In the middle of September, you are in the backyard on your knees. You are not praying, but perhaps you should be. Bended knees can lift up, bended knees can kill.
The world, heavy with sorrow; you persist.
Using your gloved hand, you dig out still-green clover and dandelions where they encroach on your garden. Yet, these have no lesser claim to the earth than the marigolds, squash, and beets.
Your grandmother pickled beets on the North Dakota plains. Those ruby circles were heaped in an unwelcome pile on your dinner plate. But all things, even taste buds, evolve. Now beets taste like the dark soil of memory. Their earthy flavor roots you to a lineage come and gone.
You turn the soil over, awakening the freshness of tepid air after a rain, uncovering thick, long earthworms in the clumps of rich earth. Earthworms have not eyes, but light receptors, alerting them to darkness and light.
Whenever you encounter an earthworm trapped in the center of a concrete sidewalk in the morning sun, dried out but still wriggling, you use a foraged stick to gently lift the struggling worm to a dew-covered patch of grass.
You know the aching pull of home, the pain of displacement, however brief. Is this still my country, you ask?
Like muddied worms, your vision is impaired. Perhaps by clouds. Perhaps by the hazy smoke of fires out West reaching your landlocked Midwestern town. This year has seemed a tunnel with no end. You imagine growing your own receptors of light to lead you through.
Here on your knees in the garden, you tap into a small, nascent shift toward the sacred interconnectedness of all things; you reach for that ancient circle of belonging.
You are made of clay and love and delight. Remember this. Scooping handfuls of dirt, you fortify your soul for the tasks awaiting you in the future, where you will slowly wind your way, where you will—upon arriving—bend your knees in prayer.
About the Writer: Heidi Fettig Parton received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University in 2017. Her writing can be found in many publications, including Assay Journal, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus. More at www.heidifettigparton.com.
Every summer, Bay Path University’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction writing offers a weeklong Writing Seminar based in Dingle, a town nestled on the Atlantic coast on the western shore of County Kerry, Ireland. Each day throughout the week, Seminar Facilitator Suzanne Strempek Shea gives participants a prompt to encourage writers to investigate new ideas and topics in their writing. During August 2020, we’ll publish our Emerald Blogs to showcase the diverse work developed from responses to Suzanne’s prompts.
From Suzanne Strempek Shea
Several of the workshops in our annual Summer Writing Seminar workshops are generative, and Deirdre Mahoney made the most of the opportunity to create in a 2018 workshop with Dinty W. Moore titled “Literary Nonfiction: The Truth, Artfully Arranged” during her second time with us in Dingle. Daily prompts in the workshop focused on detail, character, voice, and other key craft elements, but Deirdre doesn’t know the exact one that sparked this honest and artful essay. All of its readers can be grateful for her candor and for the strength it took to retrieve these moments so keenly.
What It’s Like
by Deirdre Mahoney
He hovers over the Keurig machine trying to make a teabag produce coffee.
Is he brushing his teeth these days? No toothbrush in either bathroom or by the utility sink in the basement. Putting folded clothes away, I discover his plastic toiletry case poking out from under a pile of hand-knitted socks in the top drawer of the dresser. It contains five or six toothbrushes, all seemingly new and recently opened. Does he un-package a new one each time he brushes his teeth? When did that start? Why haven’t I noticed?
The phone rings less than three feet from where he sits with his eyes closed. He doesn’t flinch. A diminished sense of smell was one of the earliest symptoms; that occurred well before memories began to recede. Recently, I’ve noticed that items within eyesight don’t always register. He doesn’t see the carton of milk on the counter, his shaving cream on the shelf, the TV remote in the basket I ask him to hand to me when it’s time for Jeopardy! Surely the phone’s jarring ring should elicit a response. Does the ringing not register? Is he confused about what to do? Is this what lack of motivation—a common behavior listed in the literature—looks like?
Although he no longer reads them, I still carefully choose fly-fishing books for holidays, birthdays, and no-particular-reason gifts. It’s a three-decade habit.
I arrive home from campus on a chilly April evening to find him sitting in the dark wearing polarized sunglasses to watch the evening news. I kiss him on the forehead and scan the kitchen counter. Taking two stairs at a time, I head to our bedroom and check the bedside table. No luck. I dash back downstairs and recheck the living room before heading to the basement to scout the folding table where he’s been arranging stones he discovered on beaches in Leland and Northport, Michigan. Again, no luck. “If I were his eyeglasses,” I ask myself, “where would I be?”
The answer: anywhere.
I trail up to bed late and find him asleep in the Levis, flannel button-down, wool pull-over sweater, and striped socks he wore all day. And the day before. I pop the tank out of his CPAP machine, fill it with distilled water, and adjust the finicky face mask, repositioning the Velcro closures around his ears. I tap the start button and crawl in next to him, but before I turn off the bedside lamp, I pass my hand over his face to feel his breath.
He’s taking the dogs for a quick walk, he announces. Faithful friends Zelda and Phaedrus fixate on his every move, then agitate when he retrieves a single leash and walks alone out the back door toward their regular route.
As we drive 30 miles from Traverse City to Northport, he’s content and quiet until we round a curve and the view of Lake Michigan is no longer obscured. He points to a mirage on the water, a number of illusory islands in the distance. “An archipelago,” he offers.
“Do you think they’re real, the islands?” I ask, downplaying my surprise at his use of archipelago, a specialized term, the kind of word once a natural part of his lexicon.
“Well, you see them too. There’s your answer,” he says.
After we return home, I mention his previous reference to an archipelago. He has no idea what I’m talking about. I coach him. I reference our drive earlier in the day, mention him pointing to what looked like islands in the bay. I want him to recall the setting. He can’t but he’s amused by the idea of a mirage, an archipelago, by something he noticed earlier and now can’t remember, even with my prompting.
He mows part of our front lawn and part of the neighbor’s. Task complete.
I hear him at the front door chatting with unfamiliar voices and intervene. Should I post a “No Solicitation” notice on the cedar siding? Is it time to stash the checkbook and remove the remaining credit card from his wallet?
It’s Father’s Day 2018, and I have forgotten to pick up a card. Don’t worry, I tell myself. He won’t notice.
He’s antsy for a bike ride, but the sun will set within the hour and the mid-summer sky threatens rain. I suggest putting it off until the following day, hoping that sounds like a casual request. Recently, I’ve seen frustration when I crowd his independence. I’m seeing it again, so I cave. “Maybe keep it close to home, just to Garfield and back,” I say, mentally calculating the 15-minute round trip. When a soft rain begins to fall a half hour later and there’s still no sign of him, I begin to worry. As I consider how the combination of drizzle and dusk might disorient him and how I have enabled this insanity, I move into batshit-crazy-full-on panic.
My rational friend Rachel, who’s visiting for the evening, guides me to her car. While she drives, I scan the streets and alleys. Twenty minutes later we spot him biking toward home from opposite the direction we discussed earlier. It’s clear I can no longer trust his ability to keep with a plan. Rachel and I race home, repark the car, and return to sitting and chatting as if we’ve been doing so all along. Alerting him to my alarm doesn’t make sense. Frayed synapses are the problem here, not staunch willfulness on his part. Best to let him enjoy the evening without upset while I consider options to avert future disasters.
There’s a café at the co-op in my neighborhood where I steal time in the early morning, just me with my thoughts and my laptop. I justify the self-indulgence as self-care, but self-care sometimes dissipates as I observe a couple, regulars, folks like us. The “us” we once were. He orders and pays at the counter, then brings their coffees to the table close to the window where she sits waiting.
“How can I help?” he asks. Brown spots in the yard signal that the grass needs extra water during the summer’s relentless scorching weather. My to-do list is long this day, so I welcome his offer. He listens closely as I point to the backyard and say, “Move the sprinkler a few feet but don’t let the water hit the sidewalk. Keep the water on the grass.” He leaves the room and goes somewhere, not outside.
He still makes our bed each day. I take note of how well, as if his bed-making skills parallel the progression of the disease.
It comes out of nowhere. It always does. The sense of dread. The panic. The future. The when. The what ifs. What if I can’t make it work? What if I have to make unimaginable decisions? What then? What if I get it wrong? What next?
Then I hear the words of our elder attorney—who refers to me as “dear,” and I let him.
“Just put it to bed,” he said the last time I called him with more questions and worries. He said what I needed to hear. It clicked. Just put it to bed. I’ve done what I can to prepare. Time will run its course. The disease is fatal. The progression continues. I can’t control the outcome. None of us can.
Just put it to bed.
About the Writer
Deirdre Mahoney is on the English faculty at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, Michigan. Currently, she is working on a collection of narrative essays based on her experience of living with and caring for her late husband who died from complications of younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Write with us in Dingle next year, July 31 to Aug. 8, 2021. Contact email@example.com for full information.
There is nothing more awe inspiring than the wonders and power of the earth, which grants us the privilege of its nurturing for but a few decades.
This image, like so many taken in the vicinity of Yellowstone Park, is an homage to the earth’s power. Standing in the center of what could be the most powerful dormant volcano on this planet is nothing if not humbling.
Simple in its clear beauty, a burst of boiling water links us to the inner workings of our planet and the universe. This image balances the purity of color and water with the potential destructive forces that lay below us. What appears to be a mere photograph of a little hole in the ground is in fact about the unsuspected forces encompassed within the incredible life-giving and life-altering world we are fortunate to call home.
Secrets of the Deep
About the Photographer: Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review and the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.
I adore a mystery. Now, at 26, I never felt more like one in my life.
My past is in the clear water, and I say thank you each day for the things I thought about at 16, 18, 20, 21.
Mistakes have become memories, some universal heartbreaks, some minimums— But I am no longer hard on myself for them.
I only look back to try and tell me something, to tell you the words that burn inside now: I love you no matter what.
I don’t have to be afraid to look anyone in the eye. Thank you, past me, for staying strong. You kept me alive.
I became beautiful because of you. I won’t let you forget that.
From the Writer: To all my young girls: loving hard is your real power, and patience is everything. One day you will look back and remember all your bravery and boldness, how you went through the floods and flames, and how ready you were for the better things in life. — Jenee Rodriguez
Every fat person will tell you that no one has been there for them like food has. Not my girlfriend, my dog, or even my mom compares to what I feel with food. But there’s loathing in that relationship too. I moan pleasure and pain into each bite I take. Every time I eat, I either say “I love myself” or “I hate myself,” but I always feel both.
In the era of body positivity and PC culture, I have an idea what “healthy society” thinks of fat people, but they’re afraid to say it. They think we’re lazy, excuse-making, energy-depleting whiny asses who are secretly jealous of skinny people. We stuff our faces with frozen pizza and McDonald’s French fries and all things gloriously easy and American. We like to use our tragic pasts and sob stories to excuse our slovenly ways, while taking up space and energy on a quickly dying Earth.
Here’s something worse than healthy society can imagine: what I really put my body through. I am constantly destroying my body. I’ll starve myself the whole day so I can pig out at night, stuffing my stomach until the acid reflux floods up my gullet. I love eating until the feast is over, when I’m bent over, praying for death because my stomach hurts so much, when I’m lying in bed while my girlfriend rubs my swollen tummy in clockwise circles.
But in the age of body positivity, I have to love—no adore—my body through it all. If I don’t, then I’m fat shaming myself. I’ve had friends lie to me. “You are not fat,” they say, “You’re beautiful.” (Hey, fat people, you can be both.) I’ve had friends slap me (hard) when I called myself fat, like it was a bit for a sitcom. When I complain about my thunder-blubber thighs ripping the inseams of my jeans again, those friends bark “shut the fuck up.”
I am jealous that skinny people can walk in a store and find their size in anything. I’m jealous that they can drive through the Walmart parking lot without being called a “fat fuck” by a bunch of guys carrying six packs. I’m jealous that they can ignore that guy in the corner of the classroom who ironically called me (the only fat person in the room) “scary fat” while our class analyzed Hunger by Roxane Gay.
Why should I take verbal beatings from my enemies and my friends?
Since weight is considered a medical concern, many people say I should trust my doctor’s opinion. Surely a medical practitioner who has sworn to “do no harm” must be completely logical and unbiased about this sort of thing, right?
When the doctor enters the examination room, she glances at me, then back to her clipboard, then asks, “Why are you here?”
“I need to have my prescription refilled,” I say. “Metformin.”
“Were you taking that for diabetes?” she says.
Her eyes don’t move from her clipboard.
“No,” I say. “PCOS.”
“Ah,” she says, finally looking up. “I figured you must have something like that.”
I don’t ask because I know the signs of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS: facial hair, rough skin, excess body hair, thinning hair on the head, mood swings, headaches, fatigue. This doctor couldn’t have noticed all of those from a half-second glance. But I must have something to explain my fatness.
The doctor tells me I need to exercise and lose weight as she sticks her hand up my vagina for a pap smear. I can’t help but take it personally when she’s got her whole head up inside my most private, holy area—when I already feel as uncomfortable as she can possibly make me—and she tells me I’m not good enough.
I simply nod every time the doctor says I can lose “the weight,” as if it’s a separate entity I can just leave behind, like it hasn’t consumed my whole life.
I didn’t know I was the biggest person in my kindergarten class until my crush slapped the “fat” insult into my chubby cheeks, like red stamps that said “worth” on one cheek and “less” on the other. I never thought about my weight until then, but after that moment, the glass bubble shattered.
I had appointments with nutritionists, I couldn’t fit in the school uniforms, I couldn’t do the same things my friends did (PE was a nightmare). Middle school and high school were the worst. I never got a date, never got asked to dance (although that’s partly because I’m queer). The whole middle school mocked me for months after I was publicly “rejected” by a boy I didn’t even like because a rumor spread that I did. Apparently, they felt I had to be punished for thinking a fat person could find love.
I still feel inadequate. My girlfriend has to constantly assure me that she finds me physically attractive, though I shouldn’t have to count such validation toward my self-worth. Sometimes, when I masturbate or have sex, I suck in my stomach and pretend I’m skinny just to feel pretty enough, to feel good.
The anti-fat-shaming culture was founded by fat people, most significantly fat Black women, reclaiming pride in their bodies, but now it’s “cool” for skinny PC people to appropriate the movement without upholding its tenets. Society isn’t changing as much as it seems to be on Twitter and Instagram.
I’d like the privacy to explore my own fat-shaming and the damage that has been done to my body without thinner people telling me how I should feel about myself.
About the Writer: SJ Griffin (they/them) is a queer, trans, fat writer and editor based in North Carolina. They have a BA in psychology, BFA in creative writing, and certificate in publishing from UNC-Wilmington. You can find more of their work in Motherwell, Crab Fat Magazine, Semicolon Literary Journal, Mookychick, Marias at Sampaguitas, and more. Find them on Twitter @born2blossom.
Leaning in over the swamp’s edge I’m drawn to an anomaly— intensely dark pulsing water, like an oil spill in the shape of an archipelago; Long Island viewed from 10,000 feet, early morning commuters beginning to stir.
A mass of frog embryos, having just crossed over into life, embrace each other in an inky mass, then break out blindly like bumper cars rhythmically waving spermy tails.
Nearby, rafts of eggs float looking up with dazed black-yoked eyes cast blindly to the heavens.
The mother to this life spill sits by my feet, a Buddha frog in contemplation of her creation, witness to galactic birth.
I’ve been looking down a lot, at floating islands of pale blue flowers, stone snapshots of river flow— I’m starting to see down and up as different versions of themselves. . . but who is watching me? Certainly not the frogs. Birds show little interest, practicing avoidance with both eyes. They think that I can’t fly
After a rain
By Austin Metze
After a rain the world stands in place, sedated by its presence— it’s holy water that falls upon us. There is no other kind.
To a fallen tree
By Austin Metze
What do you miss most about standing tall?
My shadow stretched before me it’s changing lengths from west to east
The shape of limbs I sense but cannot see
My leaves giving sound to the wind
Taking a long slow drink after a summer rain
Is there anything good about lying on the earth?
Yes, returning to my roots
About the Writer: Austin Metze is a poet, essayist, painter, and book designer. His work has been published in Weeklings Literary Journal and Tiny Seed Literary Journal. He has self-published three chapbooks: Crow’s Blood, Hudson Street, and I Tried To Show My Dog The Stars, as well as a book of essays, When Life Calls You Out, It’s Usually Onto A Highway.