Ha Ling: A Flash Essay

September 25, 2018 § Leave a comment

halingIn this flash essay in Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Austyn Gaffney considers the risks taken in mountain-climbing and weighs how to balance independence and connection in love.

Here’s an excerpt from Gaffney’s essay:

Scrambling up a mountain peak never fails to crack me open. I become scared of slick stones and the vast space between the matter up here and the matter down there. Wind makes the whiskers around my temples stand on end. My knuckles are clouds when I peer over the edge into the Bow River Valley. I hunker beneath the windbreak of boulders, cradling my bowstring of a body while I chew on peanut butter and jelly, on freezer-burned chocolate, on how cold it is to sit up top alone.

Read the complete essay in our new issue.

My Bodhisattva: An Essay

September 24, 2018 § 2 Comments

mybodhisattvaIn Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Steven Schwartz finds his breathless way through a haze of distraction during a short meditation to discover the meaning of dhyana, or keen awareness, when he least expected it.

Here’s an excerpt from Schwartz’s fine flash essay:

…and I was so fully into detailing this imbroglio with the uncongenial barkeep that steam could have been coming out of my ears, and I had to think, Whoa, I’m meditating here! and get back to my breath, which had of course become rapid with anticipatory rage as I conjured a scenario along the lines of Kill Bill…

Read the rest in our new issue.

On the Eve of My Mother’s Dying: A Flash Essay

September 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

ontheeveIn Brevity’s September 2018 issue, Peggy Duffy confronts the sometimes painful, sometimes profound, and often long process of dying as mother moves in and out of consciousness during her last days of life.

An excerpt from Duffy’s poignant essay follows:

At her scheduled visit, the weekday hospice nurse will not commit to the couple of days the weekend nurse predicted. Vitals are better. In hospice language, my mother has rallied. She lies on her back in a semi-conscious state, blanket tucked under her armpits, raising and lowering one arm in a slow, gentle rhythm, as if conducting an orchestra in her sleep. My father lies on his bed, sneaker-clad feet propped on a pillow, interpreting each movement as a sign of recovery.

Read the rest in our new issue.


Best Days for Breeding, An Essay

September 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

farmersalmanacIn Brevity’s September 2018 issue, John A. McDermott and his wife, frustrated with gymnastic positions and thermometers, Clomid and prayer, turn to the The Farmers’ Almanac for help with planting human seeds.  Here’s an excerpt of McDermott’s flash essay:

There are days devoted to tasks we expected: canningpruningpickinghunting. There are days we didn’t: cutting hair to retard growth; cutting hair to increase growth; washing wooden floors; waxing floors; digging postholes and entertaining friends. There are best days to get married—in every month, lots of dates, no ominous NO GOOD DAYS here, folks—and there are days for castration (helpfully labeled castrate farm animals, spurring sighs of relief from wild animals and men alike), but no days to breed people. There are best days to write (but only a few days of each month) and best days to wash windows and quit smoking. There is guidance for fishermencolumns of adjacent pages, charts marked poorfair, good, and best where poor told us beware those days the fish steal your bait or don’t even touch your line.

Read the rest in our new issue.

Brevity’s 59th Issue Predicts the Best Days for Breeding

September 17, 2018 § 1 Comment

mybodhisattvaBrevity’s September 2018 issue contains crisp flash essays exploring blood on the pool deck, aces of spades, cremation, crow murder, diner Bodhisattvas, and the best days for breeding, from these amazing writers: Steven Schwartz, Peggy Duffy, Rachael Peckham, Alysia Sawchyn, Xujun Eberlein, Julie Marie Wade, Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, John A. McDermott, Austyn Gaffney, Jan Priddy, Suzanne Farrell Smith, Gabe Montesanti, Renée Branum, Sondra Kline, and Fleming Meeks.

In our Craft Section, Elizabeth Robinson offers a pattern sampler, because non-linear essays “realign our attentions … (and) drench us in unknowing,” while Beth Kephart explores the interplay of language and visual arts (and marriage), and Rebecca Fish Ewan offers an illustrated crash course on graphic memoir.

With haunting photos from Therese Brown.

All right here, ready and waiting.

A Review of Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown’s Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives

September 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

zz ,200_By Adrian Koesters

If you’re lucky, you’ve had someone to talk with about things—someone to answer, “That’s right, that’s right,” to what you’re trying to get at.

The pleasure of reading these letters/essays between Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown is being able to answer, “That’s right,” as we follow their takes on books, food, music, sex, politics, and writing and teaching poetry. Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives is, first of all, an exchange of essays on the writing life. It is also, as they tell us, a “record of an important friendship.” In this, Lea and Brown, past poets laureate of Vermont and Delaware, are as transparent with us as they are with each other.

Transparency takes time, as we know. “William Blake saw that we have to pass through innocence into experience in order to arrive, if that’s the right word, at a higher innocence, a place where we bring everything with us…,” says Brown. Yet, Lea answers, “I’ve imagined my mind to have found something that, at least for the fleeting moment, will suffice.” Even a “higher innocence” is no final arrival.

“The universe is slow, really,” Brown says in “Books,” the first of twelve essays. Her description of the tactile experience of reading the printed word transported me to the card catalog at my college library, the slow, insulated suspension so dearly missed, pulling out one drawer that played to another, learning what books to seek out, the titles delicious, fantastic.

Still reading “Books,” I recalled the even slower universe of the grade school library, the wealth inside a pile of library books, the liberty of the card, the stacks, the tables, the quiet. I remembered in second grade, pleading to take out books each week from the “big section,” and when I got permission, reading the same ones over and over, as Brown also did with her childhood favorites.

Then, I remembered an afternoon when Sister So-and-So called me up, pulled out a list of words, and told me to read them. I didn’t know most, but thought I was rattling them off pretty slick, and that she’d be pleased, but she said only, “That will be all,” and tossed the list in her desk drawer as if it were burning her fingers. If I didn’t already know the life-and-death difference a word could make, I knew it then.

This sense, that the world stands on a word, both poets recognize well, and that if you write it’s likely because you figured this out early on. The exchanges in Growing Old compound and deepen this understanding from one section into the next. In “Sports,” Lea tells of a fascinating journey from the high school hockey field, to a struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, and ultimately to writing. He quotes a poem by James Wright wherein the sons of “proud fathers…/grow suicidally beautiful,” whose pain he understands, whose journey can end in “moral idiocy” in those who cannot comprehend it.

“And yet,” he says, “I’m not large, and I know it.” He loves sports, but Brown says, “I’ve written two sports poems…I can pretend.” They are serious, but they have fun. Lea admits, “The feel of improvisation is what juices up my form.” Brown figures, “Poetry is like a large bird, coming in closer and closer until we finally admit we’re stuck with it.” At times reading their serve-and-return feels like listening to a terrific radio program with your favorite hosts, at others sitting down for long conversation with your friends.

But the final, transcending word is for the writer. Poetry feels like “a self-abandonment to something divine…,” Lea says. It comes, says Brown, from “…silence, [it] needs to open itself into silence, not hostage to anything.” That sounds right, and trustworthy, as both poets admit they know a good bit, but still not much completely for sure.

Two poets grown older, still considering, as they do in the introduction, “Are poets’ lives any different in tone or texture from any other sorts of life?” Maybe not. But the particular vocation of the poet, of the writer, I hear them say, is to free words without too much judgment, to judge words without taking them hostage, and to be “eager to continue.” Growing Old in Poetry is an important book and a conversation and a friendship generously recorded.

Adrian Koesters is a poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Her most recent essays appear in Oakwood Magazine and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

A Review of Steven Church’s I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part

August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

disturbBy Ryan McDonald

We wish to never find ourselves realizing how far we’ve fallen, how messed up or off-course our lives have somehow come to be, but at one point or another it seems that this moment of sudden awareness inevitably comes. Steven Church confesses to such in the very first sentence of his latest essay collection, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, professing “this is what things have come to.” It is a first impression to the reader that shouldn’t be read as sensational, but rather the opposite for it touches on something universal. Church reveals a common truth:  things in the past have disturbed us—this is what things have come to—and so will parts of the future—I’m justgetting to the disturbing part.

In this book, Church dives deep into a lifetime of fear, from his emotion-laden twenties—the anxiety-riddled years of trying to figure out adulthood—up to his forties, now a father of two, questioning what and how he should teach his kids to fear. At the heart of Church’s compelling inquiry and intimate storytelling is a confounding but relatable paradox: though fears come and go, change or fester—no matter how common or grand those fears are—fear itself will never disappear from our lives.

In the opening essay, “Deep Down in the Country Boy Mine,” Church unpacks one of the greatest fears he felt as a young adult, that he “might be making some really bad decisions.” It was 1995 and wanting “to be a mountain man, a pioneer of sorts”—an ambition shared by many foolish young men wishing to be the next Hemingway or Kerouac—the twenty-something Church abandons the path his BA in philosophy, scholarship offers for graduate school, and steady relationship with his girlfriend seemed set to put him on. Instead, he took up a job in Breckenridge, Colorado working as a tour guide and general laborer at a tourist trap named the Country Boy Mine. But nobody goes down into a mine with the intent of staying.

Church grapples with this stereotypical masculine pursuit of rugged individualism and grapples as well with how quickly he discovered it to be a hollow myth, made worse by  the stress of his long distance relationship. Like a miner digging into and chipping away at the ground, “Deep Down into the Country Boy Mine” takes on a fractured form with Church’s frequent use of footnotes visually representing his deviating, conflicted young self and subheadings that chronicle his journey to and within interiors both physical and metaphorical. In doing so, Church also tries to write back to a whole, reflecting the eventual decision “to return to her, the choice of sweet dependence.”

Fear can turn our minds over and over, get us stuck, but Church’s narrative seamlessly guides readers to each next page, as time keeps moving and we keep getting older. Church became a husband, moved to a college town where drunk students often confused his apartment for their own, and he and his wife welcomed their first-born into the world. In the essay “Bright Orange Fear,” Church’s wife frantically rushes inside from the front yard to tell an unknowing Church that she had seen across the street what looked like someone getting stuffed into the trunk of a brown Honda Accord. (It turned out to be teenagers fooling around.) In this essay, Church takes count of all the fears he’d been accumulating up to that point in life. He attempts to orient himself as a husband and father in a post 9/11 world filled with dangers far and near (“It’s all about fear”), most not yet on his two-year-old son’s radar: “But what about brown Accords? What about the rattle of a doorknob at 3:00 in the morning? What about right outside our doors?”

Oddly, I found myself comforted by this book. When I read it, I was in my second month of unemployment, having just finished graduate school, with student loan payments looming over my head. Like Church in his twenties, I felt an uneasy fear: how even when you know things will work out, the question of what-if provides a pervasive gloom (What if I don’t find a job in time and get buried in debt? What if I had chosen a different path than this? What if I become a burden to those I care about and who care about me?) But I didn’t mind the notion put forth by Church that even as trouble sorts itself out (as it did for me; I got a job), I’d just find new fears. It helped to see this. We’re always learning how to adjust to the fears at hand.

It is fitting then that Church ends I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood with a one-paragraph flash essay, “Overpass Into Fog,” in which he writes in the present tense of an unexpectedly profound car ride to his daughter’s daycare:

I can stay suspended in the present on the overpass into fog, the memory of our conversation on cursing, my daughter’s gambol around goddamnit lingering in the penumbral past, as I sail off blindly into the deep abyss of being a divorced father of two children, catching mere glimpses of clear thoughts through windows in the haze; and perhaps such suspension will help me remember that it’s important not to pass over such moments, to stay in the vehicle of metaphor, moving forward, even if you can’t see the edges or the end, even if the concrete seems to disappear into gray ether, into a terrifying and ecstatic final separation.

Here—pinned to what things had come to, a liminal instant in time, somewhere along the way to the disturbing part—Church leaves the reader with both hands on the steering wheel and a foot on the gas pedal, a controlled forward momentum, suggesting that our fears and the future are at least navigable for as long as we keep driving.


Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. He teaches at George Mason University. His essays have been published in the Normal School Online, the Rumpus, Catapult and forthcoming in 1966. He is currently working on a collection of essays about commodities and the way they affect our lives globally, locally, and personally

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