Running to Trauma

by Eddie Dzialo

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When I first appeared at the Officer Selection Office in Durham, NH, I told them that I wanted to be a Marine officer and that I would do whatever they needed me to do. Had it been an option, I would have left that day. 

I went down to the Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, but three weeks before graduation I broke the second metatarsal in my right foot. The intensity of the physical fitness requirements literally broke me.

In the mornings, before the Sergeant Instructors tore through the barracks, I got up and wrapped my foot with duct tape. The top of my foot had swollen so badly that I wouldn’t have been able to get it in my boot without taping it down. My rack mate, the nephew of a legendary NFL coach, said that my foot looked like it had swallowed a purple grapefruit. One of the Corpsmen—the Navy’s version of an EMT—caught me doing my morning duct tape routine. When he told me that I would have to go see a doctor and be dropped due to injury, I told him that I must have pulled something and nothing was broken. To prove this, I hopped up and down on one foot—the shattered one. Either he was foolish enough to believe me, or he saw how badly I wanted to stay.

During the timed runs, the endurance courses, the conditioning hikes and fitness tests, I ran on the outside of my foot—until that bone broke too. Before graduation, I ran three miles in 19:02 with a foot that looked like an infected circle. When I got home, I went to get X-rays. After getting the results, the doctor refused to let me get off the examination table; he wanted to get me into surgery. Even then, I pleaded for a cast because getting surgery would have prevented me from being sworn in as a Marine officer when I graduated college the following spring.

Three years later, I was in Iraq.

Both of my parents were Marines, as were two of my uncles, my aunt, and my cousin. Despite my background, no one in my family told me to become a Marine. Before I left, my father tried to talk me out of it. It’s not that he wasn’t proud of me or that he wasn’t being supportive, but he told me that if I was going to risk my life doing something, then the decision to do so had to come from me alone.

I am not the same person I used to be. Before I left for the Marines, I had friends; I had been the president of a fraternity; when I smiled, I meant it. I am guilty of making choices that impact not only me but everyone in my life. Relationships of all varieties become strained, but unlike many survivors of trauma, I was an eager participant. I volunteered for something, and I accept the consequences of that decision, but the people around me, the people who see me struggle, did not.

After my second deployment, life morphed into a dull fog. The aftermath was the loss of emotions, the feelings of isolation and confusion that evolve into anxiety. And I became this way because I wanted it. A draft notice never appeared in the mail, an economic hardship hadn’t made me consider the military as a means for a better life. I didn’t stumble into my current state, I ran into it, willingly. I wanted to become a Marine and I ended up exactly where I had set out to go. 


Student Picks: Wuxia, Murray, Tartt

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C. A. Cooke-- The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants is one of China’s oldest and greatest masterpieces of literature, and one of the founding works of thewuxia (WOO-shee-A) genre. Wuxia translates to “martial hero” and is applied to the genre of literature and cinema concerning the adventures of wandering martial artists in ancient China. A typical wuxia story follows honorable martial heroes through their dealings with bandits, evil warlords, and even demons.

A perfect example of how this story formed this genre can be found within the section “Sleek Rat Helps an Old Man.” A young warrior known as Sleek Rat discovers a landlord has kidnapped his tenant’s daughter to ransom more money from him. Sleek Rat pays the ransom, then waits; under the cover of darkness, Sleek Rat rescues the daughter and punishes the landlord. Thus, he has proven both his gallantry and his skill.

Throughout the centuries, wuxia became popular and crept into cinema. The current Ip Man films about a Kung Fu master righting wrongs through the Japanese and British occupations of Hong Kong owe their beginnings to novels like The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. The novel, and the genre, have both withstood the test of time.

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Margaret McNellis-- Breaking Night by Liz Murray is a memoir about forgiveness and finding one’s own drive and personal power. It’s a story of homelessness and isolation, of family, friendship, and hardship. I recently had to read this book for work, and it was one of the most heart-wrenching, beautiful memoirs I’ve ever had the pleasure (and at times, displeasure) to read. The writing is clear and captivating, and Murray’s voice jumps off the page to surround the reader in stereo from the start of the prologue.

The obstacles that Murray had to overcome—even as a young child—seem insurmountable, yet she inspires with her determination and love for her family, particularly her mother. Her relationship with her mother, and with herself, are central, though Murray expertly demonstrates how those two relationships define all the others in her formative and teenage years.

Fair warning: If you’re going to read this book, I recommend a box of tissues... Or at least a break every now and then. Yet, it’s worth the strained—or even snapped—heartstrings.

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Michael Allen-- Pardon my lack of macho manliness, but I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard at the end of a novel as I did when I finished reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. For me, this book was a mountain of woman-made words like nothing I’ve ever read, or seen, or hiked before, nor will I ever again.

The power and sway of the writing makes the story feel plotless throughout, yet still completely captivating. The love of art and craftsmanship is brilliantly sewn into a weighty coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman, that cruises the line between this stinking, sinking, cluster-truck of a world; and the invisible, unknowable, un-improvable space between, behind, and in front of the ciphers I’m punching in now. Jaw dropping description. Irreverently religious. Un-piously holy.  A masterpiece of a story derived from an obscure masterpiece painting that miraculously survived destruction in the 1600s, which gets stolen by an unwilling hero who also miraculously survives destruction.

Not for those who like a simple hero’s journey tale. Some critics don’t like it. But for me it was unpredictable and sprinkled with untethered brilliance. Oh, and I guess it won some kind of an award, or something.

Rollie’s Farm

by David Moloney

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For the last eighteen years, on the day after Thanksgiving, while still digesting and  dehydrated, I sell Christmas trees at a local fresh cut tree farm: Rollie’s Farm. Owned and named after Roland “Rollie” Perron, it is the only farm left in Lowell, MA.  Lowell, a former mill town turned college city, has the fourth highest population in the state. So, Rollie’s Farm is a welcomed small business. He owns fifteen acres of land and has stuffed fifteen thousand trees onto it. Rollie’s is a true throwback. The tractor ride to the fields is an old converted, pop-up camper with custom benches that serves as a wagon. Trees are sawed down by hand. We shake the trees in the rumbling Lit’l Shakee tree shaker, and rid them of pine needles, cones, abandoned bird’s nests, and papery beehives.  There’s wildlife not found anywhere else in the city: a rafter of turkeys, a bald eagle, woodchucks, and evidence of a bear (scat near the tall firewood pile). The rustic farm and its bearded owner are the real draw for the thousand or so customers that return each year. They pretend, for an afternoon, they live in Vermont or upstate New Hampshire, some other part of New England not overwhelmed and tired from endless traffic and long grocery lines. City dwellers, for the most part, love being in the city, but there’s a reason why we escape north for vacations.

The extra money during holiday season is welcomed, but isn’t the sole reason we get almost the same crew back each season. We have a small twelve-man team of engineers, welders, teachers, IT salesmen and cooks. We get to dust off the long johns and escape our enclosed workspaces for frosty New England mornings, saws and sap; the hard work of hoisting big trunked trees out of wagon campers, ripping them through too-small bailers, tossing them on cars. We welcome the soreness. Infrequent contact with physical work isn’t a bad problem to have. I wouldn’t tell a person who does stone work for a living that they don’t realize how good they have it, that each morning they should prepare for a moment of enlightenment during the strenuous work, when your body performs like it was meant to.

I only see many of the guys I work with once a year for three weekends. We don’t communicate much otherwise. But there’s also something intimate in our distance.  That Friday after Thanksgiving we return to the farm as if we’d been working together year round. Inside jokes carry over, hugs, ribbing, stories from workers who came and left, eccentric customers who we may banter and wonder about in years they didn’t show up for their tree. After the long day, Rollie has beers ready inside the farmhouse. We pile in, needles and all, and warm our cheeks. Over beers, we tell stories of the farm, the people we’ve lost, and the ones who are still kicking.

Rollie is going gray and there are always rumors that he plans on selling the farm so developers can cram sixty houses in place of Balsam firs. I don’t know what they’ve offered him, but I can imagine it’d be enough to cover anything he’ll make from selling Christmas trees for the rest of his life. But he values hard work, and I don’t think he can leave it.

When I first started working for him at fifteen years old, I wanted to prove I could make it on the farm. I picked corn with him at 5:30 am and then worked my shift at the vegetable stand later in the day. For a week, I took the city bus to the outer edge of Lowell, changed in the barn, and built a greenhouse. I mowed in the fields to make room for seedlings, and then planted rows of Corkbark Firs with Rollie. He wasn’t talkative, the money wasn’t great, and the work was repetitive and strenuous, but I kept coming back. I hadn’t grown up with knowledge of tools or how to work with my hands. Rollie offered a different kind of place for me. There was openness, dirt under my nails, and certain rigidness in his criticism. He wouldn’t get angry or yell. He would just tell me I was tying tomato plants wrong. Then he’d show me. Then he’d make me tie them right. It was what a fifteen-year-old boy needed, or at least what I needed. Boys won’t listen to their fathers the same way they will a coach or boss or teacher.

If I had to poll the work crew, I imagine they’d all have a similar reason for working for Rollie. Even as we age, we still yearn for rusty tractors, cut-your-own tree farms, cash only payments, offline friends,a place where you don’t feel the connected weight of the world. And there’s promising news: Rollie just ordered a thousand more seedlings.


David Moloney is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  He currently teaches writing at UMASS Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University.

Memories of Used Books

by Terri Alexander

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There’s a bookstore in Scotland that I still think about. I was traveling alone by train across the Scottish Highlands, headed west toward the coast. I was searching for clues about ancestors from my mother’s side of the family. Outside the window, a patchwork of amber, purple, greens and browns rolled out like the quilt of an unmade bed. It was spring, and the grasses and flowers of Cairngorms National Park were showing their stuff.

That morning, I had left the tiny village of Insch with some regret. I wanted to stay longer so I could go back to the church where my great great grandmother had been baptized, so that I could sit on the mossy grass of the old cemetery and commune with the silence, so that I could climb Dunnideer Hill one more time to touch the stone of the ruined castle.

 I was headed for Inverness, which I’d been anticipating ever since I saw it on the map at home. The city’s geographic location caused a sudden intake of breath every time I looked at it. It was as if someone had taken a sharp knife to the United Kingdom and slashed it diagonally at its skinniest point. Inverness sat in the middle of this slice, land that connected the waters of Moray Firth and Loch Ness. I had no known ancestors in this part of Scotland. I was here for the geography alone.

I stepped off the train, and the city assaulted my senses. I’d grown accustomed to breathing air with hints of sheep and grass, hearing the lonely wind as the loudest sound. Gravity helped me down the hill to the Greig Street Bridge, which crossed the River Ness. Everything was cold and gray – the buildings, the sky, the water. I stood along the rail and watched the water flow beneath me. I was at the exact point on the map that took my breath away, and yet I felt … nothing special. I waited, certain that some significance would come along. I waited until the damp, cold wind drove me away.

Gravity was my enemy as I trudged up Friar’s Lane, frozen to the bone, free of epiphany. I took a left on Church Street and found Leakey’s, the bookstore that I still think about. It’s housed in a former Gaelic church built in 1793. I opened the door and was met with a wall of warmth that smelled of wood smoke and aged paper and dark roasted coffee. A slender stovepipe rose bravely through the middle of the vast space to the second story ceiling. The pot-bellied stove held a position of authority in the center of the charmingly disorganized customer service island. A spiral staircase along the far side of the store gracefully connected the two floors. Leakey’s is Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop, and as I surveyed the chaotic layout, I decided it was a place in which I could gladly become lost.

I can’t remember which book I purchased at Leakey’s that day, or if I read it on the train to Glasgow that evening. I’ll often tuck a bookstore’s free bookmark into my purchase just in case I forget, like Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness that I bought at Myopic Books in Chicago or W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants that I found at the Abbey Bookshop in the Latin Quarter of Paris. I haven’t read The Emigrants yet, but when I paged through it, I found a phone number written in pencil on the inside back cover and the inscription, “Do people who dine alone enjoy their food?”  This makes me wonder who before me has pressed the ridges of their fingerprints into the book’s worn cover, and who will do so after I. 

One day, perhaps I’ll select a book from the shelf at home and find a Leakey’s bookmark tucked inside. Perhaps I’ll never find out which book I chose that day. I’ll probably even forget the name of the store. But I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk through the door that cold, gray day with no expectation of feeling anything significant.


Student Picks: Currie, Gray, Padian

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Danielle Service-- I dated a guy back in 2011 that told me to read Everything Matters! by Ron Currie. I bought it instantly but didn’t read it until this year, when that cat texted, asking for sex. 

Junior – the protagonist in Everything Matters! – grows up in Maine with one caveat: he knows from the moment of his conception when and how the world will end (36 years and 168 days following his conception, Earth is hit by a comet). Initially, an omniscient second-person narrator tells the story; then, Currie strikes an irreverent tone by splicing in alternating limited-third-person narration in the perspectives of Junior’s brother, a teenage cocaine addict who later becomes a professional baseball player; their father, a Vietnam veteran with a meaningful secret and a New England work ethic; and their mother, a secretive alcoholic. 

There’s a plot to destroy a social security building, a deportation to a Bulgarian gulag, suicide bombers and life-saving irrigation systems involved prior to the world’s end in Currie’s thoughtful work – but most important is Junior’s alteration of his own destiny. I followed the protagonist’s lead: I texted the guy back saying I’d read the book and wished him well, but was deleting his number.

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Heather Lynn Horvat-- Isadora by Amelia Gray is an enthralling, relentless portrayal of the stunning but eccentric dancer Isadora Duncan in her darkest time. The novel is a dance of its own with short segments that begin like stage directions before entering the scene, and is told from alternating viewpoints between Isadora, her lover Paris Singer (of Singer sewing machines), her sister Elizabeth, and Max, who dwells too much on the fame he doesn't have.

The story opens moments after Isadora's children drown in a car that suffered mechanical issues and drove off a cliff. Grief is ever-present, but it is how the characters deal with the grief that makes this story memorable. Isadora, over time, consumes the ashes of both of her children. Elizabeth gorges on extra butter and eggs while no one watches. Paris stares for days at a painting, studying individual faces only to find that each resembles his lover or his child. Once, Isadora writes to her former lover with a request to take the child's clothing to water's edge and dunk it, then report back the weight of the soaked clothes. 

Isadora examines grief and the mind's ability to overcome tragedy with lyrical prose.

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Katie Fenton-- Recently, I took the opportunity to read Wrecked by Maria Padian. This Young Adult novel follows the lives of two college students, Haley and Richard, who find themselves having a difficult year after Haley’s roommate accuses Richard’s friend of raping her at a party. The plot continually twists and turns as the reader learns about the traumatic event alongside the characters as they piece together the puzzle of that horrible night. In true Young Adult fashion, Haley and Richard try to grow together in their own relationship. 

I was rather blown away by Wrecked. The storyline seemed like it might be simple and overdone, but in reality, it offered a unique take. Through well-placed foreshadowing, the reader is given a reliable narrator whose god-like view of the night slowly offers the answers they’re looking for. This novel’s unique style and storyline was not only something I thoroughly enjoyed reading, but as a writer, it encouraged me to look at my own work in a different way.