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.

Oscar, Walt and Me

By David Simpatico

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A cardboard butterfly. A human cello. A teenage vampire. Three distinctly different images with one thing in common: a thirst for recognition. This is the story of how I lost myself in the Valley of the Giants, and found my way out again with the help of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.

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In 1980, when I was 20, I was featured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine, a mustachioed Northwestern University student-model for a friend’s nationally recognized, student-entrepreneurial cake company. At 22, I was the comic lead in a Porky’s-esque feature film, Screen Test, which has since achieved dubious cult status (perhaps it was my legendary hot tub scene with a naked blonde and a bubbling tsunami of hot dogs?) At 24, I was doing television commercials with legendary director Joe “Where’s the Beef” Sedelmeier. By 32, I was a Franklin Furnace award-winning New York City performance artist, appearing on bills with Penny Arcade, Dael Orlandersmith and other top solo artists. At 45, I was a downtown playwright of not-too small-renown with, finally, a huge commercial, ‘uptown’ hit, the stage adaptation of Disney’s High School Musical. So, at 50, I left the city with my husband, my dog and my computer, to find seclusion, succor and focus in the woods of Dutchess Country. Seclusion, succor and focus. But not recognition. Because recognition doesn’t matter, it’s the writing that counts. At least, that’s what I told myself.

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In 1855, Walt Whitman stepped into fame, and notoriety, with the publication of Leaves of Grass, his groundbreaking book of poetic free verse. His description of a man in the full bloom of life is etched into our memory partly due to the strength and candor of the written text, “…I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, hoping to cease not till death,” but also largely due to the power of the engraved frontispiece that greets the reader upon opening the book. Rather than use his name as the source of author identification, Walt chose an etching based upon a daguerreotype of himself by photographer Gabriel Harrison.

       Walt changed the world of literary publishing forever with that frontispiece. He was among the first writers to publish his own likeness with his work, literally placing himself, via his image, his identity, in the hands of the reader. The carefully crafted image depicts a strong, handsome, bearded man in his mid-thirties, standing outdoors wearing an open, wide-collared shirt, a worker’s hat raked cockily to the side, with one hand perched casually on his hip and a provocative, direct challenge in his eye: a sexy, poetic Everyman. With that single image, he not only declared himself to the literary world, but also introduced a cult of image-based celebrity that continues to our day.


"From the beginning, my work has received consistently polarized responses: half the people love it, half of them hate it, and the third half are terrified of it. So it goes."


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In 1881, by the age of 27, Oscar Wilde was already a celebrity in London’s social and literary circles. Growing up in an eccentric, creative Dublin home featuring weekly salons of the most dynamic individuals in Ireland, young Oscar quickly developed an outstanding gift of gab, coupled with an overwhelming desire to be famous. His conversational skills were unrivaled from an early age; but it was his hulking physical presence that helped bring him his first brush with fame—and notoriety.

       Oscar made a huge splash at the Grosvenor’s Gallery opening, the social event of the season, spouting his educated opinions on the art exhibitions and drawing the attention of the best of London society, as well as the ink from a few poisoned pens. Standing a solid 6’3”, he dressed the part of an outlandish dandy: silk jacket, puffy satin knee breeches, with musical notes and clefs stitched boldly into the wide-hipped design, giving the distinct appearance of a cello from behind. Oscar was a living work of performance art, a Victorian Leigh Bowery.

 

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Using the platform of the aesthetic movement, Oscar fashioned an identity for himself--languid, brilliant, opinionated, eccentric-- from which he could cast his personality and conversation out into the world. It worked. He was featured on several covers of Punch Magazine, bringing him and his likeness into millions of English homes.

       Oscar was just getting started.

       I feel as if I am always just getting started. Over the course of the last 30 years, my writing career has spanned film, television, video, opera, musical theatre, serious drama, dance and performance art. From the beginning, my work has received consistently polarized responses: half the people love it, half of them hate it, and the third half are terrified of it. So it goes.

       I have an ongoing advance/retreat relationship with success. As soon as I started winning awards in performance art, I stopped performing to focus on writing plays and libretti. After Michael Eisner hired me to write the poetic libretto for Pulitzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis’ millennium choral symphony, Garden of Light, conducted by Kurt Mazur at Lincoln Center, I veered away from the classical world to write an episode of Blues Clues. And then I quit writing altogether, stymied at the fits and starts of my career. After a year of doing computer graphics, I started writing again, scoring a critical success with The Screams of Kitty Genovese, with beautiful and brutal music by UK composer Will Todd, a dark music drama about murder, rape and apathy. After watching a student production in Boston, Robert Brustein, a leading American theatre critic, proclaimed in The Nation, that Kitty Genovese was “the hope of the American Musical Theatre.” And yet, no one would produce it; too violent, too edgy. Fits and starts. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I switched gears to adapt Disney’s High School Musical for the stage. After making a big commercial success with Disney, instead of hunting up my next big hit, I relocated out of New York City up to the Hudson Valley, where I’m told the stars go to hide from the tawdry glare of the spotlight (the Hudson Valley is lousy with celebs--Uma Thurman takes yoga with my pal Jennifer, Mark Ruffalo is a staple of the local anti-fracking set, Paul Rudd bought the candy store in my town). I was going to clear my life of distractions, create a whole new body of work, and focus on ‘getting it all out.’

       For the last seven years, that’s what I’ve been doing. I have been incubating new work in my house in the woods during my voluntary hermitage. I dedicated two years to earning my Masters Degree, deciding, at 55, it was time to sharpen a few old pencils by writing a two-person play about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, called Wilde About Whitman. Back in the Hudson Valley, I created a local playwrights group to help get me out of my cave once a week. The writers in my group helped reacquaint myself with the fact that I work in a medium which demands a live audience in order to find fruition; people need to do my work in order for me to finish it. I’ve been so focused on ‘getting it all out,’ the actual next stage of ‘production’ has eluded me. Or maybe I’ve eluded it. Maybe I veer away from the spotlight where vision and identity finally come together; maybe, despite my intense desire for artistic success, I don’t feel worthy? Maybe my ambivalence is a question of identity; what if I’m afraid of who I am, of owning my talent? Maybe I’m caught in a flux of self-delusion; what if my talent isn’t as worthy as I think it is, and I’m afraid to find that out? Agents have no idea what to do with me: they can’t define me--and if they can’t define me, they can’t sell me.

       Maybe they can’t define me because I can’t define myself.

 

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Walt didn’t have that problem. He pulled no punches; he defined himself as a Poet of the Nation; the Nation, however, defined him as a failure, and a pornographer, due to the ‘prurient’ nature of his subject matter. Walt also defined himself visually; he micro-managed a series of carefully produced photographic portraits, defining his identity for others, and for himself. He was tenacious. He was ambitious. He was the second most photographed American of the 19th century, right behind Mark Twain. He posed for countless photographers, including Thomas Eakins and Napoleon Sarony. He was tireless in his photographic self-promotion and fussed over the smallest details of color and texture and design until the image achieved an iconoclastic, keenly constructed ‘style-with-no-style.’

 
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Style, on the other hand, defined Oscar. By the time he graduated Oxford, he identified himself as the High Priest of the Aesthetic Movement. His languorous posing and hyper-intellectual enthusiasm for the world of beauty had London’s tongue wagging. His brother Willie, who wrote the weekly social column at The Daily Telegraph newspaper, made sure his brother’s artistic antics remained in the public eye. But Oscar, and the Aesthetic movement, had their detractors. The young poet had already met and irritated the world-famous comic librettist, William Gilbert. Gilbert had cautioned the younger poet that he should talk less in public; to which Oscar replied that he would be happy to oblige him, but could not, in his heart, deny the public the pleasure of listening to him.

       A year later, the Savoy Theatre, famous for being the first theatre in London to use electric lighting, opened its doors for business with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, featuring a foppish ‘title’ character based on Oscar. It was a huge hit, and Oscar used it to fan the flames of his own ambition.

       As fate would have it, Patience producer Richard D’Oyly Carte engaged the penniless young aesthete to introduce the Aesthetic Movement to the new world in an eleven-month lecture tour of the United States, dressed as the comic foil, Lord Bunthorne. Essentially, Richard D’Oly Carte hired Oscar Wilde as a ‘sandwich board’ for the upcoming tour of Patience. Oscar agreed, but he had his own ideas.

       Dressed in the dandy’s outfit of knee breeches, cape, bowed shoes and delicate velvet coats, his hair six inches longer than socially acceptable, Oscar played his part to the hilt. He used the lecture tour to spread the gospel of his own identity, celebrity and brilliant intellect through an exhaustive series of lectures and interviews with the local press. He’d spend all day polishing epigrams and paradoxes, for use in conversation later that night.

       Oscar understood the career benefits of cultivating a consistent and professional relationship with the press, in his pursuit of recognition. Even before disembarking in the New York harbor, he presented an endless fascination for American reporters, starting at the US Customs in New York Harbor in 1881, where he claimed, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

Photo Credit: Charles Chessler Photography

Photo Credit: Charles Chessler Photography

In New York City, at Playwrights’ Horizons Theatre on 42nd Street, my one-act play, Prom Queen, was chosen to participate in the prestigious Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival, a high-profile, highly-selective, competitive week-long one-act play festival with a rotation of judges made up of commercially produced writers. This was the Big Event I’d been hoping for, a chance to get myself out of the woods, and back in the game, with a play that showed me at my transgressive best. Before the performance, award-winning photographer Charles Chessler, an old college friend of mine, set up an impromptu photo shoot down on 42nd street, just two hours before the festival. He wanted to get me, as I am, as I was, in the street, full of dreams and shocks and wired hope.

       Charles’ photos were dead on; they captured a happy combination of Angel, Devil and Clown; someone who feels at home in Edgar Allen Poe’s basement. I thought, great, once Prom Queen goes up tonight and makes its impact, once I make my impact, I’ll have a reason to use Charles’ photograph, I’ll be back in the game! Yay!

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Walt wanted to make an impact; he wanted to be noticed; he wanted his work to be taken seriously. From years of experience in the newspaper industry, he knew a photographic image was essential to the success and longevity of an author’s career. A good picture could anchor the author’s identity in the public eye; it could tell them what they should think before any critical response could tell them otherwise. Walt was not above writing letters to the editor in the assumed guise of various ‘public citizens’, praising Whitman’s poetry and even Whitman himself. Taking his career into his own hands, Walt became the ‘voice’ of the ‘people’ by praising himself, as one of them. He demanded, and often provided, the recognition he felt was his due.

 
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During those first few weeks in New York City, Oscar Wilde followed the advice of his friend, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and spent a full day and night with photographer Napoleon Sarony, the Annie Liebowitz of his day. The two men carefully chose the effete costumes and distinctive poses that would make Oscar one of the most famous men in America. The photographic portraits were sent out in advance to newspapers and magazines, portraying a foppish, towering young man whose image beguiled and captured the attention of the country. His audacious photos were used, without his consent, to sell a variety of items, from chewing gum to shoe polish. Sarony’s portrait of Oscar would ultimately gain national and historic merit when the Supreme Court ruled, in favor of Sarony, that photographs could be copyrighted.

       Moments before Prom Queen was about to start, the Samuel French Director of Licensing sat down in the seat next to me; having heard his staff talk about my play for weeks, he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Prom Queen is risky: the piece is a darkly subversive, feminist satire about eating disorders and self-image, and includes the casual, on-stage, blood-sucking murder of an infant. The lights went down, and two brilliant young actresses in bra and panties took over the stage, portraying two New Jersey high school girls who discover the perfect diet: vampirism. The production, directed by Michael Schiralli, was flawless; the performances were wild and familiar and perfectly over the top; the audience erupted in laughter, shock and thunderous, foot-stomping applause. The Director of Licensing grabbed my leg: Prom Queen was a perfect one-act play, he said, and looked forward to seeing me at the final round of the weeklong competition. I could feel the spotlight warming up; clearly, I’d soon be needing Charles’ pics. Angel-Devil-Clown. Maybe I can work with the image, have some fun with it, shoot some more with Charles, allow myself to fully define my identity….

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A famous photo of Walt Whitman balancing a butterfly on the tip of his finger became immensely popular and enhanced his reputation as Poet Laureate of Nature. It didn’t matter that the butterfly was made of cardboard. To Whitman, the image was the message, and the image was whatever he wanted it to be. He later created the myth of the Old Grey Poet, with his casually chosen wardrobe and wild white hair and beard. He spent hours designing a look that he knew would last forever. And soon, over the course of hundreds of newspaper interviews and countless photo sessions, Walt became what his image promised: the wild-haired genius of his time.

 
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Not to be outdone, Oscar gave more than 300 interviews during the eleven-month lecture tour. His photo appeared over hundreds of times in newspapers and periodicals. By the time he left the United States, Oscar Wilde was once again a household name.

       This was eight years before he would write anything of note.

        My husband and I slogged through three Canadian Club Manhattans in Kabooze, a depressive commuter bar deep in Penn Station, waiting around to hear if the judges had chosen Prom Queen to advance in the festival. Remember, the Director of Licensing himself had called Prom Queen “a perfect one act play.” The drinks tasted good.

       And then, I got a short text from my director. The judges’ verdict was in: Prom Queen had been ejected. Bounced out of the festival. Apparently one of the judges accused my piece of being sexist, missing the feminist trees in a forest of exposed teen flesh. And so, Prom Queen ended its run, ignominiously abandoned, bounced out of the game, shunted to the dark side of the spotlight. Again.

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Identity. Self-definition. Self-promotion. Self-awareness. The power and clarity of the photographic image. Whitman introduced it. Wilde fulfilled it.  Both men understood how to turn this recipe for fame into long, successful careers, using their celebrity to help spread the brilliance of their talent. Both fanned the flames of their ambition, despite either bad critical reviews of their work, or no work yet to be reviewed.

       By focusing on the carefully constructed image, on the photograph, on the self-articulated identity as the artists defined themselves, they were able to circumvent critical literary response as being the sole, defining lynchpin of success. Their image reflected a persona they wanted to promote. Their image became them. And they became their image.

 
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Clearly, I need to change how I play the game. The world can’t get a clear picture of who I am, because I keep changing it. Do I need to take one and give it to them, literally? No. What I need to do is consider myself with the same acuity and awareness exhibited by both Whitman and Wilde, and anchor myself in that image, in that identity. In my own identity. 

       My self-delusion is not so grand as to consider myself in the same class as these two giants; I’m barely in the same school, eating cookies and taking naps in the sodden corners of pre-K. But having stuck my head inside their lecture hall, I can see the similarities and disparities between them and me. Their careers were fueled by a constant belief in self-worth that enabled them to masterfully craft their fame. Their desire for recognition and success were unflinching and creative; it gave them a constant platform from which to spread their brilliant work. I have had a career of fits and starts. My belief in my self-worth would get me to the brink of success, would court the spotlight for my unique voice and vision, but then I’d run from whatever victory I had gained, feeling somehow unworthy of the intensely positive attention, or defined by tone-deaf, negative response.

       Walt posed with a cardboard butterfly because he believed in what the image purported. Oscar paraded as a dandy because he knew he would gain the attention he felt he would someday deserve; by the end of the tour, he would lock the dandy costume in a trunk, and redefine himself as a serious (and seriously funny) man of letters. Neither of them was fully embraced by society; both Oscar and Walt were condemned for their work, and both died penniless. But neither of them swerved from the unshakeable belief in themselves. They each believed that their talent was worthy of the world, and that they were worthy of their talent. They defined themselves in a photo in order to spread a consistent, visual recognition of who they were, but their true definition was not confined to an image; rather, their sense of self exceeded the banks of the image they chose for themselves. Their belief in self was anchored in the knowledge that they deserved their talent. They craved the spotlight in order to better share their experience of the world.

       As I jump once again back into the game, here is what I learned from my visit to the Valley of the Giants: Before you can expect others to know you, you have to know yourself first. As Oscar might say, belief in self-image breeds belief in one’s self.


David Simpatico is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. His full length play, Wilde About Whitman, is slated for publication in The Idaho Review, Fall 2018. 

Such Great Heights

By Sarah Foil

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We arrived at our campsite shortly before the park closed their gates at 10 pm. After an afternoon by the river, drinking beer, eating pizza and enjoying the sun, we were warm and dazed. Daniel helped me set up the tent and air mattress at the campsite, right next to our friends. Once finished, I had assumed we’d spend the evening the way I spent most nights when I camped: drinking wine, roasting marshmallows, and chatting about nothing in particular. Instead, my campmates were packing their backpacks and lacing their boots.

     “You guys ready?” Eric asked. He strapped a headlamp to his forehead. He was a more prepared camper than Daniel and me. He had the gas lamp, multiple flashlights, an overhead tarp for the picnic table, and an air mattress that apparently could inflate on its own in less than a minute. We had brought bathing suits and a cooler filled with boxed wine and Blue Moon.

     “For what?” I asked.

     “Our midnight hike,” Sam said. She’d just taken a shower in the communal bathrooms and smelled like flowers; I’d taken a shower before we’d left home that afternoon and smelled like bug spray.

     “Are we allowed to hike after the park closes?” I asked.

     “Probably not,” Daniel said. “But it sounds like fun."

     “We do this every year,” Eric said. “We’ll hike up to the top the mountain. We’re already halfway up.”

     “But it’s pitch black outside,” I said.

     “It’s totally worth it,” Sam said. “Trust me.”

     Anxiety twisted in my stomach but Daniel was already padding his pockets with water bottles and snacks. Eric tossed me a headlamp, and we followed him and Sam up to the trail.

     I moseyed in back of the group, focusing on my feet shambling up the uneven rocks, mindful of the long crooked twigs poking up from the bed of leaves. Ahead of me the trail wound, switchback after switchback, as we climbed higher. The moon hid behind the clouds and the towering tree canopy blocked residual light from reaching our trail. Anything past the light of our flashlights was lost in abysmal blackness.

     I’d hiked this trail many times before, but it looked sinister without the sunlight, the crowd of hikers and bird songs.


"It wasn’t gone. I knew that. It was lurking somewhere behind, along with hundreds of his little friends, just waiting to bite."


The first portion of the hike went quickly. We talked and laughed. Soon I forget about the looming nothingness on all sides of me and the scurrying insects and arachnids that would, no doubt, climb up my leg if I slowed my pace.

     Eric was in the middle of telling a story about his parents when an unfamiliar noise interrupted us, almost like a vibration or cicada hum.  Every beam from our headlamps and flashlights swung down to the forest floor. What looked like a shabby piece of dark brown cord slithered around the rocks beneath us.

     Eric yelled, “Rattlesnake!”

     I shrieked and leaped nearly a foot back, then cowered behind Daniel. I could hear my heart thudding in my head. My legs shook.

     The snake jostled its tail a final time before it slid off the trail and out of sight.

     “Can we go? I want to go.” I said to no one in particular.

     “You can go if you want,” Sam said. She looked calm in the flashlight’s glow, but her voice quivered. “I won’t blame you.”

     “That’s never happened before,” Eric said. He gave a dry laugh. “That was crazy.”

     “Do you really want to leave?” Daniel asked me, quietly. “We’re almost there.”

     Sam made a face, which said that that wasn’t completely true.

     “I want to go back,” I said.

     “I’ll go with you if you want, but I really want to get to the top,” Daniel said. “The snake’s gone now, anyway. It’s okay.”

     It wasn’t gone. I knew that. It was lurking somewhere behind, along with hundreds of his little friends, just waiting to bite. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen a live snake but this was the first time I’d seen one outside of a zoo.

     “You should stay,” Sam said. “I’ve never seen a snake on this trail before. It’s just a freak accident.”

     “Really?” I asked.

     “First time,” Eric reassured me.

     “Let’s go,” Daniel said. He rested a hand on my back. “I’ll stay back here with you and hold the light at your feet.”

     I hesitated because I was trying to decide if it would be better to continue up the trail or head back to the camp and sit there all alone. Also, I still couldn’t feel my legs. However, I didn’t want to ruin the fun for everyone else and risk missing out on the rest of the trip, so I’d go on, but it would be slowly. Carefully.

     “If we see another snake, I’m leaving."

     We continued. Step by step. Daniel kept his flashlight trained on my feet, while Sam and Eric attempted to keep the conversation distracting and snake-anecdote free, but I remained on edge. Each twig and stick was now a potential enemy. The spiders and centipedes crawling over my feet weren’t the only concerns anymore.

     Occasionally, Daniel lifted his flashlight to scan the surrounding trees. Each time he did, I panicked and insisted he keep the flashlight pointed at the ground. That’s where the danger slithered from. He huffed in frustration but kept the light low. I’m sure he was looking for coyotes or bears or something more terrifying than a snake, but that didn’t matter to me at the moment.

     We inched up the path, which got steeper and ever more treacherous as we climbed. Time passed and my breathing grew heavy from climbing the cut rock that made up the man-made stairs while I suspiciously eyed any and everything that moved. Eventually, the trees gave way to open air and cold wind. The sky appeared above us from the canopy, although it was still too cloudy to see the stars or moon.

     The old fire watch tower grew up out of the center of the landing, chipping brick and rusting metal. It was a short climb to the top of the tower, but once we conquered the stairs, it felt like we were in another world.

     The mountain pass spread out wide before us. We could follow the lights down roads that led back to our homes almost an hour away. We found the powerplant, the city I worked in, the warehouse by my in-law’s home. In the distance we saw bolts of lightning, which looked more like sparkling splinters than formidable forces of nature.

     In fact, everything was small here. The trees were small. The snakes were small. I was small.

     And just at that moment, standing there amongst friends high atop the mountain, while taking in the view of the sleeping, miniature world below,  I was unafraid.


Sarah Foil is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. You can follow her at www.sarahfoil.com: A Blog for Writers, for Readers, for Dog Lovers, for Coffee Drinkers.

Like the Flowers

By Katie Pavel

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“It's not that bad,” I say. “If you don’t look over that far, you can almost pretend it’s not there.”

     My mom nods, unconvinced. 

     “Look,” I say. “If you stand here, this tree blocks it out entirely.”

     “When you sit on the bench, though, you can still see it,” my dad says. 

     I frown. “Oh.”

     “It won't be the same,” Mom says.

     No, it won't be the same. 

     I stare down the 80-foot double-wide that is blocking a third of the once panoramic view of the foothills rolling out to the prairie and Bear Butte beyond. It’s not so much the ruined view that is upsetting, though that was part of what made this place special. It’s the fact that the seclusion of the garden has been lost.

     A year or two after my brother died, now going on nine or so years ago, Mom and Dad fenced off a few acres in the upper southwest corner of their property to create a memorial garden for Brian. They chose that particular location because Brian often spent time there taking pictures of the wildflowers that appeared every season. Keeping the horses and goats from grazing has allowed the land to return to its natural, undisturbed state.

     In addition to remembering Brian, Mom and Dad wanted to create a space where family members of those like Brian, those who have shared the gift of life through organ donation, or recipients who have received such gifts, can visit. They built a deck in a cove surrounded by pine trees so visitors can sit and reflect. A year or so later, a local church built a gazebo-like structure where Mom and Dad hung signs that explain the significance of the garden and its purpose. The recipient of Brian’s heart and liver even donated some benches.  Every year, Mom mows paths in the garden so that people can meander through and around the flowers.


"When the rains come, the flowers flourish—cone flowers, sego lilies, wild rose, and lead plant—until the entire hillside is awash with color. "


The garden is far enough from my parents’ house so that you don’t feel like you’re intruding. Mom and Dad say they often don’t realize someone has visited until they hear a car heading back down the road. You can stare out at the view of Bear Butte, listen to the birds singing and the winds swaying through the grass, remember your loved ones, and cry if you want. You can stay from sunrise to sunset for as long as you like.   

     During dry years, the flowers are sparse. You have to walk slowly and search amongst the brome grass to find the delicate harebells blossoming underneath the growth. When the rains come, the flowers flourish—cone flowers, sego lilies, wild rose, and lead plant—until the entire hillside is awash with color. Mom always says the garden reflects life, how we survive through the hard times and blossom during the good. Every season is different and yet the garden, like life, continues to change and grow.

     “Why’d they put their house there? Don’t they understand what the garden is for, how special it is?” friends asked my parents when they found out that the people who had bought the land directly to the south had chosen to plant their house right on the top of the hill, only a few hundred yards from the garden.

     “They haven’t experienced a loss,” Dad said. “They can’t relate.”

     I wish they could. Not that I’d wish the pain of losing someone on anyone. But still.

     “Put up a privacy fence,” I said when I found out. I was kidding at the time, and yet I wasn’t. 

     Dad, always the diplomat, said that wouldn’t be the neighborly thing to do.

     Before the land sold, you had to follow a two track, nothing more than a path, really, through the trees to reach the garden. The track was rough, and while Mom kept it mowed during the summer, it was all but impassable during the winter. Now, the trees have been cut down and a wide driveway leads to the house on top. It makes for easy access to the garden, too, but that’s just another part of the sentiment that is gone.

     As we pause on the deck in the cove and reflect upon how the garden will now be, we reconsider my idea.

     “Maybe not a full fence,” I say. “Just partitions. We could build windbreaks to block the view of the house out in the pasture. The horses and goats could use them, too. And up on top, we could put an art wall, a place maybe where people can donate decorations to hang in memory of their loved ones.”

     Dad mulls over the idea. “You know, that might just work.”

     “Something to consider,” Mom says.

     For now, we’ll wait. We’ll see. Maybe the mood of the garden won’t change. Maybe visitors will still be able to find the seclusion and privacy they seek. Maybe Mom and Dad won’t have to mourn losing a little bit of Brian all over again.

     In the end, what else can we do? Like the flowers, we have to find the good in the bad and allow for change. We have to continue to grow. 


Katie Pavel is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She has her own blog and runs Little Leaf Copy Editing, an online business that specializes in copy editing and writing consulting.

PG-wan

By Margaret McNellis

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When my eldest nephew was born, my father wanted to be called “The Grandfather,” like in Heidi. We all told him that was too formal and joked that he should be called “Poppy,” instead.  Somehow, this morphed into "Poppy-Gramps," which we then shortened to “PG” or “Peej.” We all took a certain pride in the nickname, though none so much as its owner, my father. He was the greatest PG there’d ever been, or at the very least, a more than decent grandfather. His grandchildren were always first in his thoughts.

     He’d take them hiking on our property, in search of ancient campsites, where their five-and-seven-year-old selves felt certain the random, oddly-shaped stones and scraps of discolored wood were actually the scattered remnants of old arrowheads, timeworn heirlooms from a distant past, just waiting to be unearthed beneath the blanket of dried, crunchy leaves. He kept for them a secret rock collection, guarded under lock and key, and a slew of camping gear he’d hoped to use in retirement, whenever he let that day come. Just as he’d done with me as a child, so he did with them. In that, whatever their interests were, he nurtured them and became an armchair expert in those subjects, just to have something to say to them that would ignite the sparkle of curiosity in their young eyes. With one grandfather living halfway across the globe, he did double duty as their elder male role-model. He was the harbinger of Hess trucks and the bestower of train sets. He was our PG-wan


"Just as he’d done with me as a child, so he did with them. In that, whatever their interests were, he nurtured them and became an armchair expert in those subjects, just to have something to say to them that would ignite the sparkle of curiosity in their young eyes."


The year was 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was due to be released later that year, and for Halloween, I traveled with my parents to East Hampton, New York. There’s a street there that goes Halloween-crazy, with piles of pumpkins, gaggles of ghosts, and just before sundown—hordes of trick-or-treaters and their families. We all decided to dress up as characters from the Star Wars universe. We had just about everyone from the film, including Rei and Kylo Ren. Some of us were token Jedi, but my father dressed up as Obi-wan Kenobi. He had the beard and everything, including an extending, light-up plastic saber that made authentic whooshing and clashing sounds.

     We called him "PG-wan."

     My father loved Halloween. He was always a faithful trick-or-treating guardian. As we zigzagged from house to house, each casting an orange glow from the jack-o-lanterns that adorned front walks nestled between swaths of perfectly manicured lawns, he’d carry flashlights for us, our sacks of candy when they got too heavy, and always made us walk on whatever side of him was farthest away from any vehicular danger. His guardianship didn’t end after the press of the final doorbell, either. When we got home, he’d check our candy to make sure no one had tampered with it, though I also suspect he was cataloging our hauls so as to ensure we didn’t go into sugar frenzies by eating too much at once.

     Just as Obi-wan Kenobi tried to guide Luke Skywalker and look after him, so too would my father happily take on the role of protector. He played the same role for my nephews, too, giving them just enough freedom not to feel the pull of authority, but always keeping a watchful eye, whether to protect them or to take pictures of them with other neighborhood Jedi.

     2015 was his last Halloween. His diagnosis and death robbed him of just one more pretense, just one more candy-walk, just one more night of fog machines, giant inflatable witches, and foam gravestones. The last time I visited my sister’s house, Memorial Day 2018, I came across his PG-wan robe. For the first time since he passed, there was no sadness in finding something of his tucked away. Instead, I just smiled, draped the robe over my shoulders and watched the thin, brown fabric pool at my feet. Then I held out my arms, pretended I swung a lightsaber in my hands. I even made the whooshing sounds.


Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Follow her on her bog, https://mmcnellis.com

Meet Mona

By Danny Fisher

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I’m in bed frolicking, as adults do, head at the wrong end of the bed, feet in the air, engaged in full-on naked frolicking with the new man in my life, when a voice from my kitchen floats up the stairs,  “Danielle-a, are you here? You busy?”

     I forgot that she was going to stop by; I also forgot she has a key. I get out of bed and shut the bedroom door. My new boyfriend does what he does best.

     “Who the fuck is that?” Wide-eyed, he searches for his underwear, tossing blankets and pillows in a flurry of fabric.  

     “That would be my mother,” I say. I am forty-three years old with two grown children. The cat’s out of the bag regarding my virginity. My mother knows.  My boyfriend cannot grasp this fact.

     “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he mutters as he hops around on one foot, his found underwear pulled up mid-thigh,  pants dangling off the other leg. I cock my head and watch as everything dangles.

     “Babe, relax, I’ll go down there. Just chill,” I say. I slip on a  negligee. “If you jump, you’ll probably break a leg,” I add, just in case he decides to try something stupid.  Then I go downstairs and greet my mother.


"My mother is the lady who taught me that panty lines were tacky. She oozes the kind of sex appeal most women fake."


“Hey, Mom.” I kiss her cheek, “I forgot you were coming up.”

     “I told you I had that doctor’s appointment.” She pulls back and notices my attire. “That’s cute. You look skinny. Were you sleeping?”

     “No, I was fucking.”

     My mother is the lady who taught me that panty lines were tacky. She oozes the kind of sex appeal most women fake. In response to my declaration, her eyes light up.

     “Oooh!” She leans toward the staircase as if to catch a peek. “Is he coming down?”

     “Uh, well, he’s kind of shy. The thing is, Mom, he’s a little younger than me.”

     She raises a brow.

     “Thirty. He’s thirty, but he looks twelve. Okay, not twelve, but not thirty. He’s cute. He’s Asian. He’s a cute Asian.”

     “The Asians always look young,” she says. She walks to the bottom of the stairs.  I’m not sure what she’s about to do, but there’s no stopping her. A force to be reckoned with, that one. 

     “Hey, you up there! You best put your pants on and come down and meet me! Don’t make me come up there!” She smiles at me and winks. 

      I go upstairs. The boyfriend is fully dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed. 

     “Are you fucking serious right now?” he says.

     “Do you really want her to come up here?” We both take stock of the surroundings. There is the bed that looks like a tornado hit it. 

     And then there is the paraphernalia.  Our eyes lock on the paraphernalia. He looks at me. I shake my head, no. There is no time to dispense with the paraphernalia. She will come up here, my expression says. She will see it. She will comment on it. She will not pretend she didn’t see it. 

     “Fuck,” he groans and follows me downstairs. 

     “Mom, this is Pat,” I step out of the way of their meeting. “Pat, this is my mother, Mona.” My mother approaches him, wraps her bony arms around him and squeezes as if she were being reunited with a long-lost love. Pat’s brown eyes shoot daggers at me over her shoulder. Mom stands back from the embrace, leaves her hands resting on his upper arms and says with a bright smile, “So, Danny tells me you two were fucking?”

     The boyfriend laughs—in that way that says he is dying inside—then nods.

     My seventy-three-year-old mother squeals in delight and dances a jig, old lady batwings wagging, toes tapping, shit-eating grin plastered on her face. “Oh, how I wish I was young again and could spend my days in bed with a cutie like you!”

     Somehow, we dated for almost two years.


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

On Acting Like Snails

By Elodie Reed

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I searched for action in the tidal pool but could only find periwinkle snails. My friend Laura, visiting from Washington, D.C., had never been to the coast of Maine before, and I wanted to show her a crab or something else wriggling and obviously alive. I sat on the edge of the long, narrow, water-filled gash in the grey rock and stared down.

     It only took a minute of staying still before I saw just how much the snails squirmed along the damp rock walls, at the water’s edge, and at the bottom of the pool. The brown, beige and lilac spiral shells spun like dials, adjusting this way and that, as each set of dark brown antennae probed the way forward.

     “I think I’m stepping on them!” Laura, who had also discovered the periwinkles, tiptoed over wet rocks a few feet away. She let out a cry whenever her sneaker landed with a particularly crispy crunch.

     “They’re everywhere,” I agreed. “I didn’t realize how much they moved.”


"The brown, beige and lilac spiral shells spun like dials, adjusting this way and that, as each set of dark brown antennae probed the way forward."


Before we left Maine, Laura and I drove through Portland, where a bearded man in a blue flannel shirt stood beneath a stoplight and held a cardboard sign that read: “Fisherman Out Of Work.” The light was still red, so I reached into the backseat for our box of snacks and rolled down the driver’s side window. I held out the box.

     “What is it?” the man asked.

     “Granola bars and fruit leathers.”

     He grabbed a Chewy bar, said thanks and moved on to the car behind ours. As I waited for the light to turn green, I wished I had met his eyes, which had been shaded by the baseball cap crammed down over his long hair.

     “Wow, I don’t know if I would have done that,” Laura said. She didn’t sound critical – more like, wondering. I considered all the old arguments I used to make inside my head: it might be unsafe; he might sell the food for drugs; there might be a better way of helping him.

     “I used to not stop and tell myself I’d donate to a homeless shelter when I got home, but I’d always forget to do it, ” I said. “Now I just try to acknowledge people, and offer them food if I have it.” The attempt, even if small and imperfect, always felt better than doing nothing.

     “Something similar happened to me last week,” Laura told me. She had been riding the subway, she said, when a non-verbal woman in an electronic wheelchair got stuck between the doors while she tried to exit the car. People rushed in to help, but once they got the woman out, everyone left. Laura lingered and watched the woman continue sitting near the edge of the platform. She seemed to be having a hard time getting her wheelchair to go.  

     “I didn’t know if I should go and try to help,” Laura said. She worried she might mess up and accidentally send the wheelchair onto the tracks. Laura eventually decided to go over anyway and, after communicating with the woman through hand motions, found the correct switch on the wheelchair.

     “I can’t believe I was thinking of just walking away and not helping her.”

***

At the tidal pool earlier that day, I noticed, with some pity, a single periwinkle clinging to the dry rock directly across from where I sat. I thought it might be dead, left behind by the receding tide now six inches below. At first I looked away, back to the mollusks quivering in the water; but then I returned to the lone snail. Hadn’t it stuck to a higher spot just a minute ago?

     Little by little, the periwinkle’s slime trail lengthened in a sideways, descending slant. It followed one lateral groove in the rock for half an inch, stopped, turned around, lowered down to another groove, and repeated the process all over again. After ten minutes of tracking this razor-thin switchback path, the snail finally reached the waterline.

     I would have stayed for whatever slow-motion happened next, but I heard Laura shifting from foot to foot behind me, waiting out my snail antics. As we walked to the sandy part of the beach, I couldn’t stop thinking about the overwhelming effort and time it took for snails to do something, and what a wonder it was that they attempted anything at all. Perhaps their trick was that they didn’t think about it.


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

What Ambition Gets You

By Arun Chittur

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I was in Pennsylvania this past weekend for my mother-in-law’s surprise retirement party. She spent thirty years working for the school district, accruing a lifetime of stories from successive generations of parents and their children. The party was a clash of worlds, with friends from her high school graduating class meeting old co-workers and extended family who had traveled from across the Northeast. It was the first time I’d ever been to a party where everyone invited RSVP’d “yes.” Thirty-seven invitations sent; thirty-seven confirmed attending. Not even all-day rains dampened the afternoon as we congregated beneath two vinyl canopies and a detached garage. My in-laws’ backyard was crowded with cousins and siblings, toddlers and teenagers, family members by blood and marriage. One of my wife’s cousins and my brother-in-law dominated the ad hoc cornhole tournament. We enjoyed good beer, great barbecue, and an unspoken guarantee that no external force could ruin the experience.

           Last month I hit ten years with my company. I celebrated the expected but modest pay raise with a decision to leave in the next year and move on to pursue other life goals. Making it twenty years entitles you to a stable, if small, pension. As I’ve shared this with friends, they’ve split in their opinion.

           Some argued, “You’re halfway! What’s ten more?”

           Yet others said, “Ten more years? That’s a long time.”

           I’ve been leaning toward the latter for a while, especially with a company that focuses on pre-ordained patterns of progression after that all-important 10-year mark. And so this transition has me thinking about ambition … the kind we feel internally, and the kind foisted upon us by an organization grooming its next generation of managers for its own sake—at the expense of those closest to us who might wish for something else. A life where they see their husband or wife or father or mother more often. Many wish for something better.


"I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion?"


My parents’ generation, wrapped snuggly in a blanket of stability, valued ambition. A desire to rise. Happiness meant a good education and the same job for decades. Predictable income and minimal risk. As a reluctant millennial, I’ve wavered between the safety of a stable, if flat, trajectory, and something more like a sine wave, with ups and down defined by risk and decisions made without a clear vision of the future. Many of our best memories have been born from the peaks and valleys, where we’ve lived and learned the most. None of these moments would’ve happened had I chosen ‘guaranteed’ success and opted for the stable route. The route with all of the questions answered and little left to guess. I don’t regret my last 10 years. But as I look across the backyard, I know that should I choose the stable path, I will accept the promise of a job at the expense of our best memories yet to be made.

           Under the canopy, no one talked about the latest project at work, or what it would take for the next promotion. Whatever ambition was fueling my current state of work, none of it had resulted in this moment. This moment owed no one else, it came to be because of family and friends who outlasted all of our careers and all of our moves. It came to be because it was based on what lasts. Ambition can get you a lot in a short period of time, but it will never provide for you what you need most to be fulfilled.

           I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to articulate this lesson for myself. Ambition can be healthy, but mustn’t there be a purpose behind it? A reason beyond your own self-interest, your own self-promotion? Otherwise what’s left after the experience of life ends? What will there be but the possessions of a life purchased and not lived?

           Ambition gets you money and notoriety: a nice car, a nice house, even a few acquaintances that will pass as friends in suitable moments. But it doesn’t get you the friends you’ve had since college, or cousins willing to drive hours to help you load and unload a moving truck, and certainly not a family that loves you. In the final calculation, ambition can only get you what’s temporary, what’s fleeting in reward.


Arun Chittur is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches organizational leadership and pedagogy in Nevada.