never before left the county.
Majestically, Sheila Coleman-Castells imagines a new post-coal, post-poverty future for her chosen homeland where “expectations, stigmas, and inertia” don’t have to define our lives. Her lyrical invocations resonate for her fellow Black Affrilachian women and for women everywhere: “I have to show her, while young, that she has no need to adhere to outmoded cultural ways of being that require her to get ‘permission’ from anyone to be her authentic self. No one who ever asked permission from others would be allowed to let their talents roam free.”
Ultimately, Fearless is not about the lack of fear, but rather about writing a hope for a better future—a hope resounding right now in all parts of the nation where women reside (and vote), but perhaps nowhere as lyrically as the blooming mountains of Appalachia—the hope that, as Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri says in “In Every Dream…”: “They no longer need to imagine.”
I didn’t see my mother in the shamanic ceremony in the Berkshires, but I saw powerful internal landscape of loss that helped me let go of my biggest fears. I saw a rose bloom out of my womb. And then I saw my mother’s hair—her thick, charcoal-black, fluffy 1980s-blow-dried follicles sprouting up over mountains, fields, rivers, streams, oceans, and continents all over the earth. I will forever be grateful to have had the courage—and the bravery of women before me—to see that dream.
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of the pushcart-nominated story “Wolf Memoirs.” Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Salon, The Awl, The Millions, Rolling Stone, RogerEbert.com, and Fast Company. She is the author of the nonfiction book Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson which was praised by INC, The AV Club, Brain Pickings, WGBH, and The Boston Globe. Stevens has taught writing at many schools including MassArt, Brooklyn College, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Harvard Extension School. She currently teaches a writing and research seminar at Boston University exploring the future of video games.