Confessions of a Cockblocker

by Deborah Pintonelli

Uncle Sammy was poised for his goodnight kiss, his grey stubble just a couple of inches from my face, his watery eyes pleading. Usually he didn’t care about what I wanted, but for the all-important kiss, he wanted a clear answer. A nod would do. We were finished playing doctor, to which I always said no. My mother had more than impressed upon me that I needed to be nice to him. Free babysitting. Each time she left me alone with him, I felt that she was expressing her hatred of me. The opposite of a mother’s love. She was sick, and her sickness played itself out in vaguely Buñuelian scenarios, complete with shattered, puke-colored interiors and bony, ancient evil doers. I see her self-satisfied figure in retreat, always, her stubby-fingered pimp hands trailing an old wood banister.

The nod “yes” for the goodnight kiss was a sigh of exhaustion, my eyes heavy and wanting to close for many hours. He had pulled a militaristic green wool blanket up under my chin. It itched, and threatened to ruin my rest. I would not let it. The stubble and the wool were irritants that would vanish as soon as the kiss ended.

He thanked me. “You are such a good girl. Goodnight my good girl.”

He was missing his teeth, and so always I could at first see, then feel, the sliminess of his gums. His breath was not bad, as I recall. Bad were the overall smoothness, wetness, and warmth— that I did not want. But I had to say yes to make him go away. The long day with him, to my child’s mind, was endless. Centuries seemed to pass. The earlier image of my nude body prone on a table near the big loft windows, as seen through his eyes, was overly fresh in my mind. I wanted to make it stop, at any cost.

It is a sad thing to have this be your introduction “sex.” Worse still to be so cognizant and that age of the microthin nuances of the negative and the positive within this new context. But the worst by far is having your mother pick you up the next morning and say that you are lying. It is her word against yours— even though she was not there for any of it— and she wants to win. But you don’t give up. It was so clear to you. It takes all your strength to stand up to her, but you do. Goodbye, Uncle Sammy. Hello, Mother, who has it in for you now.

It was a battle that I would not give up, and eventually win. The idea that truth should prevail, that my memory of events was not the cloudy perceptions of a baby, was something worth fighting for. Right or wrong, it set me up for life. I went to live with my Godmother, and my own Mother was forever relegated to the special place where liars live. To her dying day she lived by that code, and to this day there is nothing I despise more.

I have gone through the rest of my life, living in various households, even with her again, armed with this knowledge and the belief that I was forever immune to any more abuse. It is everywhere you look. But it did not happen to me again. What happened to me is what happens to everyone: a society’s interpretation of the sexual that is force-fed at every turn.

At times I have found it necessary to take a break from this and forgo anything intimate. Celibacy, as a way of drawing a polite curtain, opaque or sheer, that says No. Not with you, or anyone else. Not now.  Each time that I have, it is because I have found myself so profoundly confused by what it means to be sexual that I cannot be sure of what it is that I really want. And if this is true, then I know I am in danger of making some very bad choices. And I am leaving the door wide open for others to do the same.

This bout coincides with a time in our culture that is electric with reproductive rights clamp-downs, rape, slut-shaming of women and girls, and rape being formally acknowledged as a weapon of war: “The Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, endorsed by the G8 nations”. Then there is the never-ending roll call of violations by members of the Catholic church, and other institutions entrusted with the welfare of children, that it is as numbing as it is breathtaking.

None of this is new. What is new is the truth being brought to light, like a layer of bright, writhing maggots on a bag of old garbage.

To some, it feels as if we are at war. To many of us, it is a war that is never-ending. Not since I was an undergrad reading Mary Daly have things been so edgy. I remember poring over the treatises of the group S.C.U.M. (the Society for Cutting Up Men) while curling up on the couch with my cat, Sid Vicious. Every once in awhile I’d twitch involuntarily, sending him flying. I never signed up for the hate. It just doesn’t do any good.

My anger knows no bounds. It has gotten me into barroom brawls, screaming fights on the street, divorce court, and more. The only time that it crystallizes into something like power is when I am able to articulate it, act upon it, and make a change.

We have to take control of our sexual lives. We need to explore what it means to say yes, or no in this culture. Yes to all of the freedoms we have fought for, and no when we do not choose to exercise them. Women cannot be viewed in one breath as strong and sensible, and in another as incapable of making a decision. Violent people will always be around, making us do things we do not want to do. They can kill us. But they cannot kill what is in our hearts.

Anna March recently wrote an essay in Salon, which drew a very fine, and very brave, distinction between bad sex she had as a teen, and rape. The piece details reactions, pro and con, to an encounter in the season 2, episode 10 of Girls. The scene in question involved a difficult, unpleasant scenario with Adam asking Natalia to get on all fours, crawl to the bed, whereupon he takes her from behind. Then he cums on her chest. She never utters the word “no,” but afterwards says she “did not like that at all.”

March quotes from a 1994 essay in Harper’s by Mary Gaitskill who relates a story about a similar bad sexual experience to a girlfriend. The friend agrees that yes, “it sounds like you were raped. It sounds like you raped yourself.” The fact that both authors were under 18 at time of their encounters simultaneously obscures and heightens the issue. That they knew then, as they do now, that theirs were not rape experiences, is clear. That Anna March had to spend a lot of time after the essay was published arguing the finer points of statutory rape with commenters (it’s different in every state) actually bolstered her argument.

Teaching young people that sex is dirty, demeaning, and that they do not have the wherewithal to make choices, leaves it right in the gutter where perpetrators would like it to be. Then it doesn’t matter what answer the violated person gives, if any. March says, “Not giving, or being able to give, consent and regretting consent are two different things.”  She warns that “If [women] don’t take control of their own erotic development early, they may never take control.”

Amen.

There is a song called “Date Rape” by the band Sublime that high school students find amusing these days. “If it wasn’t for date rape,” the song goes, “I wouldn’t have any sex at all.” This is the sort of irony that imbues the songs my teens listen to. If you tell them that the song is not funny, their eyes roll back into their heads. If you show them graphic pictures of girls being carried around frat parties while passed out, they smirk because they think that living in a cool city enables them to be exempt from such humiliations. All while strapping on their Victoria Secret padded bras and calling thirteen-year-old girls “hoes.”

It is time to acknowledge that we have not done a good enough job of teaching girls and boys about sex. To arm them with that power. We cannot protect them or ourselves with hatred, sanctimony, male bashing, religious intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, or any of the other forms of negation that are so readily available. None of that matters when it is a contest between what one or more persons want, and another does not.  If you have a firm grasp on what you did or did not want, then even if it does not go your way, and even if you are hurt, you retain a level of dignity which is healing. If you do not, you are, as it were, fucked.

Blaming the victim, shaming him or her, is society’s way of piling shit onto more shit. Calling someone a victim who is not is the same as denying that they are one.  In either case the result is the same: it means that they have been effectively silenced. And that is where the bad work begins.

On my birthday not too long ago I was treated to an extravagant night at the Drake hotel in Chicago. I was not prepared for the amount of paraphernalia my date brought with him;

Two bottles each of champagne, red, and white wine

Fresh berries & chocolates

One brand new five foot length of coated black rope

Tweezers (miniature)

A small mirror with a kickstand

Assorted Q Tips, cotton balls, etc.

Fresh cigars, shirts, and other stuff he needed

I was astonished. I’m a divorced mother of two, and I’ve been on my own since I was seventeen. I am not a prude. Not much surprises me. And contrary to what one might expect from my having had my first experience at age five, I really, really like sex. Still, it wasn’t the first time I’d set up shop in this particular sexual flea market. Reasons abound. For acceptance, or power, or out of pity for someone. In exchange for a place to live, or for a whole life. Out of boredom, or loneliness. For all these reasons, and just because I could, I have laid it all out.

He had been sexually deprived, he told me. His wife, overweight, neurotic, and bored with him, refused to let him see her naked. He needed to see. He showed me his scarred, uncircumsized penis. The scars were from years of masturbating alone, with a pint of ice cream by his side. I was already in, but I wondered why we had to go this route. I’d just gotten off another, similar track, and now I found myself doing it again. Visiting sex shops. Tied up with rope. Then more regular fare for a few years, and finally, a break up.

Nothing I did, or agreed to do, could penetrate that lonely place of his. My lonely place was of no interest to him. I’m not even sure I have one. His eyes said to me, and to everyone, that his was not accessible. If asked outright why this was so, he would smirk and prevaricate. Or cry. “I’m broken,” he would say. The anger that knows no bounds unleashed itself upon him, but it was too late. I’d already said yes, what more was there to say?

Not much. Except this. I’m pretty close to saying yes again. I want to, but something in me recoils. I know what’s out there, and it’s become tiresome, like a restaurant that can never change its menu. It makes me better understand the reasoning behind seeking out the young. Can it be different? Have they been able to avoid the shame and disgust associated with sex so that they can have it without producing a length of rope? Or is there just a whole other segment of the population that is not damaged in this way? I hope so.

Confessions of a Cockblocker

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

by Sheila McMullin

Science reasons we came from glass. Water vapor trapped in glass, encapsulated in an asteroid leaving Mars crashing into Earth. Water stimulating growth on Earth. We may have come from Mars, not just men, all of us. Earth is defined as a water-based planet needing the sun, needing the water more. To be living means we traveled a long way to be prosperous. I think of feminism like water, and water like camaraderie. Love is said to connect us all… water seems more tangible, physical, material, transformative; engaging all our senses, is divine, spiritual, cleansing, life-giving. Water is a currency. Water unites, and it is ravaged.

::

I wanted to let my hair shine weightless in the pool. Knowing only some of my hair was there. Knowing if I wanted my hair to grow back, I would receive scores of cortisone injections into my skull. This procedure doesn’t work for everyone. Knowing my fret over losing my hair was deemed cosmetic and uncovered by insurance. Knowing losing one’s hair is only a side effect of alopecia. The root of the problem was more emotional, more stress-related. Perhaps under the care of a therapist to work on relaxation strategies I could realign my immune system without the injections. Knowing long-term emotional health care is also cosmetic and uncovered. I was in high school.

It was there in the water where no one could really see me; I fell in love with floating. Being outside, with the sun on my skin, holding my breath, and concentrating on sitting on the bottom in a weightless arena. I would do anything to keep close to water.

::

1946: At the moment the light traveled and hit their eyes, the far away sky heard compliments. Then the far away sky heard the explosive sound, which had already seen bulldoze the palm trees. Sound came as a shock wave on the ocean top, and knocked like a thud against the wooden chests of all the observing soldiers. Huge fire and ocean dirt rolled up into the skies.

It was said: it reminded me of the setting sun, it was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen, greatest thing I had ever seen.

::

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government chose to experiment with the atomic bomb over the water. Their location: the Bikini Atoll.

The U.S. government employed military duty to explore the offensive or defensive power of this weapon. A Harnessing of the Basic Power of the Universe, it was called. Under the guise of the benefit of mankind.

::

Operation Crossroads at Bikini.

While the American military explained to the Bikinians they would have to leave Bikini (so the bomb could be dropped on their home in front of cameras as God’s calling), Bikinians were unaware what the camera was. A Native Bikinian recorded in the 1988 documentary Radio Bikini is quoted to this effect.

Cut to stock footage: Take after take of admiral explaining the dropping of the bomb in multiple inflections in front of a quiet, sitting Bikini audience.

The Bikinians were boarded to sail to the island, Rongerik, an uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands. Leaving their home, they watched the military burn everything into the sand.

::

“One of the most important, and one of the most dramatic elements concerned with the dropping of the bomb is the photographic aspect,” says Operation Crossroads Military Personnel.

As human beings in an inter-connected global economy we focus on sight. What are others doing and how does it compare to what we are doing? We need this coverage to keep progressive. So often our coverage fails to awaken us to an underlying damage being done.

::

It was awesome glory being a spectator in this waterscape. But future be told, no one was just a spectator at Bikini. Especially those merely 20 miles away.

“Do as you’re told and nothing bad will happen to anyone,” says Operation Crossroads Enlisted Soldier, John Smitherman. None of the soldiers had any real knowledge of radioactivity—a word not yet in common vernacular. Before Veteran Smitherman died in the late-80s, he suffered from incredibly swollen ligaments and amputated legs. He died of cancer.

Marie Curie had coined the term radioactive barely 50 years earlier.

The displaced Bikinians still in harm’s way, still unable to go home, suffer today from disproportionately high rates of cancer and diabetes. More data and testimonials can also be found at Unnatural Causes.

::

Cut to stock footage: Huge fires pirouette into the sky. Able detonates, makes fish into birds obliterating every test dummy battleship in the bomb’s radius.

To my knowledge, only slight reparations have been given to Marshallese Islanders and Operation Crossroads veterans.

::

A slow war of pollution at levels never before imagined entered into the waterscape.

Within ten hours of detonation soldiers were at ground zero. They continued to wash, drink, and bathe in the water their ships and islands floated in.

The animals aboard the test dummy military ships were ravaged by the radiation. The animals’ skin was tested for causal reactions to radiation—as if not enough evidence was found in Japan.

::

Waterscape: Within two months of their displacement, the Bikinians were starving on their new island, Rongerik, with inadequate food and water supplies. Military escorts visited to display pictures of the bomb exploding over their home. Baffled by what they were really seeing and reasons as to why they could not go home, a U.S. soldier is over heard saying: “At least they admit it.” The Bikinians he means… to not knowing exactly what is that atom bomb?

Rongerik was an already uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands, so why bomb Bikini? If a bomb needed to be dropped, why Bikini?

::

1946: The term bikini for the swimsuit was coined by Louis Réard, the same year as the nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll. In a design race to create the world’s smallest swimsuit, he found inspiration in the smallest atom creating the most destructive earthly force.

What I am to write, I hate, because it is the saddest thought I’ve ever had. Why did a bomb need to be dropped on Bikini? Because people were there. Cultural constructions demand the need for a human presence, so beginning operations can be valued as important, after which, those people can be ignored.

Réard was not making an anti-war, anti-nuclear testing protest with the naming of his swimsuit. Taking advantage of the already exoticized island body and culture, the built-in fame of the word bikini, and its proximity to water, the bikini swimsuit was born de facto propaganda.

Waterscape: When we talk nonchalantly about our “beach bodies” or “bikini ready” what are we then saying? Bodies devastated by cancer? Homes burnt to the ground? When we get a biniki wax, what are we waxing? Ripping away Earth. To be clear, I wear my two piece because I want the sun on my body. But because I want, cannot mean a forgetting or ignoring of this history. I’d do anything to keep close to water.

Wearing a bikini hasn’t become an act of protest quite yet. I know some wear suits decorated with radioactive symbols, but most of our conversations of the female body in this highly sexualized suit does not focus here. A sexist hyper-active focus on the female waistline displaces the history of Bikini.

And then I wonder: What else is tiny? What else is polluting our water?

::

Plastic is a miracle product providing cheap resources for over 7 billion people. But plastic never decomposes, only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that sea creatures and land animals eat. Or plastic absorbs into our soil and skin, which then affects our hormones and biological composition. General disregard of waste finds its way into our oceans—oceans which are now huge trashcans.

On a readily visible level, sea creatures ingest these molecule-sized plastics and begin the process of self-embalming because they were eating what looked like their natural food source.

Do you know where the plastic things go? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Gyres. A great displacement of our belongings right into the ocean. There is no “throw away,” only a throw into.

I fear plastic on my worst days, and ignore it on every other day. I fear a tasteless, scentless, clear poison in our water. Drink the water and slowly mutate into the immortal Barbies and Kens. Soon, this won’t be a choice, it hasn’t been for our animals.

::

As we become more artificial we lose our love. As our water sources become more polluted, water quality becomes an even higher concern, becomes more valuable, and less people receive access to clean water sources and healthy, prospering environments.

Place is not free of plastic, of radiation, of our use of water. We have a lot to do. Not only do we have to prepare and plan for a sustainable future, reduce our dependence on plastic, re-evaluate our need for massive destructive weapons, we have to be filled with historical knowledge. Knowledge, like water, can fill every gap in us.

In my 13th year I was baptized in the ocean, in the dull waves under a cliff in California. We come from water, inherit water, and I wanted to pay my respects. After my baptism I wore my first bikini.

::

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

Telling Stories

by Lisa Piazza

This is fiction, the writer said, sorting through the papers in front of her. You don’t have to worry about me. Then she dipped her voice deliberately, sounding out each push-pull syllable—each open o and empty i. Half a page in, mid-phrase, she tipped tightly into the rote dispatch of someone else’s scene: someone else’s white dishes, edged in baby blue. Someone else’s salad plates stacked by the sink, someone’s saucers thrown against the wall, shards aimed like arrows at the ankles, flecks of porcelain grazing someone else’s face.

At the table, two writers down, I pictured brown cabinets. Dark lights. Not my mother’s kitchen, not my own. A steep staircase, a hard push; suitcases taken and torn. I pictured harmful arms, tender necks, broken glass; tokens too fragile to last.

This is fiction, we remembered, stunned into silence after her last word—the usual post-reading pause times two.

You don’t have to worry about me.

I was nineteen. And I believed her.

At that time MFA candidates at Mills College were mixed in with undergraduate writing majors, so I was the youngest in the room by far. We met Tuesday evenings around a long seminar table in the Lucie Stern building to read and critique each other’s work. Each week, like a new page in a lift-the-flap book, never knowing what we would find. Revealing, by degrees, what we dared to share.

There was Susan, whose teenage daughter had taken a horse out bareback with some friends and fallen off. She was in a coma now and would be dead by the end of the semester. Early December, Susan read a sparse page describing in stark detail how she had given her daughter permission to die. We knew this was not fiction. She admitted too plainly the mixture of relief and despair of that hospital room, that side-sitting chair, that breathing machine. That exact moment. I expected more feeling—some weight to the words. I didn’t understand then no metaphor could possibly coddle her pain. Any clause would only hold her loss like a futureless child, cradled by commas too far apart.

Mia’s piece, set on a remote Greek island, read like an independence anthem: sentimental boasting about leaving a lover for good. Tossled sheets, warm skin, silent goodbyes. (Images of motorcycles zooming through the hills of Kythnos, overlooking the crystal sea, would lure me to this island the following year during my study abroad. I would find goats, not love. Goats and ripe tomatoes; rocky beaches, empty towns.)

Alison, the other undergraduate at the table, was quiet but confident. She had long blonde hair and peachy skin and wore plain cotton turtlenecks with ankle-length skirts. I guessed she had moved from Utah or Nebraska—some place more chaste than here. She always smiled with her mouth closed so that we could only assume she knew more than she let on—more than she was ever going to share. Her story started with a subtle knock at the door and ended with a bloody stain on the floor. No one expected murder from her.

That year I wrote a short story about a girl in a car, driving the highways at night. Except she wasn’t driving. She never drove. She was always the passenger in her boyfriend’s overhauled sports car. She would stare out his window at all the lights—all the lives—lit up across the Bay or nestled neatly into the East Bay hills. Whole worlds she leaned close to imagine. The story ended with an image of the seashore: a father and daughter collecting shells. There was some kind of final metaphor involving hovering elephants. It made sense at the time. Something about memory—time before time. Easy lines. Simple story, half-thought. I didn’t know the extent of the arc then. It felt like fiction.

You don’t have to worry about me.

Our instructor, Sheila Ballantyne, was patient and generous. She asked questions and allowed for pauses, encouraged without pushing. Twenty years out I can still place myself in her office, nervously watching as she pulled her pencil toward my pages, marking in the margin what worked, cutting into sentences what didn’t. I sat by her desk, too shy to ask questions, too inexperienced to consider myself writer-enough. Too young to see how the purity in fiction can overpass truth, too scared to ask what truth isn’t, in fact, magnified by fiction?

Before Mills, my main experience with critique sessions had been a small dysfunctional committee of my own concoction: part older sister, part neighborhood best friend. Together they processed each story-start, sanctioning the ones that could go on. We sat in a circle on the blue carpet of my bedroom and they wrote “can it” or “yam it”—our codes for no way or keep going on each draft. But they were readers, not writers, and didn’t understand my commitment to characters. Whole paragraphs were laughed at, isolated words tossed between them like a crazy game of four-square, or worse, skimmed briefly then neglected entirely. I don’t know why I showed them anything.

In high school I lucked into Jane Juska as an English and Creative Writing teacher. She tolerated the sentimentality of my lengthy girl-meets-boy stories, typing out page-long letters in response to my portfolio—a simple manila folder filled with my best work. She wanted to know why the girl always needed to be rescued. She prodded me to write from the male perspective. I got it almost right—but I was one of three girls in my family and over-romanticized all things boy. Jane treated all of her students’ pieces with a seriousness that legitimized our efforts in storytelling and verse. She brought in coffee and tea and put on music to mask the conventionality of our suburban public high school classroom; she wanted to give us a café-style experience akin to her Berkeley neighborhood. I sat next to my friend Vrinda and we mostly goofed off all year, pretending to write. Vrinda did manage to produce one poem that year that Ms. Juska admired enough to tout. It was called “Sarah, Sarah Backyard” and had something to do with observation and perception, bugs and blades of grass. It made a crazy kind of sense that earned Vrinda all sorts of esteem in the class. I don’t think she wrote another piece all year, but that poem carried her through. Sometimes one poem is enough to prove a poet.

Now that I lead my own writing workshops for kids, I understand that talk of technique and poetic structure is ancillary to what I can really offer them: the permission to write. They don’t come for answers or wordplay. They come (on a Saturday, no less!) because they have a story or a sound beating against their brain and there is very little room on a Scantron sheet to eke out a verse or develop character motivation. They come wound-up and leave freed, because there is comfort in sitting around with other poets, other perceptive kids who cleave to words the way athletes cling to balls or actors clutch their scripts.

This is how it felt when I first met with Sheila at Mills. I didn’t have to explain my crazy compulsion; she shared that same writers’ madness. It was the closest I had ever come to therapy, with her tasteful display of black and white photographs, abstract postcards tacked to the wall; a desk, a chair, a window, a wanting. Words lined up belly deep, secrets to keep. Each meeting felt like an unveiling—a blessing. Phrases chosen to dedicate the day, stories crafted for the ultimate audience.

Would I turn to her now? (Though she is many years dead from an obscure neurological disease.) My current therapist, a marriage counselor who expects much more than fiction from me, wears similar sweaters but heavier make-up. She doesn’t bother with my syntax, but she sometimes talks about helping me construct a “new narrative.”

I can only bring up the old stories.

And not mine either.

I tell her I’m teaching Gatsby to my high school juniors again and she nods. I tell her this time through I am stuck on Daisy Buchanan. I say, some years, when I read her, I can’t stand that vapid trill. But some years, I get caught up in the billowing whiteness of her sitting room—in the heat of her afternoon, the romance of her loss. Everyone loves Jay the first time around, I tell her, the tragedy of his dream gone wrong. But for Fitzgerald, Daisy is only an easy target. And I don’t want to end up like her. The stasis of her situation. The meanness of her marriage. A woman pale enough to be called wan.

How bad is it? My therapist asked at the start of our first session, but today she is casually alarmed by my literary intensity. I have escorted extra characters into the room, introduced a new thread she can’t weave into her version of my life.

“That’s fiction.” She chides, as though the distinction is clear. Invention versus truth. Falsehood, deceit, lies. Not fact.

“That’s only fiction,” she says again and I think about the way my mind slices time sideways, intersecting narratives, pausing one reality to play another. How sometimes I sit staring at both sides of the same mirror. And maybe I am only telling stories here.

Telling Stories

On Westernness & Stories

by Amy Pajewski

I am an alien in a strange and beautiful landscape. I’d been west before on a cross-country road trip as a kid, but I never truly experienced it. After college and graduate school, I landed in the Texas Panhandle—a place of extremes, wicked weather, and where the stars touch the Earth. I live in a poem. Here I am, an Easterner, looking for a way to start a new life—this is the old western myth, and I yearned for it.

My experiences in nature have always felt like a kind of dream-time, a place where I feel most fully human; a phenomenon that occupies a space neither within the body or mind, but in the space between rocks. Feeling alien is nothing new: I always felt like I had more in common with deer and sugar maples than my parents. My first taste of wildness came as an East Coast backyard in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It was about the size of two city blocks wide and latticed with a chicken-wire fence. The dog could flatten himself just so to squeeze through, and I remember digging, hoping to find some new place or some new rock, maybe quartz or limestone. I scrambled around that yard and was always, always sneaking away to Clyde’s Woods to share some fresh honeysuckle with my neighbor-friend. I think that without the foundation of these first stories, these little moments, I couldn’t possibly begin to sow a new story for myself out west—a place that took me in and held tight.

*

The first thing I noticed here in the Palisades is wind. It blows and whips through Palo Duro Canyon, swirls along the red walls, draws dust from hundreds of miles away, and forms halos around the sun. I often imagine how the houses, sun-blasted, receive the dust, fusing to siding—juniper bending, roots grasping dry earth with eagerness. In the semiarid landscape, wind rarely brings rain. Since I moved almost a year ago, my town in the high plains, sitting at 3,543 feer received less than seven inches of moisture. Sometimes, facing east, I can see shelf clouds forming over Oklahoma, and I’m told, if you don’t like the weather, wait three minutes and it’ll change.

*

Just as seasons shift, land-use is in constant flux. As I travel to small Panhandle towns, looking for places to photograph, history to preserve, I find vestiges of the past—oil tanks and gashes in the earth replaced with slick gas lines and lease agreements littering fences. Feedlot cattle lazily meander around the pipes and glance curiously at my lens. Behind the barbed wire on other ranches, you might find Alpine and Nubian ibex, red stag, or even zebra—suited executives visit for the chance to kill something wild, bag a trophy for the wall. But, if you’re lucky, you might also find a rogue pronghorn, a true westerner, behind the wire, gazing through ancient, amber eyes.

Once a year, some of these same ranch owners are invited to the state park that I consider my second home, to hunt the aoudad sheep. These outsiders, this invasive African species, inhabit the same land as me and the mule deer. For about three months, these beautiful sheep eluded me, perfectly camouflaged in the backdrop of canyon-lands, as if native. One late morning while hiking with friends, we traveled to the south side of Palo Duro looking for signs of native settlement—rock art, grind holes, flint. Facing west, we scaled the ridge just when the earth began vibrating. I held my breath, waiting; I could feel the aoudad’s panic and electricity, and could smell their ripeness. As they approached, the prickly pear and sage quaked, dancing with anticipation. Dust rose in a wall and, as if inside a tornado, time slowed, the air cleared. I stood 20 yards away from the stampede and was startled by their beauty. Both male and female, adorned with curled horns, shaggy fur flowing, ran together in a herd of about 12 and skipped up the walls of the canyon, balancing on gaunt, sturdy hooves. I learned they were brought over to be hunted and escaped the fencing expertly only to forge a place of their own in the landscape. I felt home.

I know that as long as I never stop defending beauty, I’ll be able to watch the cottonwoods turn in fall and hike snow-covered canyons in winter. Everyday, this place up here on the caprock teaches me that the world exists under our skins, in our stories. My story of the West is only just beginning, but I’ve started sowing, growing roots, and grasping tight. The future of the West rests on the shoulders of the people and wildlife inhabiting this wild land. Our stories, my stories, provide the foundation, spin the web, hold the dust down.

On Westernness & Stories

Diving In, Elbow-Deep

by Heather Jurva

I lay on the sofa in the living room of the 1970s-era trailer, under a multicolored afghan my grandma crocheted out of scratchy acrylic yarn. I refused to sleep in my bedroom alone – the tin-can walls offered little separation from the Outside. The snuffling sounds without, the high-pitched adults’ voices within, lent themselves to a vulnerable fear, the anxious wonder unique to 8-year-old girls.

I watched wide-eyed as my dad nailed boards across the front door. A curious grizzly bear was trying to get in, and though the two-by-fours wouldn’t stop him, they would at least give us the time we needed to escape if he tried to make his way in.

I slept soundly, and the bear never breached the door. But the next morning – and many other mornings, scattered across my memory – we called the local Bear Guy before we sprinted to the car. “Problem bears” were tagged with tracking devices, and it was easy to pinpoint their whereabouts before we left for school.

Fear and anxiety and practicality and absolute respectful awe: This is what I know of the natural world. I grew up in a trailer in the woods in rural Montana. I knew nothing else, and nature was first practical and then— only when we knew our lives and homes were safe— it waxed spiritual.

My family called to monitor the location of grizzly bears before carrying on toward the local high school as if nothing happened. We banged pots and pans together to scare the moose standing, once again, between my family and the car. In return, we offered up hay and corn and summer apples to the deer and elk in the winter months.

My brother and I fished in the creek, pulling in enough brook trout to fry for dinner. I let my dad slide the knife into their smooth, white, shiny bellies before running my thumb through the ridges of their insides, examining the contents of their stomachs and slipping their guts into a plastic bag.

This, to me, was the natural world. Nature was gritty, irritating, inconvenient and delicious.

The day came, however, when I realized that Outsiders – strangers, second cousins and Californians – found our lifestyle strange. They became tourists into a life that was all I had known, and for that, I resented them. I didn’t want to be watched, I didn’t want their curious ears. I didn’t want to be admired – and along the way, I learned to expect admiration for my upbringing. I was proud, but I wanted to be left alone in a way that still showered praised upon my unwilling ears.

That dichotomy – the intersection between nature as life and capital-N-Nature as art – infiltrates our social conversations and shapes our natural resource dialogue. We hold fancy fundraisers and drink sparkling cocktails for the benefit of Wilderness; we paint pictures of land and trees and bears; we rally for the political protection of untainted wild lands. Nature is beautiful, symbolic, universally esoteric.

Nature is also a pain in the ass.

It’s a juxtaposition that has formed not only our most important social and political conversations, but also one that has molded me into a very special kind of woman and writer. I am constantly anxious about the meaning of practical things. What is this corkscrew worth, I ask myself? And this fern! Why do I keep a fern in my living room?! And these shoes! Enough of these shoes!

Once, not too long ago, I pulled on a plastic glove, tugged it all the way up to my shoulder. An ewe was giving birth, and it was to be my first involvement in the liminal space of birth.

And as I try to explain it, I realize that I can’t really explain it any more than I can explain the value of a corkscrew or a potted fern or the boards across the door of my trailer house. I want to describe the sensation of her body giving way in front of my fingers, her pulse running counterpoint to mine, the warmth and safety and female unity. I want to somehow convey the way I felt when I realized, elbows deep in afterbirth, that the little lump between my fingers was a hoof, and the knobbly bit was a knuckle and the biggest lump was the tiny head of a lamb. I want to explain the connection, the wondering if this will happen to me one day too – if I will expand to accommodate another small set of bones and muscles and skin and teeth, reduced to the physical components of myself.

But I can’t. But know that if I could, you would know where Nature really lives.

Diving In, Elbow-Deep

Jove’s Fierce Girl

by Jeneva Stone

As a graduate student, the playwright Aphra Behn’s outrage caught my attention, generating a dissertation on gender and writing identity in 17th century England:

All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well: If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me. (1687)

In the wake of questions posed by VIDA’s “The Count,” Behn’s challenge to the male establishment still echoes. Now, recent commentary by Jennifer Weiner and Deborah Copaken Kogan (and others) analyze pernicious sexism in the publishing industry. The two describe marketing strategies using cover art as a form of gender straight-jacketing, whether designed to hyper-sexualize a book by a female author to “appeal” to male readers, or hyper-feminize another to “appeal” to female readers. Kogan wants her books to appeal to both male and female readers—Weiner is frustrated that men refuse to read books marketed as chick-lit. Both observe that the marketing of male authors doesn’t involve such blatant stereotyping. Male writers, the emerging consensus suggests, are marketed as androgynes, with a “natural” appeal to both genders.

Incidentally, Behn positions herself as an androgyne, her conceptual embodiment as a writer somewhat at odds with aspects of 20th century feminist theory. Behn doesn’t couch her writing body within the childbirth metaphor (writing a book is like having a baby), and she doesn’t say she lacks or wants a phallus. She says she has one, her quill.

In the 1970s, feminist theorists from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar to Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray asserted the generative womb and childbirth as conceptual sources of female creativity, ideas still percolating through the work of many contemporary writers. In their study of 19th century writers, Gilbert and Gubar ask, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”

So why does Aphra Behn use the image of the phallic pen, rather than childbirth, to embody her writing self? The short answer is that complex gendered associations about writing and the reproductive body go back well before the 19th century, with negative connotations clustered around the female, concepts still deeply entrenched in Western cultural consciousness. In my dissertation, I analyzed commendatory poetry (a precursor to dust jacket blurbs) and prefaces—early modern marketing strategies. Among my findings, the closer a metaphor describing literary productivity is to the biological female body, the more negative. For example, male writers expressing modesty often refer to past efforts (or worry that their current effort) is an “abortive” or “deformed” birth, or analogize the difficulty of labor to the stress of producing texts, as does Thomas Dekker (1607), “What a number of throwes do we endure eare we be delivered?” These find a modern day complement in David Foster Wallace, “The damaged-infant trope is perfect because it captures the mix of repulsion and love the fiction writer feels for something he’s working on.”

In contrast, tropes that figure the phallus bear positive connotations, such as this in praise of Ben Jonson, “from whose full strong quill, / Each line did like a Diamond drop distill, / Though hard, yet cleare” (1638), and this on John Donne’s work, “How will they, with sharper eyes / The Fore-skinne of thy phansie circumcise?” (1633).

Yet more complex figures exist in which men re-write the generative power of the female as their own. A conceit I dubbed the “phallic phansie” is elaborated upon ad infinitum during the period, a mash-up of commonplace gendered analogies of the early modern era: the fancy (imagination) with the generative womb, the imagination with a treasure-house, the “ore” of mining with a pun on “whore,” and the testicles and semen to a purse holding coins. Although gender-bending, these conceits have a whiff of modern-day slut-shaming. For example, William Cartwright says of Jonson’s translations, “thus doth the stampe and face / Make that the Kings, that’s ravisht from the mine: / In others then ‘tis oare, in thee ‘tis coine.” And Arthur Wilson writes of Donne:

All minerals (that Earths full wombe doth hold

Promiscuously) thou couldst convert to gold,

And with thy flaming raptures so refine,

That it was much more pure than in the Mine.

Through this trope, the raw material of creativity, ore from the womb-like mine, converts to the pure “coin” of male expression: “Thou hast redeem’d, and open’d Us a Mine / Of rich and pregnant phansie, drawne a line / Of masculine expression” (Thomas Carew on Donne).

These metaphors were predicated on a stylistic argument: as the metaphysical poets emerged in the 17th century, their proponents praised their “masculine qualities,” deriding other styles as feminine. Jonson’s style fell between the two camps, and he critiques some who “would not have it run without rubs, as if that style were more strong and manly, that struck the ear with a kind of unevenness . . . Others there are, that have no composition at all; but a kind of tuning and rhyming fall . . . Women’s poets they are called” (1640). Today, similar contempt is directed at “mommybloggers.” Thomas Sprat also critiques “feminine” style (1667):

But these Admirers of gentleness without sinews should know that different Arguments must have different Colours of Speech: that there is a kind of variety of Sexes in Poetry as well as in Mankind: that as the peculiar excellence of the Feminine Kind is smoothnesse and beauty, so strength is the chief praise of the Masculine.

While gender complexities may be analyzed through multiple theoretical frames, keep in mind that the job of the commendatory poet was to promote the book. In 17th century England, low literacy rates meant that most readers were men. Thus, Cartwright takes pains to show that Jonson’s verse, though “feminine” or smooth, is also virile:

Stout beauty is thy grace: Sterne pleasures do

Present delights, but mingle horrours too:

Thy Muse doth thus like Joves fierce girle appeare,

With a fair hand, but grasping of a Speare.

Jonson, Cartwright says, has the stuff to appeal to a discerning male audience. He’s an androgyne.

As women like Behn and the poet Katherine Phillips find audiences, their commenders must navigate a figurative landscape in which wombs connote literary inadequacy and failure, while phalluses connote excellence. Unsurprisingly, commenders of female writing did not use the womb as an unqualified figure of praise. They emphasized the “purity” of these writings (re: ore/whore puns), connected the work figuratively with that of male relatives and friends, and emphasized androgyny.

This last strategy most interests me today. Both Behn and the poet Katherine Philips were praised by male and female commendatory poets alike for their works’ gender-blended qualities. Of Philips, Abraham Cowley says, “Both improv’d Sexes eminently meet; / They are than Man more strong, and more than Woman sweet” (1667). Of Behn, “Ephelia” writes,

as your Inchanting Quill

Commanded Love, or Anger at your Will:

As in your Self, so in your Verses meet,

A rare connection of Strong and Sweet.” (1679)

“Philo-Philippa” says of Philips, “thy more than masculine Pen hath rear’d / Our Sex.”

We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the marketing of Behn and Philips as a knuckling under to male hegemony. They were among the most successful female writers of a period during which men were the primary audience for books, yet female literacy rates rose significantly. Today, the situation is reversed: women purchase more books than men. Yet publishers seem to underestimate female readers, often replicating heterosexist gender stereotypes that risk alienating both men and women. For example, I am loath to purchase books with too many flowers on the cover or other soft-focus imagery, indicators that the publisher thinks I’m an airhead.

I applaud efforts to reclaim “female” creativity, but why not also claim our “masculine” side as we market our books? For centuries, men have seized the androgyne and adapted the generative power of the female to their own promotional purposes. But gender is a construct, a chimera—why should we be straight-jacketed by it? As the critic Joan Scott wrote, we should “treat the opposition between male and female as problematic rather than known.”

“Author” derives from “authority,” from the gender-male-linked attribute of assertiveness. Yet gender is not “natural”—as Philo-Philippa noted, “Nature to Females freely doth impart / That, which the Males usurp, a stout, bold heart.” Why not claim Minerva—gestated in the brain—why not be Jove’s fierce girl?

Jove’s Fierce Girl

Other Mothers

by Lucy Wang

Mother’s Day is sacred, and so are the rituals. There’s no denying the importance of Mothers. The malls are crowded with shoppers in search of the perfect card to accompany the perfect gift. Restaurants are booked. Flowers sent. Circuits jammed.    Mothers are everywhere, beaming, dressed in their Sunday best. It’s their day. The day we honor all Mothers for who they are, and for their unconditional love and support without which we would most definitely be losers.

And most certainly I am on Mother’s Day. The Biggest Loser.

The day I wish I had a mother who loved me.

A mother who would admit she was my mother.

That’s right.  Contrary to the lies she spreads, my mother’s alive and kicking. Living in New South Wales.  Married to a famous Australian painter. Mothering twin daughters she adopted from my Uncle and Uncle’s Wife who did not want baby girls.

My parents used to beat the crap out of us, and out of each other. One day my mother realized she could leave. Save herself. This was America.

Even though her abandonment triggered what I call the “Dark Ages,” I was sure she’d be back. No other scenario made sense. Sure, mothers abandon children at birth because they cannot afford to raise them. Mothers divorce Fathers. But when do mothers give up on loving teenage sons and daughters? Never. Illogical. At fifteen, I could not imagine a motherless future.

I was twenty when I set foot Down Under. My brother and I looked forward to spending our summer vacation in Australia, reunited with our mother and meeting her husband. That she lived in Gerringong, a small seaside town two hours south of Sydney, far away from most tourist attractions, did not dampen our enthusiasm. We were finally going to have a mother!

Or, so we thought.

When anyone asked, “Who are these two?  Where are these two from?”

My mother always responded, “Friends from Ohio.”

“Friends?” Who did Mother think she was kidding?  “How many friends stay the entire summer? Don’t we look rather young?”

“My past is nobody’s business.” She explained that Gerringong was a small town, and that folks might not buy John’s art any more if they knew his wife was previously married with two grown children. Australians were far more Victorian than folks in Ohio.  In fact, Gerringong derives its name from the Aboriginal word for “fearful place.”

Mother bribed us with a series exciting excursions: Manly Island, Blue Mountains, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne, Canberra.

My brother wanted his dignity.

“If we leave now, we’ll never have a mother.  It’s over.  If we stay, we might have a mother later?”  Like Icarus, I was flying towards the sun.

Terrible to admit even now, but back then, I wanted a mother more than I wanted my dignity. We stayed that summer. Stayed friends from Ohio.

Years later, I was finally making some money on Wall Street, paying off those student loans, and enjoying life when my mother calls me in the middle of the night to say she’s having marital problems. Can she live with me? I can’t believe it, but the first word out of my mouth is yes. We lived together in my 450 square foot Gramercy Park studio for one hot summer month, sharing the same bed.  When my brother visited, Mother joked we were sleeping refugee style.

I didn’t mind being cramped. For thirty days, I am happy, she is my mother, and that is how I introduced her to my world. I treated her to many fine restaurants and Broadway shows, including M. Butterfly where we are seated right in front of Jackie Onassis. When my mother shakes hands with Jackie O, her hero, I think finally I have her, she will be my mother for the rest of my life.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The next time I visited Mother, the twin girls she adopted from my Uncle were flesh and blood, while my husband and I were “friends from America.”

No one believes that such an “Other Mother” exists. Incredulous! Impossible!  My in-laws were dying to meet this woman who can abandon two grown children. They are too curious, and who can blame them if some small part of them wonders if something, in fact, is seriously wrong with my brother and me. I’ve seen it in other people’s faces. I’ve seen it in mine.

So when Mother invited us to John’s art exhibit at the Bank of Ireland, we go. Opening night, the bank was teeming with Dublin’s glitterati, and yet, we stood out. One reporter stuck a microphone into my mother’s face and asked the obvious. “I notice a family resemblance. Are you family?”

Mother did not miss a beat: “These people are John’s groupies from the U.S.”

Groupies from the U.S. We all felt like total idiots; we thought deep down inside, my mother loved us.

When you’re loved, people say you can handle anything. Including heartbreak. And Other Mothers.

Conversely, when you’re not loved, nothing.

I have survived on the kindness of Other Mothers.

The CEO who nominated me for the Board of Directors of a consulting firm specializing in organizational behavior and development, and upon discovering I was 16, instead of firing me, told me that history is full of luminous stars who refused to act their age. The Jewish godmother up the street who kept close touch, sent care packages when I was at college, and kept a scrapbook of my press clippings. A high school English teacher who insisted, Icarus beats Babbitt any day and still sends me books to read. An English Honors professor who knew I was a writer long before I knew, and lobbied the University President to keep me enrolled when my father refused tuition. The artistic director who plucked my script from the slush pile and nominated it for an award from the Kennedy Center.

There are so many men and women to thank, and some may even be surprised by how much their past acts of kindness affected me.

At times, it still surprises me, I think because this has been the hardest lesson of all, to be kinder to oneself. My self. To be my own Other Mother. Growing up with toxic parents and their hurtful legacy, it’s so easy, almost second nature, to beat yourself up, deem yourself unworthy and unwanted, to cave into darkness.  Every Mother’s Day, I just wanted to die. Fortunately, becoming a writer taught me how to be my own Mother.  The transformation evolved out of necessity. When you give birth to a new idea, you must fiercely protect and love that voice and vision as you would a newborn. Swaddle it with care. Keep it warm, close, fed.  Nurture it with unconditional love. Withhold judgment. Dismiss the bullies who insist you are delusional, headed for wrack and ruin. Yes, first drafts are often rough and lacking, and the road to fame and fortune precarious and formidable, but we can’t get anywhere unless we are our Own Other Mothers.

When flooded with rejections and doubt, we need to step outside our works-in-progress and embody our Other Mother. Is this how you’d speak to your child from birth?   Is this how a child grows into a fully developed individual?  You’re no good, a mess, no one’s interested, as is there are too many children in the world today, now go back to the womb, or wherever else you came from. No. You know what to do.  Mothers know best.  Well, not mine. But I’m convinced the best writers listen to, and foster their voice, their vision, and their Other Mother.

Other Mothers