Some of My Parts

By Lyndsay Ryor

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Stiff, silent, afraid, I lie on my back beside you as you undress me for the first time. You unfasten the button at my waist, pull down the zipper and slide my jeans down over my pudgy stomach and cellulite-dimpled thighs…

Her thighs look like cottage cheese, it’s disgusting. A woman’s voice cuts into my thoughts. My friend, Sarah, was judging another woman in the YMCA’s locker room. Because women judge as harshly, if not more harshly than men. I think she had a thigh gap. I didn’t go to the gym with her anymore after that.

               …now my carefully-shaven calves and finally my toes, gleaming with the fresh just-for-you pedicure I told myself was just-for-me. My tummy flattening jeans hit the floor…

Those stretch pants make her look like a can of biscuits that busted open at the seams, remarks Jared, the boyfriend of my friend, Jenn. I heard him say this about Steph, the Admin Assistant at the office job we all worked at. I laughed, but I thought I would look about the same in them. So would Jenn, for that matter.          

             …and so does my heart as you reach for my low-cut tank top; the one that clings nicely to my breasts, enhances cleavage, but fits more loosely around my stomach so my fat doesn’t bulge out in rolls…

Just roll her in flour and look for the wet spot, says my cousin, Jon. We were fourteen and he was talking to his creepy friend, Eugene, about the possibility of fucking the morbidly obese girl who lived in the trailer next door.

             …when I sit down. I lift up my back a little to assist, raise my arms above my head like my kids do when I help them undress.  You peel it off and it drops to the floor with my jeans. I arch my back a little as your hands slide around beneath to unclasp the underwire bra that lifts and separates my large, saggy breasts, creating an illusion of buoyancy and cleavage…

Her tits looked like tennis balls stuffed in nasty old stretched-out gym socks, says an entire chorus of men. I have heard that one many times, not referring to my own breasts, but those of some other woman whose tits failed to defy gravity and other laws of nature after pregnancy and nursing and weight gain and loss. Still I felt it.

             You remove the bra, drop it to the floor, and they sprawl out, nipples gravitating in the direction of my armpits. I try not to wince, I fail. You don’t notice or perhaps simply don’t acknowledge my discomfort; you have moved on to my lacy, black boyshort panties, chosen for how they ride up my ass, showing off my nice, round cheeks, but sit high enough to cover my stretchmark-riddled stomach…

It looks like a wrinkled up plastic grocery bag, says a voice from over two decades ago. Shane Granger, this trashy-hot skater guy I was sleeping with, wasn’t talking about me, but about some teen mom, named Regina, whom he slept with before. These are the words I hear when I try to imagine how men see my post-baby stomach.

             …and the horizontal six-inch welt beneath the flab that marks the place from which my second and third child emerged into this world.

It’s called a gunt. This voice is brought to me courtesy of an old friend and lover, Wayne, to describe the flap of extraneous skin that I did not have yet, but do now; a portmanteau of “gut and “cunt” coined by some clever asshole.

             You pull them off so very slowly, gently, and top off the pile of my armor you’ve made on the floor. This is the moment: the lights are on. Full disclosure. I wait for your reaction to my nakedness, watch your face for any number of expressions I have seen before, all variations on the same theme: disappointment and disgust. I want to say something in the way of apology or something funny to break the tension I feel, but my lips won’t move and I am holding my breath. I wonder if you wish you could put my clothes back on, like a rewind where everything moves backwards in double time until we reach the point when you first said you wanted to see me after all these years.

             You see me now. After all these years. You see how two decades have eroded the landscape of my body; replaced the smooth plains with wrinkles and creases and bulges and scars like a relief map of my life story carved into my flesh. 

             What you can’t see is how these years have italicized the script of our lovemaking. Italics to emphasize a narrative that refuses to be ignored. These are just the shallow thoughts, surface thoughts; other peoples’ voices I hear in my head. Friends, family, co-workers, strangers overheard at the gym. These phrases and others play like a cassette tape with auto-flip in my head. The one about the busted can of biscuits made me laugh because it was so apt and colorful a description, but I still hear it blaring in my head over the poppy dressing room elevator music when I try on clothes and get that “muffin top” effect of my fat spilling over the top of jeans that fit tight enough to make my ass look good. I often wish I could just grab a scalpel and excise the offending flab. Literally cut pieces off of myself so I can fit into a pair of jeans made for someone else.

            I still hear this script any time I think about my body, or when I am being undressed for the first time by someone who has fallen for my pretty face, my wit, my intelligence, my sense of humor… but has yet to see me without the smoke and mirrors of my well-chosen wardrobe. I wear dresses cut low in the cleavage, tight to the upper ribcage, but flowy beneath, as if to say look HERE, not here. Jeans with double-button waistbands for extra support to battle rolls of abdominal fat while still fitting tight to my more desirable curves. I wear T-shirts that fit snugly on my breasts, but avoid words across the chest because I hate how much of a joke it is that you can’t read them stretched over my DDs. I wear uncomfortable bras a size too small because the ones made for tits this big are always full coverage and ruin any chance of cleavage. Cleavage and a pretty face are what “allow” me to feel some semblance of physical beauty when I am carrying 50 extra pounds.

Physical shit can almost always be addressed, but a beautiful spirit you can’t manufacture.

             These are the words, your words, that first gave me a little bit of hope when I told you I was “crazy out of shape.” They were only words, typed on the keyboard of your phone into the Facebook messenger application, and of these kinds of words I have long been leery. Men have said many sweet things to me that they didn’t mean in this way because there is no eye contact, no body language to betray the lie. But I believed you, or I wanted to believe that my pretty face and big tits weren’t all you found beautiful about me. At the same time, since I take a hell of a flattering selfie, I wanted you to know that I wasn’t the same wiry hippie chick with bouncy tits you last saw almost two decades ago in Boston.

“Todd wasn’t the first, the last, or even the worst. He’s just the most vivid image, like some poster boy to validate my self-loathing.”

I remember the first time I saw you, at a Phish show in Chicago or Detroit or maybe Pennsylvania. I was walking through some hippie-infested, nitrous balloon-riddled parking garage by myself. I rounded a corner and there you were with your best friend, and we spotted each other at the same time. I just walked right up and introduced myself because you guys looked like two fellas I needed to know, and I guess you felt the same because we hung out the rest of that night and at every venue that tour, the three of us. You were both cool, but you were the finest boy I had ever seen, and I wanted you bad. I guess I almost had you, and it’s funny because we both remember kissing each other only once, but strangely I remembered kissing you in Boston, rolling around high as fuck on dope on some hotel room floor, while you remembered me kissing you at Mardi Gras. You conjured up an anecdote of my inebriated self; stepping right up to help myself to your lips and pushing this guy, Crackhead Dan, over into a trash can when he started talking smack. You don’t remember Boston, and New Orleans only stirs a foggy wisp of a memory for me. It’s like we just missed each other, I guess. You looked for me, you said, after that night, but I was gone. Well, I looked for you, too, but I didn’t find you until you popped up on Facebook almost two decades later and began laying that sweetness on me, all while I dropped subtle hints about how little I thought of myself. I was giving you an out before you were even in. It’s what I do.

             Maybe I underestimated you, but how could I not? I still hate the way I look naked, and that hatred has been reinforced by the men who came before you; the men who always came before me. Like that SoCal douchebag bassist named Todd. Plenty of men have shown disappointment in my body, but Todd is the one who keeps coming back to mind, all the sweet things he said to me when we were getting to know each other superimposed over the sweet things you’ve said to me and when you pull off my tank top, I remember his revulsion as he lifted my t-shirt to cum on my stomach… and promptly pushed it back down and came on my shirt instead. I never saw him or heard from him again after that, but the next day, some bitch posted something on his MySpace page, admonishing him for hooking up with fat chicks, to which he responded, “lol – no shit.” And that was nine years, forty pounds, and two kids ago.

             Todd wasn’t the first, the last, or even the worst. He’s just the most vivid image, like some poster boy to validate my self-loathing. He’s the reason I am searching your face for that deer-in-the-headlights look, but you give me no time to worry about that. You brush my hair away from my forehead, where it’s plastered by static cling, so I feel an electric crackle. Your blue eyes meet my brown ones and you smile, that grin of yours I love, the one that crinkles up the corners of your eyes. I exhale and the tension takes leave of my body. The breath I gulp is fresh and free of italics. I don’t wait for you to act; I pull you down for a kiss.

             You kiss me back. There’s passion in it, as if you are hungry for me, but I feel no urgency, so it seems you wish to devour me slowly. You straddle me, remove your shirt and lean down to kiss me on the forehead. Now each temple. The nose and cheeks and chin. And the throat, God the throat, where you pause for a taste of my pounding pulse, and whether it is fear or desire you taste, I don’t know. Perhaps the two are synonymous in me. You trail kisses across my collarbone and shoulders, and I shiver as the breeze from the open window touches the trail you leave. You find a nipple, kiss it, now my breastbone, now the other nipple, no mind to how far apart they lie. You kiss the beauty mark below my right breast, now down towards my tummy, a kiss for my navel and now, now you begin to kiss the places on my stomach that are puckered with iridescent, white skin, kissing all around my stomach, the places others have neglected, ignored, avoided, and I swear my blood turns to smoke in my veins as you kiss my caesarean scar and look directly into my eyes. Your message is as clear:

             “I see you, all of you, and I want you.”

             It seems like the men in my life only want certain pieces of me. They want the physical parts: tits, ass, mouth, vagina; or they want the emotional parts: understanding, comfort, friendship, loyalty – just not both types at the same time. I’m a salvage yard, where men are free to pick the parts they want and leave the rest. Like, “Hey, that chassis is in great shape, but the entire front end needs to be replaced.” Or, “I really just want those headlights.” And I allow it. I let men come at me like Doctor Fucking Frankenstein building the perfect patchwork pussy. Whether they’re looking for a mouth for their pleasure or a shoulder to cry on or hands to hold them through the heartbreak of some other, more perfect woman, I let them. I don’t know why I do. Because I am lonely, starved for affection? Is it because I hope it will evolve into something more? Or is it because I know it won’t and so then it will hurt just a little less when they leave me for someone with nicer parts?

             You caress my thighs, something I thought was just a romance novel cliché, but no, you run your hands up and down, slowly applying more and more pressure with your thumbs until I move them apart. You continue with the caresses, then they turn into kisses and then your lips and tongue find their way to the tiny center of my pleasure; one part that no one ever seems to want anything to do with unless it’s to stroke his ego. I am usually dead silent during sex, but an “Mmmmmm” escapes my lips, and you look up at me. I see the smile in your eyes and know this isn’t about your ego; my pleasure is yours. We are connected. I feel the tension leave my body all at once; my muscles relax. I can see clearly and I am present in this moment – with you. The pleasure intensifies, becomes almost unbearable. I try to push you away, but you won’t stop until my entire body shakes and erupts with my climax.  

             Never in the history of ever has anyone made this happen without explicit instructions or in less than five minutes, or even fifteen. Your skills are undeniable, but I think it’s also due to the sense of connection I feel with you, allowing me to abandon my insecurities and relax not just physically, but mentally because I believe you. I believe all the sweet words you have typed to me in these few weeks because your eyes, your face, your smile do not belie them. I believe you because you left the lights on, because you don’t look away from or skip the flawed places, because you pull me closer when others have pushed me away, and because you rest your head on my thigh and smile up at me like the cat who just swallowed the canary. I laugh when you ask me if that was good, as if you didn’t know. I run my fingers through your baby-fine hair until the trembling stops.

             When you leave the pillow of my thighs and pull off your boxers, I get ready for the next stage, because surely you’ll want your own satisfaction now, but you just curl up beside me, content to put your arm and leg over me and pull me close and squeeze me tight, and I notice now how very soft your skin is, softer than the underside of my arm, even. Soft hair, soft skin and soft, sweet words in my ear, you soothe me with security, and like Mulder from the X-Files, I want to believe. I want with all of my everything that you, once the cutest boy I had ever seen, that you, whom I never forgot over the course of two decades, that you, the best lover I have ever had, could truly love me. It seems possible, probable, even. As you hold me close, with an erection you seem in no big hurry to appease, my wandering emotions all come home to roost, and I realize that for once I know exactly how I feel.

             I have never been so scared in my life.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Marjorie Herrera Lewis


Since graduating from the Mountainview MFA program, Marjorie Herrera Lewis has gone on to publish her first book, When the Men Were Gone, a World War II historical novel that is also a love letter to Marjorie’s second passion: sports. She agreed to take some time out between the heavy promotion of her new book and her position at Texas Wesleyan University, where she has recently become a member of the coaching staff to its football program, to let me ask her about her book, her background and what life is like after publication.

-W. Leander       


Photo by Shane Bevel

Photo by Shane Bevel

Let’s start at the beginning, I hear that’s a very good place to start. Tell us a little about where you are from. What about your parents? Do you have any siblings?
I am the second of five children, born and raised in Santa Fe NM. My father is a retired dentist and a huge football fan of his alma mater, Northwestern University. My mother is a retired accountant, and a big fan of just about every college football team in the country When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it early on or did that develop later in life?My parents subscribed to two morning daily newspapers, one afternoon daily, and one weekly. I grew up reading newspapers and magazines, and that’s why I chose to be a journalist. Combine that with my love of sports, and it’s no wonder I became a sportswriter. I spent many years writing for The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I’ve also taught journalism for many years at the college and university levels. When I discovered Tyler Wilson’s story, I set out to write a biography. I ended up becoming a novelist only because Tylene’s story was lost to time, and writing a novel became the only avenue for memorializing her story.  

What was the process like writing your novel? How much research was involved?
I spent the first three years researching Tylene’s story. Eventually, I realized the story was lost to time, so I decided to fictionalization the account in order to memorize what she, and at least three other women, I discovered, had done during such a difficult time in our country’s history. Because I had never written fiction, I enrolled in the Mountainview MFA so I could give Tylene’s legacy my best effort. 

What was your path to publication? Was it what you expected?
I am represented by a fantastic New York literary agent, Andrea Somberg. She sold the novel in 14 business days and the movie option rights within two months. The experience was nothing like I had expected. Being new to novel writing, I actually had no expectations, so this was beyond anything I could have imagined. 

So, this must be an exciting time for you. What has life been like since the publication of your book?
I have been on the go. Morrow/HarperCollins has scheduled me for book festivals, book signings, speaking engagements, print, TV, radio, and podcast interviews. It’s been busy and fantastic. 

I love the artwork, the young woman looking out off to the distance. And I know that the story takes place during World War II, but could you go a bit deeper and explain more of what the story is about?
The novel is based on a true story of a woman who coached football in Texas during World War II. It’s a story of perseverance and love. 

You went through the Mountainview MFA program. What advice would you give our current MFA candidates?
My advice is to be passionate about what you write about. Enjoy every writing day, even the difficult days.


By Mickey Fisher


I worked the morning shifts at my town’s only gas station in November of 2012, during a break from courses in my senior year at the University of New Hampshire. Nobody else seemed to want that shift, and I didn’t mind sleepwalking through the opening routines: turning on the lights, starting the pumps, making the coffee – one of our biggest sellers in the mornings. I had to brew six different flavors, and I usually sold the first cup before the last carafe was full.

It was on one of those mornings that a semi-regular came in. I never got his name, but I’ll call him Dutch, due to his hair – the color of hay – which fell over his head in a Dutch-boy cut. He hid his eyes behind big aviator glasses and hid the rest of his face behind a robust, well-kept beard. An old hippie, maybe. He was in his late forties, maybe early fifties. He came in every once in a while in the mornings; today it was for coffee and scratch tickets.

  “World’s gonna end next month,” he said, as I rung him up. “Mayans predicted it.” I didn’t know what he was looking for from me, so I stayed noncommittal. The way he said it made something go wrong in my gut, though. It was either the surety with which he spoke, like it was something that had already happened, a box score from last week’s game. Or maybe I was thrown because there was a kind of wistfulness in his voice. Like he couldn’t wait to see how it would all go down.

“As I got closer, I noticed that the passenger’s window – now pointing towards the sky – was shattered, little teeth of glass ringing its lip.”

I left the gas station job in December to go back to courses and a work-study position in UNH’s library, which I worked every Monday. I was on my way to one of those shifts, going north along NH 43 towards Durham, doing at least 50. It was a highway in the loosest sense of the term: a rough two-laner with gray guardrails thrown up wherever the land dipped down enough to justify their existence. The pavement was almost free of ice, and the snow on either side of the road was just starting to think about melting. It was 35 degrees, and by rights, the patch of black ice that was in front of the big white Colonial coming up on my left shouldn’t have existed.

My Volvo started drifting left when I hit the ice, carrying me into the oncoming lane. Someone reached into my guts and started tugging around as I watched the end of one of those guardrails approach the front of my car, like the blunt face of a hammer. It was about a hundred feet away from me, but that distance was closing at brutal speed.

I slid into the dirt driveway of the old Colonial and got some traction back, spraying cold clods over a sedan that was parked near the front door, but I didn’t get enough traction to avoid hitting the blue plastic newspaper mailbox. Its thin metal pole smacked against my door. Compact newspaper bundles, bound with rubber bands, flew up and out. I managed to straighten the car out and stopped about twenty feet short of the guardrail.

I let myself breathe and let go of the steering wheel. My hands were shaking. I sat there for a moment, thinking about how likely death would have been had someone been driving towards me in the oncoming lane as I lost control. Seemed likely. I made a cognizant effort to check both lanes – made absolutely sure that no one was coming – before slowly pulling back onto the road and to the opposite side’s shoulder, where I pulled over and parked. I got out of the car and headed back towards the house. Apologizing to the owners would give me some more time to let my hands shake from the cold instead of from my nerves.

The ice threatened to undo me again as I crossed the road; I had to walk slower than I would have preferred to, being on a highway and all. When I got to the driveway, I noticed the set of furrows that my tires had dug into the dirt, plus a set of tracks older than mine. I wasn’t the first one undone by the ice.

I picked the scattered newspapers up off the ground, darting around to catch the advertising flyers that had come loose from their pages before the wind blew them away. Once I collected the news, I went up to the front door, which was made of old wood and painted forest green, and knocked. My knuckles stung a bit from the impact. Silence. I hoped no one would answer. No one did. I laid the newspapers on the stone front step and started walking back to my car.

As I crossed Route 43 again, I noticed that my front driver’s side tire was going flat; it’d probably been punctured by the metal pole of the newspaper mailbox. I started to open my door so I could sit and give my parents a call, see if I could get a ride. As I did, though, I heard a motor growling. I couldn’t see it yet, but the car was coming from behind me, going the same direction I’d been going.

I closed the door and saw the car – a pickup, actually – coming down the road towards me. I started waving my hands above my head. There was no real way for me to warn the driver of what was coming, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Not that it mattered.

He was a good distance away from me when he hit the ice. The truck swerved around, its back end swinging in an arc from left to right, before it flipped over sideways and landed, driver’s side down, on the lawn of the Colonial.

            “Holy shit,” I said.

  No one else was coming, so I started to half-jog, half-slide towards the pickup, crossing the highway yet again. As I got closer, I noticed that the passenger’s window – now pointing towards the sky – was shattered, little teeth of glass ringing its lip. A man poked his head up and out of the cab through the space where the window used to be. He looked like a gopher sticking its head out of its hidey hole, seeing if the coast was clear. I recognized him immediately. Dutch looked unharmed.

“You ok?” I asked him.

            “Wow,” he said, and he brought his hands up to the lip of the window to try to pull himself out of the cab.

            “Just stay there, man, I don’t want you to cut your hands,” I told him. “I’m calling 911.”

The local fire department was not five minutes away, and I stayed with him until they got there. I kept having to tell Dutch to stay in the cab, because he kept trying to pull himself out. An ambulance and a fire truck arrived, and firemen helped Dutch out of his pickup. By this time, the elderly couple who lived in the house had come outside in their bathrobes, finally awoken by the truck beached on their frozen lawn. Dutch’s only wound was a little cut on the side of his palm. I don’t think he even needed stitches.

He puzzles me still. For as little as I knew the man (besides his claims regarding the world’s end), he never struck me as suicidal, or even like he was welcoming death. So I think that he was happy to have survived the accident on that December morning. But I sometimes wonder why. Had his perspective on the end of the world changed since he spoke to me about the Mayans? Was he now optimistic about the future? Or did he still believe that the end was coming at that point, and was he glad that he’d avoided missing out on the big show, scheduled for the 21st? What kind of weight did the accident carry for him, what kind of relief?

I saw Dutch a year or so after the accident at a Walmart. He didn’t recognize me.

One Book, One Burg

by Garrett Zecker

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I searched my students’ eyes for recognition of a shared experience. “He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” I read of the Chinese-American protagonist in the opening pages of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. “‘Well, I am an American,’ he says when people blink...” 

The One City, One Book model of community engagement is generally accepted as having started in 1998 in Seattle with Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. Many communities across the country have since found success in running such a program by creating a communal consciousness driven by one work and supported by inviting all citizens to read and participate in events, lectures, and discussions. Everyone is theoretically able to participate as physical, digital, and audiobooks are provided for free through grants, the public library, and public schools. While it isn’t meant to be a utopian lesson in social engagement, one can’t help but relish in the idea that everyone in the city might all have something in common for a brief period of time. 

I find it fascinating that programs like this exist at all. A recent Pew research study reported that twenty-four percent of American adults have not read a book in the last year. This includes print books, ebooks, audiobooks, any format of books available for consumption. Those with a high school education or less are five times less likely to have read a book (thirty-seven percent haven’t) in the past year than college graduates at any level (seven percent haven’t). In bringing together a community, in other words, organizers choose to come together with an activity that is only practiced by some of its members. In education, I can assign tasks to my students, but the same can’t be said about adults whose independent lives may not have room for the self-motivating, self-driven act of reading.  


Everything I Never Told You is the third annual community read for one of the communities I teach in, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It’s a precise debut novel about a young woman who is found dead (no spoiler, really - it’s the first sentence of the book) and the various ways in which secrets, regrets, resentments, and expectations can all interact like ripples in the lake of time to lead to the destruction of a life. It is about a mixed-race family and how difficult it is to exist when everything feels undermined by your otherness. The characters’ complex motivations seem to collide in every chapter and drive the audience to a conclusion that seems to guarantee no one will escape the terrible repercussions of the young girl’s death. In some ways, no one in this novel is particularly innocent of leading the teen to her destruction. 

As this was only the third year the library and the university have engaged the public in this manner, and since I know the limitations of the activity itself, I thought my students should invite their nonparticipant neighbors to engage even if they weren’t aware of it. Students read the book independently, and in class we’ve examined Ng’s themes of youth, otherness, and secrets. They’ve examined these themes within themselves and their lives through a series of journaling activities. Their next goal is to hold a mirror up to their unseen lives through film, music, art, dance, and sculpture. Their work will soon be displayed around the city, the art museum, windows, and projections, and open the doors to their lives through their medium. They will then exist outside themselves. They will be proud of what they bare because they have survived their own traumas. Perhaps those consuming their work decorating our city, even simply walking by, will see something in themselves. Maybe their own regrets will be transformed by the images and sounds of their city’s youth. Maybe their expectations of themselves will grow, and in turn, foster growth in their neighbors. All this without turning a single page, but experiencing deeply that those in our city are all ‘we’ and so few of us are ‘them.’

I tasked my students with opening the pages of the book – and their hearts – to everyone in Fitchburg. 

Edmund Wilson famously observed that “no two persons ever read the same book.” I wonder if he meant something other than the metacognitive act of reading, and that a community’s consumption of the written word is less about the text and more about the people. A book’s themes, after all, are universal truths. Finding new ways to interact with those truths and to welcome everyone to face and grapple with them in any way will make us more of a community.  An empathetic community.  I wanted them to learn that, when we seem to have so many differences, it’s time to ask a friend, acquaintance, or neighbor to join them in their experience. Not just with the text, but as citizens. As creators, collaborators, and expressers. As humans sharing everything they never told you. They’re inviting you to do the same.


By Mojgan Ghazirad

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It is called sormé in Farsi, the black soot that women use to magnify and beautify their eyes and face. You can name it eyeliner, but in reality, sormé does not “line” the eyes. It is used inside, on the inner pink rim that harbors the eyelashes.

I saw the sormé-dan, the jar containing sormé, first time in my grandfather’s pistachio robe. I was a curious little girl, eager to explore the gifts and gadgets he had brought from the Hajj Pilgrimage. The sormé-dan was a souvenir he’d bought from a salesman in Mecca’s Bazaar. It resembled a pocket watch, a tiny arrow jutting out from the twelve o’clock location. The picture of Mecca’s cubic shrine was engraved on one side of that brass jar and Medina’s emerald mosque on the other. He twisted the arrow and pulled the metal rod attached to the arrow out from the jar. The rod was blackened with sormé. He drew the rod against the back of my hand. A narrow black line marked the touch. Then he drew another line and a tiny little V of a flying bird emerged.  Then another V and another V and soon a flock of birds flew in the peach sky of my skin. He showed me how to apply sormé on the eyes. He separated the eyelid from the eyeball and carefully dabbed the inner rim with continuous soft strokes until the pink line surrendered to a black coat. He didn’t press the rod too hard, just a caressing, tender touch, enough to blacken the rim.

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Applying sormé is a delicate task. It’s scary when the sharp stick is aimed at the cornea. One wrong move and it can scratch the eye. But this is how women and men in my country have been applying sormé for thousands of years. If you don’t put your heart in it, you will make a mess of your face. Just like using charcoal on a snow-white blank paper, you have to be mindful of every line that you draw. Even the softest accidental stroke of the hand can fade the boldness of the lines. Just a tiny drop of that fine powder under the lower eyelid is enough to ruin the look of your face. And if you try to clean that betraying dot, it will seek revenge by leaving a tarry hue under the eye: never will the two eyes be the same again. This is the reason many women avoid sormé nowadays. It deserves the attention and delicacy our rushed world lacks.

My grandfather used sormé to heal his clouding eyes. He said, “Sormé sooyeh chasm ra ziyad mikonad.” It is considered by many a medicine more than a cosmetic in the East. Muslims say it was the tradition of Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, to line eyes with sormé. They apply it during the month of Ramadan and on Eids to pursue the path of the Prophet. Egyptians believe the blackness surrounding the eyes shields them from the ominous rays of sunshine. Indians paint the newborns’ eyes to protect them from the “evil eye.” Persians believe it accentuates expressions of love. Somehow this supreme, black powder brings protection, treatment and affection for the ones who wear it. It has something to do with lining hope for a better future when it adorns the eyes.

I always wondered why Persians believe using sormé accentuates expressions of love. I used to apply the sormé and stare at my face in the tall mirror hanging in my bedroom. I had hard time believing the blackness added beauty to my eyes, though it did highlight them in the constellation of my face. The voiceless powder cried to be seen. Eyes grabbed immediate attention: “Seekers of beauty! Do not sail around and get lost!” Like a bright lighthouse in a deadly storm, the blackness pointed to the light that resided in the sea of inside. Is that why they said sormé accentuated expressions of love?

“We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores.”

Persian poets love using sormé as a metaphor for light—in contrast to its stygian blackness. Naderpour, a contemporary poet, says in his Sun’s Sormé poem:

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               The whirling winds my sole companion.

               When the night bore down on me,

               I only asked for death in my sleep.

He pictures himself as a blind owl in a deep black forest, sunrays pricking him one early morning in his dark nest. He imagines the sunrays as rods containing sormé. The rods line his eyelids with light and bring back vision to his eyes:

               But it was your warm hands, dearest love,

               Your hand and your infinite fire,

               I was the blind bird of the black forest,

               You brought sight with your sun’s sormé.

In the love poems of Attar, the great mystic poet, winds bring dust from faraway lands, from the land of the beloved. Even a speck of dust from the beloved is a cure, those tiny particles she shakes from her cloak. The wind-brought dust becomes sormé, and makes him see the silhouette of the beloved:

               The dust that morning breeze

               Veers from her door to me,

               Is the sable sormé,

               That brightens the world in my eyes.

There is a secret when stones are crushed to dust. The stibnite or the sulfur compound of antimony is abundant in Iran. For three thousand years, Persians have pried tootiya—the stibnite—from the mountains near Isfahan and grinded the stone in tiny mortars to make the fine black powder. They believe when a stone is pulverized into powder, the idol of grandiosity is broken into tiny pieces of modesty. By applying the powder, the secret in the stones is released and the eyes able to see through the veil of ego. You can see what’s hidden from the eyes. Fables have it that Khosrow Parviz, the great king of the Sasanian Empire, possessed a special sormé that when he applied, he could see through the earth for almost a year.

But while sormé can bring light to the eyes, it can be a silencing sword for the throat. There is an adage in Farsi that says, if you swallow the sormé, you will lose your voice. Bidel, a mystic poet, sings this adage in a beautiful poem:

               My lute of hope is broken and I am silenced forever,

               Of all the colors, I wonder why sormé has stolen my voice.

Sormé is destined to guide one from the glitter in the eyes to the lilting throbs of the heart. But if you use it by mistake on your lips, you will diverge into a dead-end, a hushed-voice chamber, rather than into flowing songs of love. 


I take my little girl to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. We come out of the Jameh Mosque after the prayer. This is the first time I have taken her with me to the mosque, and I want to show her how Muslims pray together in Iran. Raised in America, she has never prayed in a mass. She likes the flowers woven in the rugs. She thinks it is poetic that we caress the flowers with our foreheads while we genuflect during the prayer. We tread the bazaar, in awe of the colorful shawls dancing in the air and the layered spices that mound in gunny sacks in front of the stores. We pass a tiny turnery that has hundreds of wooden handicrafts. Every little object in the store is embellished with patterns of petals and twisted twigs. She likes the colors and configurations of the crafts. She pulls me into the turnery and points to a bulb-like jar. “What’s that?” she asks.

The old salesman brushes his grizzled beard and puts the azure-colored jar on the counter. A sharp arrow is pointing to the sky from its narrow neck. Tiny flowers entangled in each other, ornate the surface of the jar. “It’s a sormé-dan, little lady,” the salesman says to my girl. He pulls the arrow out from the jar and a thin blackened applicator appears.

“What’s this for?” she asks. I have never told her the story of sormé. I have abandoned using it since I came to America. The old antimony stone is long forgotten in the mountains of Iran.

The salesman asks for my girl’s hand. She looks at me and I nod. She places her hand on the counter and the old man nears the applicator to the dorsum of her hand. A black line appears. He dips the rod back into the jar and strokes her hand with a soft touch again and again. The magical flock of birds appears on the peach sky of her hand. She smiles. She wants the azure jar. The old man reveals the secret of sormé: the medicine, the evil-eye catcher, the beautifier, the eyeliner, the illuminator, the heart’s pathfinder. He says it accentuates expressions of love, and smiles. He keeps the love-emphasizer for the last. She stares at him with her large, beautiful black eyes. She has hard time believing the old man.

He wraps the sormé-dan in a parchment paper and puts it in a brown bag. He puts two vials of stibnite powder tightened with a cork in the bag and hands it to me. His fingertips have tainted black from handling the vials. He has sormé in his eyes like my grandfather. I wonder if he has visited Mecca and seen the thousands of men who apply sormé after the Hajj Pilgrimage.

We swing back to the bazaar. White pillars of light descend from the domes’ circular openings. Tiny black dust particles dance in the light, twirling up to the dome. Maybe a young lover has passed these narrow alleys and the sudden breeze has swept dust into the bazaar. Maybe the beloved has shaken her cloak near the old wooden gate.

Sunshine stings our eyes as soon as we come out. My little girl squints and tries to find her love-shaped sunglasses in her strapped handbag. Doves fly to and from the mosque’s dome in flocks of thousands. She sails her hands in the air like the doves. The black Vs on her hand merge with the birds in the sky. “Mommy, have you ever put sormé in your eyes?”

I smile and I nod.

They say sormé accentuates expressions of love. It’s the secret pathway to the heart.

Faculty Pick


Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

Richard Adams Carey - There are books that you enjoy and admire, and then books that you so enjoy and admire that you take them into your bones, and their phrases and themes become part of your own DNA as a writer and storyteller.

Such a book for me was Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape.” Published in 1986, the work is a steaming broth of travel, history, folklore, ecology, and philosophy, its subject matter a part of the world as big as China, no more populous than Seattle, and as remote to most of us as the moon.

The impressions of European, Russian, and American explorers in the Arctic are quoted liberally, but Lopez—radically for that time—gave equal or greater weight to the oral histories and belief systems of the Inuit and Yupik peoples he moved among. He is particularly eloquent on what Western explorers called “the native eye,” that nearly occult sensitivity to the nuances of sky, water, landscape, and wildlife behavior that has been lost to Westerners since, more or less, the Agricultural Revolution.

Lopez’s knowledge of and respect for that other mode of being and this other-worldly geography was rocket fuel for me as I researched and wrote my first book, “Raven’s Children,” about the life and struggles of an Alaskan Yupik family. Lopez’s empathy for all things human, along with the grace and precision of his language, inspire me to this day.


My Church

By Zachary Scott

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Have you ever seen the sun as it breaks the horizon and rises over the ocean?

Have you ever looked down from a mountaintop, surveyed the bustling life on the lake just beyond the sea of green treetops, all the while knowing that you’re merely a spec, a blip in the timeline of Earth’s long life?

Have you ever witnessed the messy glory of childbirth?

Or, conversely, have you ever wept silently in the corner of a room, watching as someone who witnessed your first breath breathes her last—your heart broken, your spirit overwhelmed with awe?

Have you ever stood naked, chest deep in a river, churning into a torrent as the skies open into a downpour? Have you felt the current rush around you, your body the rock refusing to erode as Mother Nature washes away your sin, baptizing you, again?

Have you ever sat, still, in a moonlit sanctuary beneath the cross, and even there not felt alone?

Have you ever bared your soul, allowed yourself to be vulnerable, expressed your deepest fears, your greatest challenges—only to be swept away by love, support, understanding?

Have you ever dared to ask the universe for something—anything really—and then receive it?

Or, perhaps, you were denied your request, but found yourself stumbling into something far greater than you would have ever been courageous enough to ask for?

Have you ever experienced love at first sight?

Have you ever felt, in an instant, a molecular connection to another person—to a person you seemingly have nothing in common with, a person who lives their life in a manner completely different from your own?

Have you ever forged a new family? Out of strife? Out of shared goals? Common ground? Over rich coffee or copious amounts of alcohol? Out of a desire for a deeper connection to the planet? To fellow humankind? Out of a calling to be the voice of the future? A voice of the present?

If so, you’ve been to my church.


“God hates sin. He hates sinners. If you don’t change, you’re going to Hell. But, the good news is that all you have to do is admit your sins and ask for his forgiveness, and stop being gay, and he will forgive you. It breaks his heart when people sin and refuse to turn away from them.”

My best friend’s girlfriend said that to me shortly before he moved halfway across the country to live with her and her cult-like, hardline, neo-evangelistic family. They were the ones who actually believed that nuclear war would soon be breaking out – and I don’t mean in a few years or decades, they believed it was immanent – and that God’s reckoning was soon to be upon us.

I didn’t really stay in touch with my best friend for a while after that. He had been among the first to whom I’d come out to, and he was overwhelmingly supportive. We went to our last semi-formal dance together because he thought I should be able to go with a guy after having come out. Then he met her and was smitten and followed her to the Midwest. It’s okay, though, he realized her flavor of crazy, we’ve reconnected. And though he lives even further away, we keep in touch, and he’s got a beautiful, sane wife, and an adorable baby.

After being informed of my sinful, God-angering nature, I swore off religion. I swore off God. To be clear, I hadn’t been raised in a church-going household, but I’d been taught about heaven, and believed that there was a God. I buried any questions I had about the Divine. I refused to accept that there existed an all-powerful deity who created humans as they were, but then dared to condemn them for their innate, hardwired, feelings. Shortly thereafter I began to read the Bible. If I was going to do battle, it was best to know the playbook my enemies were using.

That came in handy when I was able to argue, in a tiered classroom, looming angrily in my semi-agnostic liberal glory, a row above the strange little woman who lived with her grandmother and believed that because of Leviticus 18:22, homosexuality was a sin and same sex marriage should not be allowed or recognized by our government, that Leviticus also condemned the cotton-poly blend she was wearing that day. When someone had a scriptural argument to hurl against the sin that was an inherent part of my being, I was prepared and willing to leap to my feet with evidence from the same book that refuted the claim they raised.

The funny thing about reading something so often is that you eventually stop reading it as just a manifesto of your enemy, and more for what it is. You begin to find comfort and inspiration in the words on the page. Jesus may have been angry at times, but he was righteous in his anger against injustice. He ate with sinners and outcasts. He lived with and loved those whom society had forgotten about or condemned. Yeah, sure, he flipped tables that one time, but his anger was never ignited by who someone loved, or the color of their skin, or the gender they identified with. He called out hypocrisy. He called out judgement. He called out hatred and apathy and violence. His followers did so because he was preaching a message of radical love and acceptance. His mother trusted that God had plans for her son, and she followed and supported him because she saw that light shine from within him. She made the sacrifice of standing aside as he made his own sacrifice for us – if the story of his life teaches anything, it’s that love reigns in the kingdom of heaven, and that we ought to make it reign here on earth.

A few years after that inciting incident, I found my way to Buffalo, New York, and to a religious studies class. My eyes opened more to the world of spirituality, and my heart swelled with the desire to better know God. I studied what I could of the religions of the world, finding myself drawn to the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the radical world of progressive Christianity – the ones who actually strive to live the teachings of Christ. I prayed with an Indian student at a Hindu temple, asking Lord Ganesh to help keep my heart pure and focused, and to remove the obstacles that held my prayer hostage. I lit candles to the Holy Mother, asking for intercession at the minor basilica in the city. By the time we moved home from Buffalo, my husband (then boyfriend) and I had been regular attendees of the Pilgrim-St. Luke & el Camino Nuevo United Church of Christ in our intensely diverse neighborhood.

Home, in northeastern New York, I spent nearly six years studying on my own, attending yoga classes, falling in and out of regular prayer and spiritual practice. Something was missing from my life, and it wasn’t a mystery. After finishing my undergrad and applying to Southern New Hampshire University’s Master of Fine Arts program, I made the eleventh-hour decision to attend seminary instead. Chicago Theological had an online Master of Divinity program that would lead to ordination, and I was convinced that this was the only way to effectively study religion, and further convinced that I was being called to lead a congregation as its pastor. To this day, my semester at CTS remains one of the most invigorating times of my life – ten thousand dollars well spent.

“I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity.”

It was during my single, formative semester at CTS that I began to regularly attend the First Presbyterian Church of Hudson Falls. It had been the home church of my maternal great-grandmother, Clara, and I had been swept away by the kindness of the young, bearded pastor as he prayed with the family during her final hours. The reception, held in the fellowship hall after her funeral, was further divine interference, as kind members of the congregation welcomed and consoled our family, and especially when two white haired women took my hand in theirs and emphatically insisted that my grandmother had spoken sweetly of my husband and me, and that we were truly welcome to visit them whenever we wanted. So, a year later, deep into my first and only semester of seminary, I met with Michael, the pastor, over beer and hard cider at a local brewery to discuss what being a Presbyterian was all about.

As I write this, I am entering the final year of my first term as a Ruling Elder and member of Session – the governing body of the congregation, nominated by committee and approved by congregational vote. Michael and his wife, Lauren, are among my dearest friends, and I’ve become completely immersed in the family that is this congregation. I was not wrong when I thought that I heard the call of God to religious leadership, I just got off at the wrong exit. We are a truly welcoming community. Everywhere you look, churches are hanging banners that read, “all are welcome,” but their theology and practice don’t reflect that message. I often comment that I want a banner of our own that reads, “all are welcome, and we really mean it.”

I make no attempt to hide my sexuality. I try and fail to control my trucker’s mouth. I pierced my nose, rock hipster haircuts with vintage-inspired glasses, brandish my tattoos with pride, and never try to fit into a heteronormative, binary idea of masculinity. I am open about my increasingly liberal ideologies (which became even more liberal during seminary) and share my excitement and passion with pride. When I fall on my face, there are dozens of people to pick me up. I have shared my journey with them, and they’ve embraced it as wholly a part of me. I have spoken plainly about my struggles with depression and anxiety and have been dragged from the brink by these people who refuse to love with any less than their whole hearts. Together we work to make our community a safer, healthier place full of abundant welcome and acceptance. What’s more, my belief that creating that kind of loving energy and sending it into the universe will have a tremendous butterfly effect, and will return to us all, is respected and shared by many.

I have asked the universe and I have received. Sometimes it’s not quite what I was expecting, and sometimes I am refused what I first asked for, only to receive what I truly needed. But I trust that the Divine has guided me to where I am and will continue to do so. The angry and frightened eighteen-year-old, whose best-friend’s crazy girlfriend insisted he would burn in hell, would not have believed that he would someday be a thirty-year-old professor, Christian leader, writer, uncle, and husband. My journey has been one of hills and valleys, and there will be more to come. But faith is not easy. Trust in something all-powerful and beyond adequate description with words is not easy. Willingness to bare your soul, show your bruises and scars, along with the moments of celebration, is not easy. Nevertheless, in my church, I’ve found the support that guides me through all those difficulties. Tonight, I will read more about my chakras. Tomorrow, during my lunch break, I will read more from the Upanishads. Sunday morning, I will prepare communion, welcome back my friend from sabbatical and help him lead worship. Next Thursday, I will teach my students how to write effectively, and discuss gender issues in our society, and then attend the monthly meeting of the Session, where we will worship and prayerfully make the decisions and do the business of leading our congregation forward into the bright, bright future.


By Laura Dennison


   “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

            My classmates always had lofty goals in response to this question. They wanted to be equine veterinarians, or paleontologists, the President of the United States or multimillionaire major-league baseball players, maybe all four of these things. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a cashier when I grew up. I guess you could claim I was a seven-year-old realist.

            Lucky for me, unlike most of my peers, I’d fulfilled my lifelong career goal three times over by the tender age of twenty-one. Cashier gig number three was at a convenience store/sub shop on the campus of the college I attended. At 3 a.m.—the end of my shifts—I could walk home on streets that were clear and quiet save for the occasional possum or straggling drunkard. I wanted nothing more than this—to deep-fry frozen mozzarella sticks (even as speckles of the hot oil splattered back on my face); to grill steak-and-cheese subs and layer the meat with slices of the soon-to-be-oozing gooey, white American cheese I’d never eat myself; and to slide the change—the seemingly worthless pennies—through my index finger and thumb and into the cupped hand of a waiting customer.

            The chaos of getting all the orders cleared off the overhead screen, the changing in and out of the dozens upon dozens of pairs of greasy disposable gloves, the thud of the roll of quarters breaking in half as I slammed them against the sharp black edge of the register—in this nightly grid, the store pulsed with an energy so strong it left no room for my own pulse to sail too fast and fill me with worry. In those moments, the makeup of meats in an Italian sub was far more important than my brain’s neurochemistry and whatever might’ve been worrying me that day.

            And so, as far as I was concerned, working as a cashier was still ideal. The thought of jobs where I’d be in power—where I’d lead or be responsible for the lives of others—left my stomach turning, my palms sweating, and my mind willing me to go toast breast for a BLT. Because despite occasional customer complaints that could sometimes seem the contrary, nobody dies if the bread is too crusty. If I could rent an apartment and visit the dentist regularly on gas station clerk’s salary, I’d be the first one to sign up, graveyard shift or not, and bachelor’s-degree-be-damned. My seven-year-old realism has turned into what could be perceived as twenty-one-year-old laziness or lack of ambition. I realized that a woman graduating from a four-year college should perhaps purchase a pant-suit or a pair of slacks and a matching argyle sweater so that, upon graduation, she could take a job behind a wooden desk, where she’d write important emails and take phone calls.

“There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. “

But here’s the truth: in between my first two cashiering jobs, I’d spent a few nights in a psych hospital and dropped out of college. Instead of returning to what now seemed like pointless, antiquated, stuck-up study of English literature, I decided I wanted to do something with my life that would actually help other people in the way that the nurses and attendants at the hospital had helped me. And so I enrolled myself in a three-week crash course to become a licensed nursing assistant. This is what I considered “the real world,” and the real world had done nothing but scare me.

            My first glimpse of the real world was at the Work ‘n Gear store, where I purchased the white scrubs all student-nursing assistants were required to wear while in training.

            “Be sure to wear nude underwear with these,” the gray-haired cashier told me with a wink as she rang up the scrubs. “Any other color will show straight through—even white.” She flashed me a nicotine-stained smile and I let out a stab of a laugh, then stuffed a handful of crumpled one-dollar bills into her hand as I thanked her.

            “Rookie mistake,” she added.

            The three weeks that followed could also be described that way—rookie mistake. Our class met in a nursing home basement, and our RN teacher informed almost all our learning, sans the state exam, would be hands-on. Soon, the hands I’d once used to take notes in Brit Lit with perfect penmanship turned clammy and tremulous as I tried to shave a grown man’s beard with the same model of cheap, disposable safety razor I’d used to cut myself with in the dorm bathroom less than a month earlier. My once-crisp white uniform was soiled daily by a rainbow of body fluids—blood, bile, vomit, diarrhea, saliva—you name it, I wore it.

            In the eight-hour days I spent dunked into “the real world,” my eighteen-year-old self learned about the human condition and aging. I worked with another woman to shower the shriveled, leathery body of an Alzheimer’s patient who could no longer stand. As we rubbed soapy washcloths on his shoulders and underarms, we tried to ignore his erection poking up from the shower chair. My LNA partner-in-training bent down to scrub between the delicate, peeling purple skin of the man’s diabetes-riddled feet.

            “Ooh, scrub a little harder,” the man moaned. I locked eyes with my partner and she shrugged. I glanced out of the shower stall, over to the patient’s waiting wheelchair. It was only sometimes that, back in his room, he could lift the black-and-white photograph at his bedside and tell me—with confidence—that the young woman standing and grinning beside the young man in the photograph was his late wife. I wondered what it would be like to want for someone or something you couldn’t remember you missed.

            But I couldn’t wonder for long, since there was lots to do in the nursing home. Bottoms to wipe, for example, and diapers to change. If we were caught uttering the word diaper, though, we’d be subject to a write-up, because such language was thought to rob the residents of dignity. Only I learned quickly that dignity can be damaged in ways far deeper and more haunting than a few brown smears left accidentally on the bedsheets overnight.

            Jane, for instance. She hated the nursing home. She had a photo album tucked away in the drawer of her bedside table, and she’d once shared the album with me. I turned the pages in awe as I realized how she’d shrunk. Once maybe over two-hundred pounds, she’d shriveled to mere bones encased loosely in thick, molasses-like ribbons of yellowing skin. She was starving herself to die. The head nurse had told me so.

            “Make sure she eats her breakfast,” she’d told me one morning. As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on the next room down, where the resident has pressed her call button. She hugged her clipboard tight across her chest. “She’ll fight you; don’t give in,” she said before disappearing down the hall.

            I felt connected to Jane, maybe because we’d both had thoughts of opting out. And maybe also because of that mutual understanding, I hated to make her eat. I’d sit the back of her bed up and set her breakfast tray in front of her and she’d whimper.

            “No, not today. Not today.”

            But usually she’d eventually choke down some orange juice and a mouthful or two of toast. And it would usually come right back up, into the kidney-shaped pink basin I’d hold in front of her to spit into. I’d rub her back as the saliva and bile slithered up her throat. It got to a point where the body fluids stopped bothering me, but Jane’s determination to leave the nursing home in whatever way possible? That never did.

            Then there was Mae, who, according to her files, was only 67. The head nurse had us practice changing colostomy bags on her, and Mae would watch and utter something as I snapped off the bag, cleaned her puffy, pink intestines of any residual poo, and snapped a new ostomy bag back in place. It was only after a few rounds of doing this that I came to understand her slurred syllables.

            “Thank you!” she’d cry out through one corner of her stroke-riddled mouth. I’d learn to wave and smile, but it still hurt. Because here was a woman, unable to control her own body, controlling her manners better than I did half the time.

            Each day at the end of the course, I’d return home to shower and try to cleanse myself of the atrophy and decay of the place. Then I’d say a quick prayer, hoping I’d die before I got old or ill.

            When the three weeks were up, I went to take the state test and passed all of the nursing board’s requirements. I didn’t use my license once. The next available semester, I reenrolled at a four-year college and signed up to be an English major. I wanted to be nobody’s keeper, nobody’s caretaker—to touch paper rather than flesh.

            There’s just one problem, if you want to make it one: For years, I didn’t need to pray I’d die before I got old. I had a solid plan. Suicide at twenty. No need to worry about the future. Now I’m living at twenty-one, a few months shy from graduating with a bachelor’s degree, staring into the big, hollow vortex of time. The future’s like a black hole. Once it sucks matter in—once it sucks me in—there’s no escaping. Nobody knows much about it, either. Even to the frat-bro business majors and those girls who knew they wanted to be equine veterinarians since they were four years old, the future is ominous and uncontrollable. And when I start to gravitate near it, it threatens to swallow me whole.

            The trouble is, the future’s spinning ever closer, and I have no idea what I want to do come graduation and summer. Or the rest of my life. At my parents’ urging, I sometimes log on to job-search sites and scour for administrative assistant type jobs without much luck. I have noticed, though, that there are plenty of nursing assistant jobs available—hospices, home-health aides, assisted living facilities. All I’d need to do’s renew my license.

            It’s been years, but I still remember exactly how it felt when Jane—the same patient who was intentionally starving—would forget who I was even if I was standing right in front of her.

            “Have you seen Laura?” she would ask me, shivering under a thick layer of quilts. “I had this nice nurse named Laura. Where’d she go?”

            I would turn from her and try to subtly flip my name badge over temporarily, so that the block lettering that read L A U R A wouldn’t give me away. The goal has always been the same: don’t think about Laura. Just move onto the next thing. When Jane got confused, I’d try to distract her. I’d grab the earring holder by her bedside and have her pick out which pair she’d like to wear for the day. She once chose a pair of turquoise studs, and after I’d fastened them to her ears with gloved hands, her smile quickly drooped to a frown.

            “My daughter gave me these,” she said, one hand reaching for a stud. “I think.” She scrunched up her face. “Oh, I’m not sure. She never visits anymore.”

            It’s this memory, more than all the others, that stop me from applying for any of these types of jobs, even if they’re right there for the taking, listed on the black-and-white of the screen.

            Another truth: every time I search for post-college jobs, I start to cry. People have stopped asking me about the future because of this; it's only tolerable so many times. The tears are involuntary, like all tears are, I guess. But scrolling through those listings gets my heart racing, my mouth dry, my head hazy and fuzzy until I see the computer in triplicate and then I shut it off.

             As always since the hospital, I try to take things a day at a time to get by. The trouble is, too many days have passed. Sixteen years of schooling, and I still feel like I have no skills. I don't know a thing about Microsoft Excel, still look at fractions like they’re an alien life form, and would be clueless if I had to pitch a tent. When I describe my accomplishments, they’re all in the past tense. I have this plastic running trophy in my bedroom at my parents’ house that I won when I was fifteen. I can’t bring myself to take it down. Draped around it are my high-school National Honor Society cords, my Varsity letters, a Top 25 ribbon from a cross country race, four half-marathon finishers’ medals, and old notes from teachers encouraging me to pursue writing in college.

            I speak in the past, my mind living in reruns: “When I did this . . . When I did that . . . Remember when? I wish I still . . .

* * *

There are only a few weeks left of my job in the University’s convenience store, and until my graduation. In my dining-hall uniform cap and blue t-shirt, I pass the hours straightening out the inventory on the shelves, dusting them off, and pulling all the products forward. Then there is the constant motion as we make the food that fuels the drunken droves. I fold a quesadilla on the grill and cut it into thirds. I think nothing of myself, just the orders off the monitor, and this is when I am happiest—exhausted.

            Of course, the cash register slides open with a clunk. I grab the change and count it back, sliding the coins from palm to palm. It seems like nobody ever wants their change, though. They leave it behind, in the leave-a-penny take-a-penny jar. Without a thought, they walk away. Funny thing is, I would take that change if I could. That is, if I were allowed to. The rules dictate that dining-hall employees can’t take tips, so I usually don’t. I get so afraid of such simple little risks.

            But sometimes, when nobody is looking, I take the change anyway. I slip it into my pocket to put in my piggy bank for later. There’s no harm and low risk in making myself twenty-five cents richer, and I figure if nothing else, all of this slow change has to add up to something substantial eventually.

            I do these things meticulously—slowly—so that nobody catches on. But I do these things deliberately, so some part of me must think that I am worth of this change.

            If someone were to ask me today, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I might not reply “a cashier!” anymore. I might just say, “I don’t know.” What I really might mean by that is, “Judging from everything I’ve seen, I don’t know how to go on.”

            At night, I still think of black holes pummeling toward me, a collision course.

            But for now, I’ve found the rhythm, and living—avoiding the future—is easy enough. Making change out of twenties, refilling the gigantic vat of mayonnaise, counting out the number of chicken fingers to shove in an order box. Until 3 a.m. rolls around and I walk home to the black holes barreling toward me, closing in on either side, twisting like tornadoes, I’m safe from time.

            Eyes shut for just a second. Deep breath. Open the eyes and smile. Now the long line at the register doesn’t seem so bad.



MFA candidate Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and author of Team Seven: A Novel, marcus burke, about his education, writing, authors he admires, and future plans for the characters featured in his debut novel.

What’s the difference between a short story collection and a novel? Which one is Team Seven?

The difference between a short story collection and a novel are somewhat like this difference between sitcoms and movies. Sitcoms may return to a storyline but reserve the right not to do so, whereas with movies they have a grand continuity. When I first started writing Team Seven, I though it may be a linked collection but it became a novel. With a short story collection every story can generally stand in its own, so when characters return elsewhere in the collection their presence must be re-explained. Where with a novel it’s like taking down those partitions, and being able to write with the assumed knowledge that the reader is keeping track of the information being presented, so when things return or come back around there doesn’t have to be the same level of contextualizing.


So, Team Seven was published back in 2014. Why don't you tell us a little more about what inspired you to tell Andre's story and how you came up with the title.

Team Seven came together very slowly, there are a few ways to answer this question. My original intent wasn’t to write a book but to do a homework assignment. It was early on during the fall of my sophomore year and I’d just become a creative writing major. And being intimidated of my new classmates a few weeks into the semester, I remember skipping an Intro to Fiction class. I was on the basketball team, it was preseason, and I probably did some sort of workout at the gym. I was yet coming into my studious ways. Anyway, later that day I saw a classmate in the training room and asked him what the homework was, he told me it was to write a first person narrative, and I did. Team Seven was written very out of order compared to the table of contents. The first chapter I wrote was, “The Big One-Two, which eventually became the novel’s fifth chapter. After I wrote that section, I then wrote the title chapter, Team Seven. The motivating idea in writing Team Seven was to get something not easily talked about off my chest. Another motivation for writing it was the enraging depiction of black men and women, and the black family, within mass media. I wanted to humanize a group of people that are generally pre-judged by society before opening their mouths. I wanted to give more voice to the group of folks that nurtured me as a child. They have valuable insights and valid stories if only given the platform, coupled with people willing to listen.
Aside from all that, I was a hardcore athlete growing up and I was, at a time, lumped in with the “bad kids,” and I know what it feels like, to feel locked out of school, and how fast a problematic educator can turn a student completely off to the idea of reading, and education. Never mind the idea of reading for pleasure. With my public education being so intensely Eurocentric, I was generally bored by most of the books I was given to read in school. It wasn’t until one summer during high school, while I was stuck in the house with sun poisoning, that I found The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Souljah and read it cover to cover. That book felt like an olive branch into the conversation, so I wrote Team Seven as an olive branch for people that maybe don’t like to read books.

Where is Andre now? Can we expect a sequel? 

I’m working on the next novel now. It is a follow-up, but it doesn’t return to the dramas of Team Seven. There are things from Team Seven referenced but it’s a very different book. I’m still working with Andre and his family so some characters do come back. Team Seven is the second book in a trilogy, even though it was released first. I’m writing the trilogy out of order too, I guess. I published a chapter from the new novel in McSweeney’s this past spring.

How would you say your undergrad experience affected you as a writer as compared to grad school and what advice do you have for those who may have had similar experiences?

My undergraduate experience was helpful and damaging in its own right. My classmates were vicious initially until my professors praised my work. In my first workshop, I remember a girl writing me a letter telling me that she was a grammar and punctuation “elitist” and that reading my work was “thusly painful.” I sort of laughed and thought, who even uses the archaic word “thusly”? Anyway, being that I was a basketball player, I was accustomed to trash-talking being a part of competition and didn’t take the comment to heart. More than dealing with awkwardness in the classroom, dealing with an intense amount of racism came along with being a student on the campus of Susquehanna University. 
I was there for Obama’s first election and it was a crazy time. At night the locals would ride around campus in trucks, high beaming students of color, yelling racial slurs, and throwing stuff. That and countless other incidents occurred. It was a mess, really. With all the drama and fighting that came along with the existence of a black man on campus, I took great solace in writing, it was an outlet for a lot of angst. So I guess I’d tell other young brown writers studying at predominantly white institutions that are maybe feeling lonely, agitated and/or confused: your story is needed and valid. Seek community even if in small numbers. Keep on pushing until you find your folk. Hold onto your visions and your dreams. Your future audience needs your presence and example.
As for my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I was given time to read and to shape and define my own aesthetic, and I worked with an AMAZING cast of writers like James Alan McPherson, Marilynne Robinson, Peter Orner, Ben Percy, etc. It was an honor to study alongside so many writers that I admire and respect. My time at the Writers’ Workshop changed the trajectory of everything, truthfully.

What's your writing routine? You always say that everyone's processes often change, care to elaborate a little more on that?

Generally, I shape my writing around whatever’s going on in my life, which is why I say my writing routine is always changing. I’ve written at night, in the morning, afternoon—it just depends. I generally try to accomplish something each day in that arena, either reading or writing. Sometimes I’m writing more than I’m reading. Other times it’s the reverse. After I’ve written a lot, I need to step back and do some reading, it’s like going back to the well. Lately, I’ve been writing in long hyper-focus chunks of time, usually from mid-evening into the early morning.

What's the best thing you've ever gotten out of a workshop as a student? The worst?

The best thing that came out of workshop for me as a student was finding readers. It’s invaluable to have people you trust read your work and vice versa. Those are life-long friendships. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback or it’s hard to hear, it’s better received when you know there’s nothing but goodwill and integrity in the criticism. Even if I was in a workshop that did not consist of my ideal readers, I always thought it was interesting to hear how so many drastically different aesthetics were reacting to my work.

Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

You've had a lot of success in your career so far from Team Seven, such as getting a starred Kirkus Review to publishing in McSweeney's, and it's clear that there's more to come. What do you think is the key to success and how do you stay humble? 

I’ve been blessed and pray there’s better ahead. I can’t say there’s any one thing to point out as a key to success. I’ve had to be persistent, resilient and faithful. When I started writing, it was a deeply personal thing that I didn’t even tell people about. I took my approach with basketball and applied it to writing. I became disciplined and put in the hours in order to give myself a chance. But I shouldn’t list those things as though l was given some secret formula or that the highlights of my writing career thus far have happened because of those things. Persistence, resilience and faithfulness, certainly helped, but there’s a lot more to it. There were a lot of people that helped me along the way. I had an amazing family, teachers, friends, and mentors supporting me. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known somebody when they have good will and good intentions for you. I was hungry and took a lot of risks and certain things came together at crucial moments. Around year four of writing the book I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could finish. 
I’m unsure of how to answer the part of the question about staying humble. It feels strange to try and qualify one's own humility and speak to it. More than anything, after I published my first novel, I had to decide what type of writer I wanted to be. I had to figure out what it is that I got and wanted to continue to get from writing, and what I wanted for my writing career. It took a great deal of soul searching to sort all that out, which is nice, I suppose. Well, I guess, all that is to say I feel most alive and at ease in my soul when I’m being creative and in the throes of working on a project.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

It’s beautiful to see so many black writers getting much deserved attention. I recently read two books that I enjoyed immensely, Naffisa Thompson-Spires’ collection, Heads of Colored People, and Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. With Heavy, simply put, the book is amazing. That’s a brother that writes with a mind blowing amount of heart, courage, empathy and honesty. His work always inspires me to dig deeper. Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican, I’m really enjoying that at the moment. And I also have Ruth Joffre’s Night Beasts, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone. I started it but had to pump the brakes. You ever start reading a book, like it so much you realize you’re reading it too fast and have to slow your roll? Sometimes I don’t want some books to end.

Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Disquiet on the Set

By Amy Jarvis

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My short-lived, somewhat volatile film career started with being cast as an extra on the television show One Tree Hill. I was enthralled with being on a film set: the lights, the cameras, and, in one particular episode, finding myself standing next to Chad Michael Murray (who was, of course, a major heartthrob at the time) on a Wilmington street that had been transformed into another city, while passersby grouped together and watched the show being filmed.

After appearing in eight episodes of the television show, I began submitting headshots to other production companies. It wasn’t long before I landed a featured extra role in the movie River Guard. My role was simple – one of the primary characters was the bartender, Banger, and in the scene we were slated to film, I was to portray his on-the-side girlfriend. I watched the director as he pointed to my starting point, explained that I was to approach the bar, act as though I hadn’t seen Banger in a while, and he would do the same. My nerves jumbled in my stomach the first time I stood on my mark and heard the countdown of quiet on the set, rolling, background, action. I approached the bar, climbed onto the stool. Banger looked over and threw his arms up. I smiled at him. Then he leaned on the bar while we pretended to talk. I playfully touched his arm, laughed silently, and drank my vodka cranberry—minus the vodka—being careful to make sure the ice didn’t clank against the glass because the boom mics would pick up the noise. The actor who played Banger reassured me that I was doing great, each time we reset and repeated the scene, over and over.

In the following scene, I was directed to leave the bar, which meant counting down and walking across the dolly in front of the camera. But I was still reeling with anxiety, which resulted in my moving into frame several seconds after my cue, which forced me to cross the dolly more quickly to compensate, which caused me to accidentally kick a misplaced paint can, which in turn tipped over with a bang and rolled, until it collided into the wheels of the camera. I froze, my heart pounding against my rib cage, and looked around the set, at everyone staring in my direction.

There was a painfully long silence that followed, in which the only sound was the paint can rolling, until it came to a merciful stop. The director cleared his throat, yelled cut. Then they started the scene again. This time without me.


Following River Guard, I landed a featured role in the movie The Remaining. I was sitting in the front row of a church with several other extras. The scene was to be about the survivors of a religious apocalypse who find themselves under attack. While we waited for filming to begin, another extra sat down beside me.

“You’re perfect,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re perfect,” she repeated. “For film.”

She told me she was the costume designer for River Guard and that she had noticed me on the set. I stared in an effort to place her. Her spiky hair, lined eyebrows and lips.

“How tall are you?” she asked.

“5’2,” I said.

“No you’re not, you’re 5’3,” she said. “What size are you, two or four?”

“Two or four, depending.”

She nodded thoughtfully, still appraising me. “You need an agent,” she said. I didn’t tell her I already had one. “You’re the next Shailene Woodley or Lily Collins. The industry will love you.”

Several minutes later, she retook her seat across the aisle, and the director approached and offered me a featured role. As he instructed hair and makeup to make me look as though I had just survived an explosion, I looked back over at my spiky-haired acquaintance. Told you, she mouthed.

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The scene in The Remaining was as follows: I was supposed to be watching the news on an iPad and reacting to the devastation. Several main actors would be around me, and they would do the same. The director stood in front of us, the camera placed directly in front of my soot-covered face. One of the crew members turned on the string of LED lights around the screen (since electronics don’t actually work in film; it’s all CGI), and the director began his countdown – quiet on the set, rolling, background. My muscles tensed. Action. I imagined meteors falling from the sky, people being attacked, dust, rubble. I knitted my eyebrows together and bit my bottom lip. I was so determined to make sure my acting was on point that I felt nauseous when we cut twenty seconds later.

In an effort to soothe my nerves and the lightheadedness I felt, I stared down at the iPad. After a moment everything became a blur. The room narrowed.

“Can we get some emotion out of you, Amy?” the director asked.

I looked up, confused. That’s when I realized that in my anxiety-induced state, I hadn’t heard the director’s count. We were filming the scene again, and I was staring blankly at the iPad at what was supposed to be devastating news. I swallowed, narrowed my eyes, and exhaled a slow, shaky breath.  

“Good. There you go,” the director said, before calling cut twenty seconds later.

Following my featured scene, we moved on to the second scene of the night, in which demons attempted to break through the ceiling of the church. Only there were no demons, no loud banging, nothing shaking the rafters. The director explained that he would count, and gave us specific spots to look at with each number. I held my breath as the director counted down to action.

One. I gripped the row in front of me and looked forward, toward the altar. Two. I cowered in my seat. Three. I looked toward the back of the church and pretended to scream. Four. We reset and did the same thing, over and over again.

Amy Jarvis is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Hats (Excerpt)

By Curtis J. Graham


Sergeant Ticker was a third battalion Kill Hat at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. He was not authorized to speak to recruits, only to punish them creatively. During the day, he forced them to wear each other’s uniforms and fill their pockets with mud. He made them windsprint throughout the dinner hour until there were only five minutes left for eating. He denied them use of the bathroom until one of them pissed their trousers. But at night, Sergeant Ticker told stories, and the recruits listened.

He was careful never to overindulge. The moment he suspected the recruits were humoring him, feigning interest, he would deprive them for a time. He’d say they had mistaken his kindness for weakness, and he’d make them do something hot and difficult until one of them fainted. After a week or so without any stories, the recruits would send a representative to his office at the far end of the squad bay to ask for the next installment.

Ticker told his recruits the adventures of Sergeant Hayfield, a character he’d been refining since he was a Corporal. The idea for Hayfield came from a World War One recruiting poster. It pictured a square-jawed Marine with a crooked smile. His khaki shirt was sunbleached and wrinkled. He wore a canted helmet and carried a rifle made of hardwood and steel. He was extending his empty hand, inviting you inside his world. “Want Action?” it said. During his two cycles at Parris Island, Ticker had crafted a legacy for Sergeant Hayfield. After lights out, he would pace the center causeway and tell the stories he’d imagined.

“We left Sergeant Hayfield in Belleau Wood, France. The skirmish is over, an Allied victory. His platoon has fallen back to safety, and he alone has remained to fight the scattered enemies. It’s dawn now. There’s mist rising through the trees, and frost on the rocks. Hayfield stumbles through the undergrowth. He’s ditched his M1 in favor of a single shot Gewehr. Dead Germans are spread out like squirrels, and ammunition is readily available. His fingers shake from the cold as he feels their pouches and pockets for bullets and bread.”

The recruits knew better than to tell the other Hats about the stories. Ticker had promised he would punish them beyond words. Further, they would never know how the adventures ended. Near the end of each training cycle, Ticker would leave the recruits with an incomplete story. If they survived their Crucible and became Marines, they could find him on graduation day and hear the final installment. He left the offer open, but no recruit had ever come to find him.

His daughter Mindy had grown fat, and for this reason, Sergeant Ticker found her difficult to love. Mindy had grown up quickly in seven years. She had a cell phone and small friends who slept over and put makeup on each other’s faces. One morning, Ticker came home to find her lying on the couch eating Cap’n Crunch, dry and by hand. He’d just wrapped up an overnight shift that involved monitoring a suicide case, a night of pointless vigilance. Seeing Mindy, he nearly kicked over an end table. She’d been gaining weight gradually, but now her wrists were as wide as her hands. He made the decision to drive her to the base hospital. He scheduled appointments for her with pediatric nutritionists and cardiologists. It was time for a change. In the weeks to come, letters arrived in the mail, test results. Mindy had a mild condition of the pituitary. She would be monitored, but may continue to gain weight.

It was a pre-dawn schoolday, and Ticker stood at the kitchen island with an array of meats and cheeses spread across the plastic marble. He could see into the living room, where raindrops sat on the dark windowpanes. The central air kicked on overhead with the sound of mechanical breathing. He took a slice of bread and weighed it in his hand. “Goddamned Wonder Bread. White death.” A car drove by outside. Ticker watched a square of light trace across the wall, stop, and move back the way it came. The bread in his hand felt spongy and warm, like it was absorbing the imprints of his fingers. He peeled off a slice of cheese—white American, fat free—and slapped it onto the dented bread.

Mindy walked in. Her socks patted on the pale shag. “The school bus just drove past the house,” she said. Her forehead poked above the far side of the island, and all Ticker could see was her curly bangs. It reminded him of her infancy, months of sink baths and dish towel dryings. Mindy walked around the island and sat on a small plastic stool by the sink. “You gonna drive me after?” She asked.

Ticker caught a sour whiff of mayonnaise from the open jar. “Well what else would I do, make you walk?” he squirted some mustard and pressed the two halves of bread together, facing in opposite directions. For a moment, he debated switching the pieces around, making them uniform. Instead, he closed his eyes and whispered his mantra: “Marines are dying in Afghanistan.” It was the bigger picture he gave his recruits, the grand idea that both inspired excellence and swallowed small mistakes.

Ticker heard Mindy’s voice coming from behind him, a whisper. “Marines are crying in Candyland.” He turned. She was resting her chin on her fists. He handed her the bagged sandwich. “That’s not what I said,” he told her.

Curtis Graham is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

One True Thing

By Ashley Martin (2).jpg

10 p.m., Friday night.

              I’m lying in bed, binge watching Stranger Things and cheating on my diet, that I swear I will be faithful to tomorrow. Probably.

              I have settled into my independent-single-lady life in what feels like the lamest way possible. In the early days of the divorce, when I was high on heartache and repressed emotions, I somehow saw this happening differently. I think I was expecting it to feel a little more Beyonce, and a little less Liz Lemon. But it’s not glamorous or sexy, it’s just… quiet.

              I scroll through Facebook for the forty-seventh time and try to post something witty. A line cast into a crowded attention pool. No bites.

              It’s not that I’m friendless, it’s just one of those nights when everyone is busy with everyone else. I tell myself this is good. It gives me alone time; time for self-care, and self-love, and self-discovery, and selfies.

              Still, I’m considering chalking up the evening as a loss, but then my phone does something highly unusual — it rings. Not a text or Facebook notification – an actual ring. I answer to the voice of my sister, back stateside after completing an international book tour. She wasn’t supposed to be in until next week, but plans changed and she’s here now, and she wants to know if I want to go out to the bar. I jump at the chance. It’s been a year since I’ve seen her, and honestly I am dying for an escape from my own company - you know what they say about too much of a good thing.

              I throw on a push-up bra and some eyeliner, and catch myself in the mirror on the way out the door. If Single-Mom-Living-On-Tacos-and-Tequila has a look, I am nailing it. But no one ever looks at me when I’m out with her, anyway. She, the blonde, chic, jet-setter, with her blue eyes, and her size 2 apple-bottom jeans, and boots with the fur. I’m kidding about that last part - she wears Louboutin’s.

              I’m slipping on my sexiest pair of Old Navy flip-flops when my phone rings again. Expecting it to be her, my breath catches in my chest when a different but dearly familiar number flashes across the screen. I feel like someone emptied a packet of pop-rocks into my stomach; the sensation is still new and delightful.

              It wasn’t until recently that I’d realized how much I had missed, even forgotten, the kind of joy that comes from these small, surprising moments in life. Not like when your husband of 15 years shows up with his pregnant girlfriend one night and tells you he’s leaving you. I mean the kind of unexpected gift that fills you with a sense of peace and euphoria all at once; like the sunset that catches you off guard, or the spontaneous kindness of a stranger. Or when someone makes you feel worthy of love again, long after you had laid that hope to rest.

                I answer eagerly and the voice on the other end spills over the way it always does, like the smoothest Whiskey. Rich and warm. Intoxicating. A vice I have no desire to walk away from.

              You see, I am a big feeler of all the things. I don’t just wear my heart on my sleeve, I cloak myself in it. I crave sincere vulnerability, both in the giving and the taking. I find the greatest sense of fulfillment in breaking myself open wide, and pouring out unabashedly into the rare few who find their way into that inner sanctum.

              So, when I find people that I bond with on a soulular level, who too prefer to swim in the deep end of life, I dive in. Subtle is not part of my vocabulary. I will love too hard, I will connect too deeply, and I cling too tightly. But not with many. Not with most.

              In fact, I need less than one hand to count the number of people this has happened with, and so when I find them, I fight to hold on until they are severed from me by a force beyond my control. Of those I have loved this way, only my sister and this shot of Whiskey remained.

              I fear even that is on borrowed time.

              Each time we hang up the phone, it ends with a resigned admittance that this probably shouldn’t happen again. There is context and technicality to consider. We need to cool it before it gets out of hand, and someone gets burned. I know that that someone will be me.

              And yet.

              I have begun to accept the beauty and power of these moments. This walking blindly into the fire just to feel the heat again. Because they mean I am alive. They mean I have not been excommunicated from love. They show me what my life, now stripped of everything I thought it was, has become: a messy, breathtakingly beautiful experience of being an authentic human who is.

              I know it may not last, but in this moment, it is real, and it’s true.

              It’s just one true thing.

              And right now, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, I find that’s all I need

Ashley Martin is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Learning to Handstand

By Ashley Bales

To begin you throw your face at the ground and hope your arms catch you. Learning to handstand is a plunge. It’s a pivot downwards, a swing of the legs, a jump, and you’re upside down. At the beginning you’re pitiful and intimately familiar with your own graceless hops. At every step you know where your body is: your legs frog out, your toes reach back, you grip your quads like a lifeline. But attached to what? You look forward, feet in the air, and your hands are impossibly far from your eyes. Your feet land back on the ground, having completed a failed leapfrog, minus the partner. But you overcome the embarrassment because anything worth learning begins with flailing, searching through familiar but inappropriate tools for one that may at least get you started. You have to begin with flailing frog hops, because that’s what you’ve got, and so you do. You jump your feet again into the air, you swear your toes reach further back, but your ass, with a newfound gravity, pulls you back down.

       These early trials will last longer than you like, but one day your hands come down, your legs swing up and they stay there. You’ve found space and your body disappears into it. You lose yourself. Your weight is sucked out of you and you can’t feel your body. Like Peter Pan, you can fly.

       But today we have the benefit of technology to steal all magic from the world, so you record your accomplishment and see that your minutes of flight are unrecordable milliseconds and your legs retain the kinks of an airborne amphibian. The bliss of losing your body is a step, but not an endpoint. It is the adrenaline, endorphin rush of risk, of lost control. But like any tantrum throwing toddler, being out of control may feel powerful, but won’t get you anywhere. This is when you are able to begin. You’ve learned enough to throw yourself into a precarious balance, now you have to learn the trick of control, build the necessary supports, master the tools.

       I’m not there. My supports aren’t entirely built in yet. I need a wall, a steadying hand at the ankle. But when I’m upside down, struggling to concrete myself to the vertical—only the practicality of my bones to fight against—I begin to be able to find my body: pelvis neutral. Abs in. Ribs together. Ribs down. Elbows forward. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders over fingers. Look at the ground. See the ground. I am solid, physically placed. My body is learning a vocabulary of awareness and balance. Space holds different possibilities and I begin to have the ability to exist in the world inverted.

It’s brutally hard.

Ashley Bales is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Sweaty Palms

By Morgan Green

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On the walk home from the bar, the two of you forced your sweaty palms together like pieces from separate puzzles. You found yourselves looking towards the barely lit street rather than each other, making small talk about things you pretended not to know from the past four years. He’s from Maine but loves the Steelers because his Grandpa lived in Pittsburgh and took him to games before he passed. You tell a well-practiced anecdote about how you and your brother used to fight over whether to watch Pocahontas or Power Rangers on television until, finally, your Great-Aunt just bought another set. He breaks the hold to wipe the sweat off his hand but doesn’t reach for yours after that.

       Do you promise to sleep over? you ask, because you long to have the familiarity of something other than doubt to hold onto tonight.

       Yea, sure. Whatever.

       After that, there’s a bit of a lull in the conversation, so you try to remember if you’d even made your bed before you left. The ground is still damp from when it rained that morning, but you’d changed out of your boots and into black sandals for the bar. You avoided wearing lipstick in case you had someone to kiss, so you made up for it with your maroon top that makes your boobs look great. The taste of tobacco from the Marlboro you guys shared lingers bitterly on your tongue, so you apply some chapstick in hopes that the smell of the mint will distract you. It doesn’t. He gets the wrong idea and grins before kissing you.

       Did you want to smoke another cigarette before we left?

       Why? You want one?

       Nah, just wondering.

       You hooked up once two years ago at a party his fraternity threw and prided yourself because he was the first guy you felt comfortable enough to give a firm no to. He fit your type—dark hair, pale, and some sort of amalgam of scrawny and muscular. You liked them big enough to pick you up but not enough to throw you down. He’d started with the story of his grandfather when you asked why he had a poster of Artie Burns on his wall rather than girls in bikinis. You kept the lights off even though you didn’t plan on making eye contact anyway. Unlike the others, he held you afterwards rather than slamming the door on the way to flush the condom. Back then, the silence felt comforting before you drifted off, but now it left an open space for questions that didn’t need to be answered.  

Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Kelly Stone Gamble


Since graduating from the Mountainview MFA program in 2012, Kelly Stone Gamble has gone on to publish two novels as well as award-winning short fiction. Recently, she agreed to an interview where we discussed writing, publishing and her success as an author.  

So, Kelly, your latest novel, Call Me Daddy, is the second in a series featuring your protagonist, Cass Adams. Can you give us a little info on what the story is about? Also, how did the idea come to you?
In Call Me Daddy, Cass finds out she’s pregnant and isn’t quite sure how to deal with it, while Clay—the stable one in the relationship—finds himself struggling with “daddy” issues. I actually got the idea sitting in church one day while watching a new father proudly introducing his baby girl. And you could just see how terrified he was.

You write that the town of Deacon, Kansas, the setting for the Cass Adams series, is loosely based on your real-life hometown of Baxter Springs, Kansas. Is the character of Cass also loosely based on you? 
Ha! Not at all. I think there are bits of me in all of my characters, but I’m not about to tell anyone which bits that might be.

I am curious about your path to publication. What was the process like? And what lessons have you learned?
That’s a big question! I actually do an hour-long presentation on the publishing process I went through titled “Writing is the Easy Part.” Condensing that, I would say everyone has a different path. I had an agent, then I didn’t have an agent. I had a larger press interested in my book, but they wanted me to rewrite it from one POV (that wouldn’t have been my book). I finally found Red Adept Publishing, and I couldn’t be happier with them. There are many paths to publishing. Everyone needs to find what’s right for them and go for it!

Fill us in on your writing process. Do you have a set time that you like to write? Duration?
Not really. I write when I feel I have something to say. I’ll think of a good line, or a good scene for one of my projects, and I write it. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than that one inspiration, other times, I’ll start and continue writing for hours. I don’t work well when I say, “between 8 and 9, I’m going to write.” Because when 8 rolls around, I usually have nothing to say.

How long did it take you to write that first book?
17 days. I knew the story I wanted to write. It took me over a year to edit it, though. I actually got the idea for They Call Me Crazy sitting in the bar at the Mountain View Grand, watching an infomercial on koi ponds. I said to the bartender, Troy, “they look like graves,” and his response was, “it’s your story,” and from that moment, it was. Incidentally, Troy and I became good friends and he was a valuable resource, or you might say a muse, for me while writing the first two books. He’s in the acknowledgements of all three books in the Cass Adams series.

Do you find working off an outline helpful? 
No. I need to know where I’m starting and where I’m going, and then I write whatever comes to mind. I can edit it later, but getting the story down, and several great scenes is enough to keep me moving. It’s kind of like taking a long walk, half the fun is not knowing what you are going to see on the way.

Do you ever get writers block? If so, what did you do to combat it? 
I’m always writing something. It may not be on one project, in fact, I hit walls all the time. But when I do, I just put that aside and move on to something else. I have four novels in progress right now, and who knows which one I’ll finish first. Sometimes I’ll write a short story, or a poem, or an essay just to give my mind a rest from a larger project, and when I’m ready, I go back to one of the novels. So how do I combat it? I keep writing. 

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 
Author Scott Phillips has given me several bits of advice, many I won’t repeat, but probably the one that sticks with me is “Write what you want. If the writing is good, it will find readers.” I think there are too many writers trying to focus on a particular genre, or trying to write “literary fiction,” when the reality is good writing finds readers. The tagline for the SNHU MFA program used to be “Go write your book”—not what someone else wants you to write or what you think will sell, but your book. It’s great advice.

The first book in the series, They Call Me Crazy, climbed up the USA Today bestseller list. That has got to be exciting. Have you given any thought to your books becoming movies or a TV series, as Hollywood seems to be constantly on the lookout for best-selling properties? If so, do you have a dream cast in mind? Any thoughts on who you would like to play Cass? 
I am talking with someone currently about movie rights but can’t say much more about it than that at this time. I can think of several who would be a great Cass—Winona Ryder would probably be my favorite. But definitely Larry the Cable Guy for Daze Harper!

Do you have more books planned for Cass Adams? 
The third and final book in the trilogy, Call Me Cass, comes out in 2019. It’s currently in the editing line at my publishing house, Red Adept Publishing. I have a Cass Adams short story, “A Crazy Christmas,” coming out in the anthology Tangled Lights and Silent Nights this Christmas. Additionally, I am publishing another short story, “Daze before the Storm,” which will be out prior to the release of Call Me Cass.


What do you miss most about your time at Mountainview? 
What I miss are hugs from Merle and Rick and just listening to Craig talk. I miss Katie doing the Rock Lobster on dance night. I miss being part of a group of adults donning pirate hats and fake tattoos and rowboating to Smuttynose Island. I made friends in those two years that I’ll keep for a lifetime, and since then, have become friends with many students that graduated before and after me. I never could write much during residencies, I was there for experiences that would inspire me to write later. Being around others that had the same goal, to write a book, was a wonderful experience. A few years ago, one of the alums organized a retreat and it was wonderful to be a part of that community again. I’d love to see that happen at least every few years—maybe in the desert next time?

W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.


Still A Work In Progress by Jo Knowles

Review by Daniel Charles Ross 


One of the hit film releases of late summer so far has been "Eighth Grade," a look back at what tumult kids experience in middle school on the foggy horizon of adulthood. This motivated me to look back at our own Jo Knowles' most-recent novel "Still A Work In Progress" which, natch, occurs in middle school.

     I was privileged to read an Advance Reader Copy of this book in July 2016, and I'm acquainted with Jo Knowles from the Mountainview MFA program. Frankly, none of this disclosure holds any special meaning at all, because "Still A Work In Progress" was an extraordinary glimpse into the minds, the lives, and the very existence of middle schoolers whether I liked it or not.

     Jo Knowles knows kids. She knows their likes, their loves, their terrors, and even their simple irritations. She knows how parents are sometimes left dumbfounded by family events that overtake them, and that all families matter but all families are not, in fact, created equal.

     In her book, main character Noah tries to navigate 8th grade in much the same way a space alien would navigate Times Square, sometimes lost, sometimes befuddled. Middle school is confusing in all respects except when he's in art class, where he excels. Girls are weird but strangely compelling, and schoolmates are sometimes nuttier'n a junkyard dog. Well meaning, of course, but made crazy by–what else?–girls.

     Without spoiling anything, it's safe to say Noah's older sister, Emma, is hobbled by a recurrent problem that embroils the entire family. It's during this time that Noah realizes how important his sister is to him, and how unimportant are the other distractions in his world.

     What is perhaps most engaging about this story is the compassion Jo exhibits through her characters. The strengths are paradoxical: Noah is strong, his father is weak (as a dad myownself, I was frankly dismayed by Noah's dad's behavior. Don't @ me), and mom is somewhere in the middle. Noah is a success, generally, but his sister is a failure at controlling her debilitating, self-imposed problem. Some of Noah's classmates are mature in relationships; some of his teachers in the small school are friends; and there is a hairless cat mascot roaming around as if it owns the place, because, evidently, it does.

     Middle-school gold.

     There is laugh-out-loud humor and watery-eyed pathos. There are kids we all went to middle school with and some we wish we had. The story is less a novel than a time machine, and one size fits all.

     I have high confidence that middle schoolers will read this evergreen story with recognition (and a little dismay)–as adults will, too. If "Still A Work In Progress" fairly represents the state of middle school today, it hasn't changed much since I was in 8th grade. That makes for a compelling, page-turning story of extraordinary and universal meaning for everyone. 

Five stars: One for anyone facing the blank page. One for characters we recognize and embrace as ourselves. One for a descriptive and sensitive deep dive into rarely seen family dynamics and the effect they have on our children. One for the hairless cat as the quirky  kind of character you just don't see every day. And one for a Jo Knowles canon that has six other works just as good.

Strongly, unequivocally recommended.

Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—was a Mountainview MFA student in 2015. The thriller that was to be his thesis, Force No One, comes out in the fall.

No Longer Authorized

By James Seals 


Tell me how you feel about me, Jane said. She and Will were in bed. He was lying supine, legs apart, arms splayed. Her right arm and leg rested across his body, her head nestled against his shoulder.

       Tell me how you feel, Jane again whispered. She sounded like she was falling asleep.

       Will stared at the whirling ceiling fan and wished for the Good Old Days. But he couldn’t say that phrase aloud. Nor was it permitted to say When Times Were Easier or Back Then. When the Expressive Language Association, the ELA, was instituted by the government four years ago, the ELA’s priority was to end Language Inaccuracies, or, more correctly, to enforce Language Accuracy, which had been determined to lead to Emotion Intelligence. Those phrases and many others had been labeled General Terms, then they were banned.

       Will thought about his feelings for Jane. He wanted back the liberties from the days when they first met…

       You’re So Wonderful, Will had said to Jane.

       Jane smiled. You Make So Me Happy, she replied.

       Now Will smiled.

       Or they each used similar words or phrases that satiated each other’s feelings. Will, though, wanted to say that he Loved Jane, but that word had been forbade.

“When emotions calmed, the ELA, with haste, enacted Word and Term Changes to books and songs and such for fear of new uprisings.”

During the first year of the ELA’s establishment, Free Speech Advocates protested against Language Accuracy. The ELA felt flabbergasted by these objections. They had believed that the Expression Ignorant Society needed much help. So the ELA created sentence starters: How Do You Feel About . . . What Did You Think of . . . I feel that . . .  I thought that.

       They plastered these phrases onto billboards and acted them out in commercials. After a few years Free Speech Advocates lost members as they were exiled for Word or Term Over Usage, chanting one too many times: Let Us Speak and using wordsmiths – Milton, Donne, and Shakespeare (all banned) – for posters and flags.

       When emotions calmed, the ELA, with haste, enacted Word and Term Changes to books and songs and such for fear of new uprisings. Microphones were installed throughout the country. A green light shone, displaying a warning, after someone spoke a word or phrase that had been Listed for Possible Removal (Beautiful, Like, How You Doing, Outside The Box) and an ear-piercing buzz sounded, leading to exile, when someone misspoke, using a banned word or phrase.

       The ELA had banned Love with immediacy. The ELA’s labelings happened during the time of Careless Speech. Will and Jane during that time had attended verbose parties and effusive dinners. People had chattered nonstop and without regard. Will remembered entering music-filled rooms, crowded with stylish dress and primped hair and bright lights.

       How Are You Doing? Will often said as he shuffled by friends, acquaintances, strangers.

       Cool, someone replied.

       Then Will said to a group, It Is What It Is.

       Everything Happens For A Reason, A friend replied, laughing.

       At The End Of The Day, Will later said to an acquaintance.

       Believe You Me, some stranger offered in return at the end of the night.

       Phrases all now outlawed.

       Also, during the time of Careless Speech, words similar to Get and Literally and nonwords such as Irregardless and Conversate were spouted without thought. So the ELA met, ending those Generalities and Nonwords. They too purged society of words used wrong: Terrific and Ultimately, and gross sounding words: Squirt, Chunk, and Discharge. They freed society of confusing words: effect and affect; and their, they’re, there. All exclusions were meant to help create a Clarified Society.

       Will really wanted to say the word Love because he does have strong emotions for Jane. The ELA had explained, Citizens without restraint used Love to describe feelings for someone, for movies, for songs, for activities and even for bananas. Then the ELA had asked, How could someone Love all these things? Will remained quiet, knowing that if he used a banished word or phrase the government would exile him.

       Will continued to watch the fan rotate. He distracted his mind or avoided answering Jane’s question by trying to follow the revolution of one blade. He felt it impossible to track, as he felt it impossible to consider accurate words. Will though was no different than many persons within this new time period.

       Within four years of the institution of Language Accuracy, the ELA identified a change from a Careless Society to a Downfall of Social Interaction. The ELA felt angry, hurt, frustrated. They watched and listened as fewer people met for parties or dinners. When people did gather minutes ticked in silence, or those individuals who refused to learn new words or to concentrate on emotions or who feared the green light and piercing buzz – in fact there were fewer citizens in this new world of exactitude – sat muted, listening to those with a precise vocabulary and identified sentiments speak unabated.

       Soon people stopped asking about feelings. Then friendships ended: no one had anything to say. Then couples separated because one of them was unable to explain his or her feelings. Then married folk divorced as one or both of them told the truth.

       I am bored with your company, a husband said.

       You gained too much weight, a wife replied.

       Jane again said, Tell me how you feel about me. Will believed she had fallen asleep. He had hoped she had fallen asleep. He laid as still as possible. He had taken shallower breaths. Will thought of words and phrases to say: adorable, fabulous, Girl Of My Dreams, Everything I Have Always Wanted. He laid struggling to identify his feelings toward her, just as he had struggled to identify his feelings toward events and bananas.

       Then he said, There are no words to explain how I feel.

       Jane shot upright. Will though closed his eyes then sighed at the sound of the piercing buzz. 

On Podcasts, Glitches and Endings

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I’ve taken to listening to podcasts while I clean one thing or another or drive solo somewhere. When I find one I love, my kitchen sparkles and I run lots of useful errands. My favorites are fiction. Whether they hook me or not, each one teaches me something about telling a story, building a world, developing characters and their voices. When I get through a series, they teach me a lot about endings; what’s effective, and, just as educational, what isn’t. Respectively, I’m thinking of two podcasts in particular: Wolf 359 and The Black Tapes. Some spoilers ahead, but I urge you to listen to them (whether you read the rest of this piece or not) and decide for yourself.

       I don’t know anyone in real life who listens to the same podcasts I do, so Reddit has become my proverbial water cooler for such things. Last year, I discovered The Black Tapes while it was on a brief hiatus and shortly before it was due to end. Many on Reddit had listened since the show started a couple years earlier, so their wait between episodes and seasons was considerable, especially compared to my latecomer’s instant gratification up to that point. It was so good – scary, haunting, and smart. The longtime listeners had a lot of time and energy invested, which likely had an effect on their reactions to the short third and final season in general, and the final episode specifically. It didn’t really resolve – well, anything, but that was how the writers chose to end it. When the final episode finally came out, I paused my steel-wooling of dried-on beans from a pot, looked at my little speaker, and said, “Huh. Well. OK.”

       When I checked in at Reddit a day or two later, I quickly realized that fans were, to put it mildly, not pleased. People swore they would never give money to this group of storytellers or any of their other podcasts again. They said they would try to pretend that there hadn’t ever been a third season, and if anyone ever asked them about it, they would say just listen to seasons one and two, and just stop there. They said the finale’s writing was lazy, slap-dashed and half-assed. Amateurish and insulting and negated everything that they had previously loved about it. And goddamn it, we trusted them, and they do this.

       A typical episode was anywhere between 33 and 47 minutes; the final episode was only 27 minutes, 18 seconds. And that included three rather long advertisements plopped in the middle in two different spots. In retrospect, they did leave us hanging. There was a near-constant threat of world annihilation in the world of The Black Tapes, but they didn’t ever actually tell us the outcome. I’d bet that a certain sock company’s revenue decreased after that one.

"I tend to trust the storyteller. Whether or not I like the ending of something is irrelevant; once a thing is out there, how it ends is how it ends."

Conversely, Wolf 359’s finale clocks in at just over two hours (and they never ran ads – just did the Patreon thing). Not everything wrapped up as nice and comfortably as we listeners would have preferred, yet people almost universally adored the ending. The writers clearly took their time. They resolved important threads while unraveling another, and they did tell us what happened regarding the threat of world annihilation. We have no idea where these people will end up, but their story began, middled, and ended in a specific context; that context is really all they needed to resolve. I may have cried, but just a little.

       All of this got me thinking about what readers and/or listeners feel are owed to them in an ending. In these days of instant feedback and the possibility for interaction with people writing or voice-acting on something like this, we listeners can sometimes feel like we’re part of it. The reality is, we are not.

       I know what it’s like to see or hear or experience something arty and instantly feel a pull, a connection. Be it a book, music, a stand-up comedian’s set, or an exhibition at an art gallery, it’s like, “This is a something that I never even knew I wanted or needed, but now I do, and it’s in me, and I’m in it.” It’s powerful.

       I tend to trust the storyteller. Whether or not I like the ending of something is irrelevant; once a thing is out there, how it ends is how it ends. I see people calling bullshit on different endings (Twin Peaks, Lost, even the original Dallas – which, well, ok, actually, yeah.), and they always have reasons for their opinions, usually very well thought-out ones. But I always find myself thinking, “But how do you know that? How do you know better than this thing’s creator(s)?” And I really do want to know how they know that. Because I’m at a loss.

       There’s a significant character in Wolf 359 that’s an AI (Artificial Intelligence) autopilot for the space ship (trust me, they make it make sense). Her name is Hera, and when her computer voice speaks, it glitches sometimes; it sounds sort of like a stutter. And here’s where you should really skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler from episode 41, “Memoria.” In this especially poignant episode, we find out that Hera’s programmer – the one who created her to not only know vast amounts of information, but also to kind of think for herself – hardwired the following two phrases to play in a loop in Hera’s brain/code: “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.” Hera’s creator did this as a way to “clip her wings” if she started thinking for herself too much. Turns out, it caused the vocal glitch. It also caused Hera to not pull things off that she was actually perfectly capable of.

       What an insight into human nature! What a thing to identify completely with as we try to write, as we try to get better, as we try to get other people to believe in us and help us get our work out into the world. To get people to trust us, the storytellers.

       In my own writing, I know that what I need to do is trust my training, my reading, my knowledge of my characters, my connection with creativity and inspiration as much as – actually, more than – I trust other story tellers. But it’s so hard.

       At 47, I’ve completed writing and [for now] revising my first novel. I’m proud of it, and I’m trying to get it out into the world. Yet there’s this annoying glitch in my brain... Even if I wrote a scene that touches someone, or maybe even a couple or a few, if the ending isn’t what they would have done, will they feel let down? Will it negate everything that came before? The parts they liked or even maybe loved? I hate letting people down. But I gave it everything I had, I followed the characters into sometimes uncomfortable-to-me places, and I did my best to be true to them. And that’s all I can do.

       Podcasts are not just an escape, just as stories aren’t just an escape: they have the power to make us recognize things in ourselves, in humanity, and even the universe. They have the power to disappoint as much as enlighten and satisfy. What a wonderful and terrifying pursuit this is! And, like Hera, all we can do is recognize that glitch that makes us undermine ourselves, move the hell past it, and keep writing. Keep getting better. And if a few people are disappointed, so be it; let them try it.  

A Moment to Breathe

By Jessica Nicole Knop

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I excuse myself to the bathroom before anyone else can hug me.

           It’s not that I mind the hugs, I just hate all the useless condolences that come with them. Thanks, but I don’t need you to tell me you’re sorry for my loss, or that he was a good man. I’m aware of both. I know everyone is just trying to comfort me, but here’s a newsflash: I don’t feel comforted. I feel angry and frustrated, and I swear to God if one more fucking person tells me that my husband loved me, I will scream. I’m aware that he loved me, you idiot. You’re not being helpful.

           I look around our bathroom, with its fresh coat of mint green paint, and I laugh. You fought me for three months about this goddamn color, but in the end, we compromised. I got the mint green bathroom, you got a beer tap in the new basement.

           I rest back against the vanity, taking in the scope of the renovations: new paint, new shower, new vanity. New renovations for a new life together.

           A tear rolls down my face, its gravity dragging me to the tile floor. Another tear. Then another. Through blurry eyes, I stare at where the floor meets the wall, and I realize something for the very first time:

           You were a shitty painter.

Jessica Nicole Knop is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

That Which is Never Spoken

By Michael Helsher

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I’ve taken walks in the forest for most of my life, but I have never once seen an owl when I’ve heard hooting in the woods. Over the years, I came to think of them as the invisible guardians of nature, wise beyond words, exceptionally good, especially at keeping the vermin population in check.

     Once in a while, I’d get spooked by an owl’s hoot echoing through a forest. My senses would go on full alert, absorbing the natural surroundings, until the unnatural sense of myself was gone. Then, if I was lucky enough to hear another hoot, it would make me giggle, just a little, because it reminded me of my favorite line in Walden: “Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men.”

     Ten years ago, I usually carried with me a beat-up copy of Thoreau’s Walden wherever I went. I suppose it was a replacement for the Catholic Youth Bible I once burnt, buried, and planted a seed over up on top of my favorite hill in the forest. Walden was a stand-in for what the Bible might have meant to me back then, that is if there had been someone with the wisdom to cause my young mind to want giggle about some of the wise passages in it.

     But the Bible, sadly, was shown to me to be about nothing other than the serious business of instilled existential guilt, coupled with a list of rules I had to follow to avoid having my soul roasted for eternity. In my 20s, 30s, and half of my 40s, I was pissed about that. I railed against the Catholic church and felt myself to be a victim of the poison of religion. I even went so far as to pretend I was an atheist, even though my heart said otherwise.

     I’m not sure why my resentment faded, but I know now, down deep—somewhere close to where the invisible hooting owl cuts into my giggle reflex—that “goodness is the only investment that never fails.” I know the spirit of what Thoreau was trying to say with those clunky words.

     Goodness isn’t nice, and rarely is it spoken. It’s being spooked by an owl hoot. It’s all the clumsy first times. The last times. The long-gone good times and even some of the bad times. It’s the monster outside my bedroom door when was a kid. It’s the pain I felt when I held my dog while she took her last breath.

"The memory still burns bright in me. It reminds me of a question Thoreau asked himself in his journal. What is religion? he wrote, to which he answered, That which is never spoken."

We were discussing Henry David Thoreau in an Early American Lit. class, when I saw across the room a young lady who was bouncing in her chair, her arm stretched up like she was wanting to touch the ceiling. Two people got picked before her, but she didn’t flinch. She kept bouncing with her hand held high. When she finally got her chance to speak, she grabbed some papers off her desk and began to stutter. “I… I mean. I mean it’s just, it’s like…” She dropped her papers back down on the desk, inhaled deeply, let out a long heavy sigh and said, “I love Thoreau.”

     Laugher erupted all around the room.

     The memory still burns bright in me. It reminds me of a question Thoreau asked himself in his journal. What is religion? he wrote, to which he answered, That which is never spoken. So with that in mind, the young lady in my early American Literature class had a religious experience, because she couldn’t speak, and made us all laugh, and caused the moment to be branded into the ever-tangled web of experience I call my memory. Save for the three words she uttered in frustration, nothing else about that moment was spoken.. 

     The memory is one of those investments that “never fails.” And the moment was a religious experience for me as well. Religious in the spirit of the Latin word Religio, which Joseph Campbell translated as “to reconnect, linking back.” Linking back, connection, devotion, resonance, these are a few of the many words that can be used to describe the one, the big one, in English. The one that everyone wants. “The word” that links us all the way back to the beginning. Ancient Sanskrit has 96 words for it, none of which I know how to speak.

     But truth can be spoken to some degree. And at 56 years old, I’m still learning how to speak it. The best way to learn how to speak the truth, I’ve found, is to stop lying. That was and still is, brutal—because everything I thought I knew about myself turned out to be a lie.

      Hearing an owl hoot in the woods is a good sign. One that always makes me giggle. Just a little. They are wise beyond words, exceptionally good, especially at keeping the vermin population in check.

Michael Helsher is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.