November 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Marilyn Kriete
I’m still coming down from When Words Collide—a three day affair held in Calgary each summer. This year, over 800 literary souls converged to share their love of writing, books, and storytelling. I crawled out of my BC writing cave and flew to Alberta to meet my tribe
An electric buzz awaited me: these were my people! Knowing I could approach any of these 800 strangers and dive into a conversation about writing—without preamble or small talk —was mindboggling. This alone was worth the admission price, already ridiculously low. The founder’s decision to run a yearly conference where everyone donates their time, including the top presenters, keeps fees affordable for even the poorest scribbler. And the universal spirit of volunteerism adds another layer of magic to this electric event.
I dived in, moving without breaks from class to conversation to coffee grabs to private sessions. Every hour featured a difficult choice between ten diverse classes; dinner breaks were swallowed up in spontaneous connections with newfound sympaticos. The buzz kept me awake each night, thrilled by the creative energy I’d absorbed. How I needed to swim in this sea of like-minded fish!
Less than 30 of us made it to the final event, the “Dead Dog Social,” on Sunday night. Near midnight, at the hotel’s urging, we reluctantly said goodbye. The next day I boarded a plane and wrote a list of tips (and notes to self) for newbie conference attenders.
Here it is:
- Read the Program. Caffeine was in high demand, but I didn’t learn till the Dead Dog Social that free coffee and snacks were available throughout in the building I’d dubbed the “No coffee” tower—a five-minute sprint away. This info was included in the 75-page handout we received at registration… but I hadn’t read through most of it. I’d been needlessly running back to the “Coffee Tower” for refills and spending four dollars a cup.
- Plan Ahead. I perused the presenters and classes posted on the website weeks before the conference. I’d even written my choices down… somewhere. But once the whirlwind started, I was a pantser, choosing sessions based on proximity, titles, and random suggestions by strangers. This wasn’t terrible; most classes were good, and I regretted only two. But when I read the program later, I saw more relevant choices I’d missed by poor planning. We didn’t get complete maps and schedules till the conference started. But I could’ve planned better, perhaps by skipping a session to read the program and get oriented before diving in.
- Mark your special appointments in red. The conference offered pre-booked sessions with editors and agents to pitch and analyse first pages, manuscripts, and query letters. I booked four sessions and came prepared…but made a huge gaffe. In my nervousness over my first pitch session, I spaced on my second appointment that day. Fortunately, I was able to track down the editor I’d missed and reschedule a ten-minute session in the lobby. Not all editors would be so kind. I’m still cringing.
- Carry a big bag and wear a big smile. I did both. You’ll be picking up stuff as you move from class to class—books and handouts. You’ll want snacks to cover skipped lunches, and probably a sweater. A smile connects you with more people, much faster. I noticed lots of sad-faced writers sitting near the back with closed body posture. Open up! I had great fun engaging with others and making new friends.
- Attend at least one slush-pile session. Slush pile sessions are like Gong Shows, as writers anonymously submit the first page of their manuscripts for a panel critique. Even if you aren’t ready to submit, you’ll learn a lot: what agents look for, why they stop reading, and why your first page is so critical. Plus, these sessions are wildly entertaining!
- Sit near the front. Grab the best seat you can, and come ready to ask questions, comment, and encourage the presenters. If you have a question, it’s likely others have the same one: speak up! I got to meet lots of the guest authors and agents this way, and to chat with them throughout the conference by showing appreciation and making an impression.
- Don’t judge a class by its size. Some classes were standing room only, while others were sparse. But the packed classes weren’t always the best—for me. One of my favorite sessions had one presenter and less than ten participants. Her class was intimate, interactive, hilarious, and calming. She read us a brilliant short story and shared her writing journey. That class, at this point in the hectic schedule, was exactly what I needed. It felt like a lullaby.
- Initiate, initiate. Talk to the person next to you. Set up lunch or coffee dates. Exchange cards and tips. You never know when you’ll meet your next new friend or valuable writing connection.
- Pray to meet the right people. Lots of writers go to conferences to find an agent, editor, or publisher. I thought I was seeking an agent (for my two completed manuscripts); turns out what I need first is a brilliant structural editor. And I found her! I gleaned this insight from a discussion where all five panelists— extremely experienced writers and journalists—mentioned they’d sent their polished, mature work for a professional edit before Be open to fresh direction.
- Pace yourself. Or not. Some participants skipped classes and withdrew a while to re-energize (as writers, we’re mostly introverts). I did the opposite and filled each hour. Everyone got their time and money’s worth. My recovery probably took longer, but I don’t regret diving in and swimming hard till the end.
When I got home, I immediately signed up for next year’s conference, plus a smaller, more intimate conference in Kamloops, just two hours away. What joy to be with other writers! Find yourself a conference, and go.
After an unpredictable life in four continents and 16 cities, Marilyn Kriete now lives sedately in Kelowna, British Columbia, where she fights for writing space with three cats who own her office. She has two completed memoirs (seeking publication), a third on the way, and several published poems and articles (The Lyric, Storyteller, The Eastern Iowa Review). Check out her blog at purplesplashofglory.com.
November 27, 2019 § 24 Comments
By Kim Hinson
When I belly up to my computer to write about certain spicy procreation events it becomes an all out, downright puritanical pickle.
I blame it on my mom. Of course I do. And you would, too.
My Victorian sensibilities started at our live-in gas station, in my childhood (of course), with my mother’s straitlaced, spur-of-the-moment description of childbirth. A feisty, lipsticky customer named Tina stopped by the station a few days after she’d given birth to her eighth child and couldn’t for the life of her remember what she’d named that new baby. Later that day, Mama, my five-year-old little sister Dawn, and I sat in the car waiting for Daddy to join us so we could drive Hansen’s Truck Stop for supper. Into the silence, Mama said, “That Tina. She just had her eighth baby and she can’t even remember what she named it.”
Little Dawn immediately piped up, “Where do babies come from anyway?”
I barely breathed for listening. Seven years old and happily ignorant, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the answer. There was a tiny, pregnant silence while Mama’s librarian brain zipped through the card catalog in her mind. She gazed through the windshield at the night sky darkening over our backyard junkyard and said breezily, “Oh, they come from down there.”
My face froze in horror, and Dawn said, “Wait. What!? Like where exactly down there?”
Mama gave a little cough. “There’s a little hole near where you pee,” she said, getting as close as she’d ever come to saying an actual private body part word. Without waiting for more questions, she leaned forward and flicked the car radio on to the only station we knew—KFIL True Country Radio—and cranked the volume way, way up. Little Jimmy Dickens cut loose with May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose and I sang along as loud as I could.
To my shame (but also a great deal of relief), I never talked to any of my three daughters about s-e-x. I don’t say that word, and I don’t put that word down in Scrabble, even if the x lands on triple letter and the whole dang word scores quadruple points. Raised in Minnesota, land of Lutherans, soybean farmers, and conversations that consist entirely of beating around the bush, I just don’t.
Flash forward forty years, to the day my nineteen-year-old daughter, Megan, wanted to start a horse breeding business. A horse breeding business that involved something called “in-hand breeding.”
Swept up in Megan’s enthusiasm, and deeply content with my innocent mindset, it never even occurred to me to say, “Wait. What is in hand!?” My Internet research on in-hand breeding turned up more mentions of private body-part words than I’d seen in my whole life. Well, I thought. This could be awkward. I don’t say private body-part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself. Like a silent but powerful family tradition, my people keep private things private. I’d certainly never asked Megan if she knew anything about it. Because that would involve talking about…“it.”
Then again, this was about horses. Surely this was different. A few months earlier we’d had a baby miniature horse born on our Texas farm just by-golly out of the blue. Nothing to it. We saw nothing. We knew nothing. Like immaculate and invisible conception. Just the way I liked it.
And then I became a writer. I knew the in-hand breeding escapade made for a hilarious story, and I knew I wanted to write about it. But, the instant my fingers hovered above the keyboard, I faced the most priggish of predicaments: How could I write about an activity that involved several private body parts and all the various private activities involving those body parts in a modest, respectable, yet comical way?
So, like a good writer, I turned to books for guidance and genteel examples.
Frank McCourt, in Angela’s Ashes, chose a couple of vaguely descriptive terms which, when read in context, clearly represented the particular body part in question. McCourt’s first word choice, “boyo,” is short, informal, and almost amiable. The expressions “my excitement” and “the excitement,” came next, representing not just a particular body part, but also the proceedings involving said body part. Sadly, none of these cheery terms quite fit my own writing voice, so I moved on to the next book.
Anne Lamott, in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, had obviously faced a similar dilemma when writing about her son’s circumcision. She resolved the issue brilliantly by writing, “I was scared…that I had, after all, made the wrong decision and now…he would need emergency surgery on his wienie” (24). Now this I liked! Thank you Anne Lamott for such an absolutely cute, yet meaningful and even accurate word choice! It also turns out that we have a choice of spellings: wienie or weenie.
Giddy with relief, I pulled myself together to write the in-hand breeding story, cheerfully adopting the word “weenie” to reference our stallion’s…weenie. My writing group, upon hearing me read my piece, snorted, guffawed, clutched their stomachs and all but fell off their chairs laughing. They wheezed and gasped things like, “Just…NO!” and “Don’t!” and “You can’t!” They couldn’t stop laughing, which, for me, is the exact reaction I’m shooting for every time. Still, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t think I should use the word “weenie.”
Thankfully, Lamott chose a couple of other words that filled the bill modesty-wise and also felt right to me voice-wise: Unit and missile. I used them both as follows:
“…wedging Mercury [our stallion] next to the pipe fence with her shoulder, she reached down and took ahold of his hyper-enthusiastic unit. Well, that certainly brought Mercury around.”
“Mercury reared up, feet planted firmly in the gravel, towering over us. But the mission was darn near impossible. There was the missile. And there was the target. But there was way too much water, and all the vital body parts were far too slippery.”
Anyway, like I said, it’s my mom’s fault. All I could do as a mature, grownup writer was to develop coping mechanisms to, well, to cope with the brunt of the backlash of this puritanical skeleton in my family’s underwear drawer.
To prudish writers everywhere: My therapist says it’s not our fault. You’re welcome.
Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. Find out more about Kim at http://kimhinson.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KimHinsonAuthor
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 25, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Marian Rogers
Everything packed, I cut the last peonies in bloom that my father had planted in the garden years ago after our wedding, and put them in a Mason jar to take with me, knowing that in a week they too would be gone.
On the eight-hour drive west to Ohio, I began to write the first workshop assignment in my head, reading my mind aloud alone in the car, replacing words in midsentence, midvoice, midair, tossing it all out, starting again, and over again.
I stressed about who in the coming week I should tell about my father’s death, if anyone, and why, then whether that was or should be the most important thing or anything I had to say about myself.
I cried for miles, across three states, on the interstate that circles the Cleveland suburbs where I grew into a teen, and south through Medina where my father’s parents once lived on the public square, and as a boy my father had his first job, sweeping floors and stocking shelves in his grandfather’s small grocery.
Once off the highway I gave myself over to the embrace of farm homesteads, sweet pasture and corn standing sentinel, the hamlet with silent bandstand, the insect rub and zither of the early summer night, finally slipping into town at dusk, moon ascendant, sun now nowhere on the horizon.
I wondered at my foresight in arranging months before to arrive a day early and stay overnight in town to get my bearings after what was always a long drive, not knowing then what kind of lost I would be.
Weary but wanting some sort of company, I took the innkeeper’s suggestion to hurry to the village restaurant for a hot meal before it closed for the night, in the half light of the back dining room settling into the servers’ conversation as they filled ketchup bottles for the next day.
I drafted the first piece for workshop later, on the edge of the bed, laptop on knees, can of hard cider on the floor, homemade cookie from the house kitchen on the pillow.
At the coffee shop the next morning, in a chair by a window, I read and revised, watching as the buzz picked up and other writers began to materialize, friends and some familiar faces, and others I must know from somewhere, in that gathering feeling myself returning, becoming visible—remembering after all why I had come.
That afternoon in the dorm that would be my home for the week I found my key opened a room meant for two, with two beds, two dressers, and two desks, one at a window that looked across to a vacant house by a dark wood, where I would see myself reflected every night until I pulled the shade, the other a place for the peonies until their petals finally fell.
In the closet I hung the dress I had worn two months earlier to take my father out to lunch for what I did not know was the last time—the black summer dress garlanded with flowers that I would smooth absently, then press to myself as I stood three nights later, stepped toward the audience for my reading, and began, In memory of my mother and father . . .
Marian Rogers lives in Ithaca, NY, and writes about place, the natural world, travel, myth, family, and identity. She has been a participant in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Literary Nonfiction. She is a freelance editor of scholarly nonfiction and holds a PhD in classics from Brown University. Find her at www.bibliogenesis.com and on Twitter @Rogers_Marian.
November 22, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Nancy Kay Brown
I scuff through the house, watching my boiled wool slippers navigate the floor: left, right left, and once again, right. It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. Plucking at the tattered cotton nightgown my mother in law gifted me thirty years ago, I scoot around the kitchen searching for something to fill the void and pick at the last corner of the lemon cake I made to celebrate. Yes, I finished my memoir. That same day I printed and bound the 24 chapters with a card stock cover, a title that one reader thought sounded hopeless. I sent an agent a query letter and the first 5 pages, another query with 25 pages, a query letter and a proposal, another pitch with a stronger bio and warmer handshake in greeting. Though selling my book is not my cup of tea, I alone must promote it. It’s the alone part that’s hard. Had I moved to promotion too quickly? I’d written a fabulous story and written it well. Ready to be done is what I was.
Ten years in the making and while it took everything I had, in the process, it squeezed the writer in me to the surface. Some days it hurt like a nasty boil. Others, I soared. Shelved and bound in a fat plastic coil, the manuscript haunts me like a relationship turned sour; the kind that had once been good.
Time has lost its boundaries, purpose and structure. I wash a window, floss my teeth. Maybe I’ll send out another query letter, a pitch to an agent: personally directed, requested additions included (never attachments). Each communication takes an hour to recheck the agents wish list, assemble the packet, review, line edit and send off.
The blue satin ruffle of my gown, a well-worn nightie, dusts along the desk’s edge. I am that close to sitting down and getting back to work. My desk is tidy for the first time in months: sharpened pencils in cups, a stack of fresh notebooks and a variety of color-coded folders hang like dresses waiting for the right occasion. Just a few months ago, for 5 hours at a time, sometimes more, I’d sit and tackle adjectives, massage metaphors, align descriptors and arm wrestle for the perfect image. No, I can’t bear to write another word.
I did everything we talked about in writing group: showed didn’t tell, dropped us into scene, organized, planned, reorganized and reconsidered. I employed a rubric, used the grid, beat by beat, and revised the arc. Weaving threads into Act 1, I cut and redrafted Act 2, added sinew to Act 3, increased the pace at the climax. Then I kissed it deeply like sending my lover on a journey. 340 pages to an editor, we cut a hundred. Then, off to beta readers. The feedback, a note from each, several pages from one, among other things, “powerful” they said, “what a story,” “I missed your humor in this.” After more cutting and revising, some connective tissue, and another arm wrestle—it was as good as I could make it, my best. Humor? It was not a funny story. That burr took its time to fall free.
I never considered “the afterwards.” My writing group thinks a break is a good idea. Sit with the emotions. Honor the space. “Don’t let it lie fallow.” In farming it’s a good thing to rest the soil in readiness for a fresh start. In art, it can be a dangerous state, a type of neglect. The point of writing a story is to share it and getting it published is the way to do that. I slide a tube of lipstick across my lips, because you never know, this could be a special day. I check my inbox for the fifteenth time. Maybe I’ll do a YouTube promotional piece, a read-aloud on Audible. I am lost. I’ve forgotten what I do besides write.
Do I still have any friends? Never mind about them, I’ve chosen to honor the space. But first I prop myself with a broom and scuff around to sweep up the crumbs from yesterday’s cake.
Nancy Kay Brown‘s memoir, Fallen From the Nest, is finished and awaits representation. Her stories and essays appear in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Brevity blog, Wising Up and a short story called “Burn Pile” appears in an anthology for rural youth, Fishing for Chickens, edited by Jim Heynen. “Letters To Montana,” a WordPress blog, can be found at NancyKayBrown.com.
November 21, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Elizabeth Templeman
The air is cold and damp. Colours stand out with peculiar intensity, flashing by in startling combinations. I move with a detachment which makes me feel like a spectator—curious, but disconnected from my surroundings. On my tongue anticipation tastes sharp; in my stomach, excitement is a stone, undigested. Minutes strain against the hours to come. Gleaning energy from the cacophony of voices, I shrink from the meanings of words. With an awkward stiffness, I extricate myself from the warmth of sweatpants and shirt.
Several hundred runners draw into one mass of bodies, radiating expectation. The gun fires, balloons float off and our energies, set free, confront yet another layer of disassociation: the spirit soars, but the body remains still. My muscles strain in anticipation as I sway in the knot of racers beneath the 8-minute flag. We rock uneasily, laugh and chatter incoherently. An age-long minute later we push into motion. I am one body in a ribbon of humanity unfurling for miles.
I ran this marathon in Seattle, in l983. In two short years, children, and teaching, and writing, would change the shape of my days; and a spinal fusion, the shape of my body. Neither evolving responsibilities nor rebuilt spine would yield the flexibility to accommodate the singular stress, the focused intensity, of the long-distance race.
I wrote of the experience as I wrote of anything that seemed, in any way, noteworthy. Compelled to freeze those hours in words, I was struck by the connections between running and writing.
At five miles, confidence surges. Pushing away the temptation to raise my goal, I focus on the space around me as the continuum of runners extends and fragments. By ten miles I am exuberant. Mind and body both are performing well. In a flash, I understand why running marathons has been such an obsession: All these years it’s been a capacity, waiting for release. (It never occurs to me to ignore such an itch.)
At twenty miles, the reality of succeeding supplants the fear of failure. I’m plumbing the limits of my endurance. The rhythm of footfalls numbs me and the numbness is pleasing. I imagine myself reeling in, pulled back along the double loop of the course. Gradually, we overtake scattered groups of runners in our path. I try to recall the faces of runners seen at the start, but the act of recall drains me. I let go of the effort, and the images fragment, free falling through the periphery of consciousness…. At twenty-three miles, with reluctance, I move out ahead of my group. It feels inevitable—almost involuntary —-and yet harder than leaving home. I move forward, and fall deeper into the recesses of myself.
By twenty-four miles my legs beat out their ceaseless rhythm, and my mind wonders at them. Miles of fog separate the two…. These final three minutes are harder than three minutes could possibly be…. Across the finish line, when the running stops, everything dissolves. I can’t reconcile mind and body. Nothing has prepared me for this strangeness. Hours after the disorientation, stiffness will give way to aching pain, and to the sweet realization that I have done this thing.
All these years later, when I run alone, I am most always writing in my mind. Words tumble upon one another. Sometimes, eager to hold them, I squeeze too hard and they shatter— letters spilling and meanings dissipating. Other times, I pull and stretch, and the thinking between the words snap—taut line of meaning recoiling into a disappointing heap of flaccid words. The struggle of coherence against fragmentation is one more connection between these two activities. It seems not so much the images or the imagination, but rather, the act of writing itself that wrings coherence out of experience.
As I push myself toward new challenges in writing, these connections I surface between running and writing buoy my spirits. Both activities lend a certain fluid grace to my day-to-day life. Both begin awkwardly, all physical and mechanical, and move me toward the emotional, sometimes even the spiritual. Both are hard, occasionally painful—but imagining life without them is harder still.
In old wallets, notebooks, packs, I find scraps of paper recording, in cryptic abbreviations, dates and mileage, times and routes, states of mind or body. Route names summon stages along the way to adulthood. A phrase will stir another association: of solitude, or the spark of competition. Now stashed in an envelope in my desk drawer, running logs extend back over forty years, and thousands of miles of this continent; evidence of my continuity, and of my mortality.
And for years I’ve collected my writing—waiting for circumstance to launch written words into an act of communication. Waiting for an essay’s thread upon which to weave disparate fragments, to catch and hold small slices of meaning.
Elizabeth Templeman lives at Heffley Lake, in the south-central interior of British Columbia, with her husband, and a houseful of stuff their grown-up kids have left behind. She teaches nearby, at Thompson Rivers University. Prior publications include Notes from the Interior. a collection of creative nonfiction (Oolichan Books, 2003). Essays and book reviews have appeared in journals including Room Magazine and Eastern Iowa Review.
November 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Alison Ernst
I did not think having a child was an option for me, mainly because of fear: pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. All of it scared me. I loved children, especially the preschool ages, though the vulnerability of newborn infants terrified me. Someone I knew in college couldn’t wait to get pregnant and have a bunch of kids; eventually, she hoped to become a midwife. I couldn’t relate at all. The out-of controlness, the potential pain of the whole endeavor seemed like something I could never handle. The concept of parenthood was particular fraught. My brother and I figured out early, we were on our own; our parents’ alcoholism and whatever trauma they’d experienced in their childhoods left them unable to refrain from passing on damage. I held an honest distrust of the institutions of Family, and the Cult of Motherhood. I’d even studied developmental psychology in college hoping to learn what a healthy childhood looked like, which mine had indeed not been. Though I grasped elements of how a parent might nurture a beloved offspring, I had no confidence in my own ability.
The preface of Carla Rachel Sameth’s book, One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays, concludes with her weeping in a lifeboat bobbing on the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night, fleeing a burning ferry. She writes, “I was not ready to die without having a baby.” Her yearning for motherhood reaches clarity during the chaotic emergency evacuation, setting the stage for much of the book’s focus. Sameth documents her fierce desire to get pregnant after several well-considered abortions, miscarriages, and frustrated infertility treatments, including artificial insemination, even after a successful pregnancy and birth of a son.
Sameth writes about the challenges of being a Jewish lesbian parent of a brown son whose father is African-American. The essays explore the inner workings of abusive marriages, futile attempts to craft a happy blended family with a dysfunctional wife, and the parental nightmare of an adolescent son with substance abuse.
The memoir derives its name from an essay about a graphic incident of police brutality. Sameth was erroneously suspected of boarding a train at a Pasadena metro station without a ticket, and for this perceived violation was slammed into a subway pillar by a sheriff’s deputy who handcuffed her. Sameth crumpled on the filthy floor—nose broken, teeth chipped, and bleeding—while passersby turned their heads and uniformed perpetrators stood around appearing bored, waiting for their supervisor to document the injuries. This terrifying incident took place the same year as the events inspiring an award-winning film, Fruitvale Station, in which Oscar Grant, a young black man, was killed by a police officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform.
The eponymous episode appears about halfway through the book, following a lighthearted chapter titled, “The Year of Eating Banana Splits,” with subheadings such as “Gestational Diabetes, Beets, and Baskin Robbins” as well as “Ice Cream and Hot Tub for Mother’s Day.” Sameth swings from humorous to serious, even within an essay. Early in the book, “A House Is Not a Home,” a poignant piece about the hope and promise of a new relationship and the destructive impact of its disintegration, Sameth quips, “So I stopped shopping around for sperm and began searching dating sites for a girlfriend.”
Sameth’s voice varies throughout, at turns funny, frenetic, and despairing. Sameth appears in several developmental stages, from childhood identity as scrappy Sammy Boy, an insecure college-aged young woman working on a back-country trail crew, through shifting sexual identities, marriages, and motherhood, and losing one’s shit with an adolescent child in a treatment center for drug abuse.
The traumas I survived in childhood and adolescence led me to think I would be incapable of bearing and raising a child of my own. Despite my fears of the emotional and physical trauma, I had the good fortune to eventually go through the whole rigmarole of having and parenting a child who has survived to adulthood. Sameth was determined to have her baby by any means necessary and, as he grew, strove to create a nurturing family. The traumas inherent in her efforts, as well as her fierce maternal love, is the grist of One Day on the Gold Line.
Alison Adams Ernst is a librarian by profession and writer by compulsion. She’s a frequent participant at Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers Conference. Though her MFA is in Writing for Children from Simmons University, she’s currently working on a decidedly adult memoir.