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The moment I knew

By Jan Martinez

The moment I knew the story of prune juice was in some ways tragic, came after my father died.  When I realized perhaps that I would never hear this story again, as I had every year for most of my adult life – every Thanksgiving.

Dinner finished, we would all clear our plates, banishing the carcass of the turkey, the dried remnants of green bean casserole, and the white dish, now empty, of sweet potato soufflé, scraped so clean that if put on the wrong side of the sink, it might not get washed at all.  Then we’d regather for pie – pumpkin and pecan – homemade, with Cool Whip straight from the tub.  We’d bring our decaf coffee, tea, port, or wine and sit again to listen to my father tell the story of prune juice.

It happened when my dad was at school in Texas, recently from Mexico.  Thirsty at the bus stop, he’d been given enough change to buy the only beverage available.  A 12-ounce can of prune juice.  He was still thirsty and by some miracle, enough change appeared for him to buy another can.  And another.  And another.  Yes, 48 ounces of prune juice, while waiting for a bus that would never come.

By now, halfway through our pie and coffee, everyone including my dad would be laughing and cringing, as one of us would ask, “what comes next?”  What does come next, on a three-mile walk back to school with 48 ounces of prune juice along for the journey?  What indeed.

My dad would describe the in-town hotel washroom, the abandoned derelict house, and even a dormitory bathroom that would never be the same.  

It’s a funny thing… If this had happened to me, I’d probably never touch the stuff again.  Yet as I look back on the many years of this story, abdominals cramped from laughing (not prune juice) I recall that as long as I can remember, there was always a giant bottle of prune juice in our fridge.

For reasons known only to them …

by Laura Hughes

For reasons known only to them, some people have endless energy. Not me. For reasons known only to them, some people think COVID’s not a thing. Not me. For reasons known only to them, some people think COVID is a thing, but are still willing to travel freely. Not me. And, frankly, I am pissed off with all of them.

I have two weeks off. Well, it was three – but one has already gone.

I’m not vaccinated – well – I half am – but not enough to count for anything, despite an ouchie arm.

And, none of my plans are penciling out.

Can’t get on a plane yet… at least – choose not to. Certainly can’t go home – not allowed. Not sure I feel safe road tripping to places where governors that I consider mildly insane, or just fucking irresponsible, or stupid – take your pick? – have removed mask mandates, or are about to. Not sure I feel safe visiting friends who work with other humans, even if masked. Can’t spend some ungodly amount on a rich person’s over priced airbnb, or at least I’m not willing to. Not excited by the pacific northwest. Not excited to drive 3 days. Wanting warmth. And stuck. Out of options.

But, most desperately, don’t want to stay here – stuck in the same damned rooms, the same damned walls, with the same damned books, the same damned everything as the last 13 months and 2 days. Not even with a weather forecast that might be sunny, that might hit – oooh – 70.

And all I hear is the timer ticking in my head. Make a damned decision Laura. Just do something. Anything. Because this time in 2 weeks you’ll be staring down the barrel of infinite days, weeks, back at this desk. Back at this screen. Just do something. Anything. Get outside. Go explore. Be free.

In the last week or so, all my patterns have come to the fore, in sharp focus. The abject terror of my freedom being constrained. My hatred of grey. My idealistic daydreams and my deep disappointment that the fantasies I construct in my head are not reality. The fear of boredom and mundanity. The narrowing feeling of having others place constraints. The envy of what others do, what others have, what others create. The desire to be adventurous. The desire to stay safe. The question of whether I’m overly cautious. The curiosity about whether I’ll ever have energy again, whether I’ll ever leave the house, whether I’ll ever feel comfortable. The fear that this is all I am now – my world stuck in small.

The Secret Path

by Anna Rich

The secret path.
The one obscured.
The one I’ve been silently treading around my own heart.
Silent footfalls on moss that double back over themselves again and again.
What am I looking for, walking all around and around my heart?
A secret door?
To climb some crest and finally understand it all?
To see the way in?

Maybe it’s time to just sit down on the soft earth of my heart.
Take off my shoes and spread out my toes in the moss.
Lie back and roll around a bit to get comfortable.
Smell the fresh dirt and plants.
And wait until I’m subsumed, grown over,
and I slowly sink down and become one with my own heart.

What I Thought I Heard

What I thought I heard him say was, “Don’t worry.” So I didn’t. I haven’t. “Don’t take the wheel,” said the voice. “Don’t steer. Don’t figure it out. Don’t navigate. Don’t aim. Don’t want. Don’t plan. Don’t worry.”

What I thought I heard her say was, “Rest. Stay here. Plant yourself beneath the ground. Don’t sprout. Don’t reach. Be at ease. Don’t appear. There’s nothing for you to do here anyway. Stay warm. Relax.”

What I thought I heard was “You needn’t bother. It’s plenty enough that you beat somehow beat the odds, broke through, landed. Now stay where you are. We will do the rest.”

What I thought I heard was a faint bell off in the distance. I thought it might be ringing for me. Inviting me home to the cathedral of all I was ever meant to know.

But I passed it off as a hallucination. Even as it rang again, and again. Ringing in my dreams, chiming me awake each day.

What I thought I heard was a whisper that said, “Come. Get up. Move. Trip over what’s in the way. Make a mess. Break a heart. Know yourself. Love another. Spread out. Get comfy. Stay.”

What I thought I heard was the brush of a felt tip across the pulp of a long-dead tree—the voices of those who, with regret in their hearts, felled the plants and brewed the chemicals and made it possible for me to write these words. To transcribe the whisper so that it is real. So that it is no longer a hallucination.

What I thought I heard was a gentle alarm: There’s only so much time left. A caring challenge: So what’s it going to be?

What I thought I heard was the pop and crack of my long-hunched spine as I finally pressed my feet into the warm grass and stood upright. The bells were clear now. Constant. Beckoning.

It’s no thought: I hear them.

I begin to walk.

What I thought I heard

by Jan Martinez

What I thought I heard him say was, “I don’t eat bees.”  I was on the phone with my dad several years ago, when cell signals weren’t as reliable as they are now, inching my way eastward on Walton Blvd toward the Livernois intersection where Rochester Hills became Rochester and home.  

I’d had a particularly tough day of negotiating with Purchasing at one of the Big Three automakers.  My buyer, whose initials were M.D., aka Doctor, had accused me of falsifying information, insulted my intelligence, and thrown me out of his office.  My father, the only other family member who’d worked in “industry,” immediately understood and informed me cheerfully that all Purchasing agents were going to Hell.  I laughed, delighted that Doc, who gave me such Hell, might one day figuratively go there, at least for a visit.  

We’d moved on to produce, groceries, and my stop at Whole Foods, always a mood lifter, when my father had announced, “I don’t eat bees.”  

“Bees?”  I asked.  Of course you don’t eat bees, I thought.  No one eats bees on purpose.  Maybe bears when foraging for honey, but they’re after the honey, not the bees.  

“Fleas!” he insisted. “I don’t eat flees.”  Of course.  No one eats fleas on purpose either.  Maybe dogs, accidentally.  
I had eaten a termite once, on purpose. But it was offered to me, and so it seemed the honorable thing to do.   I was visiting a camp along the Tambopata River, a tributary to the Amazon.  We were about an hour out from Puerto Maldonado, Peru, when we stopped at a small jungle farm.  We met the farmer, his wife, and two small children in their shorts and once-white t-shirts.  After a tour, we’d been offered a fresh cacao bean, the white pulp tasting like a delicate, floral chocolate grape, a slice of papaya, cut with a machete used to cut everything, and a termite.  A tiny wriggling creature, not at all like the winged house-devouring giants of the Midwest.  I was the only one in our group to eat the proffered termite.  There was such warm sincerity in the offer of this humble household staple.  It tasted both dusty and minty — ochre brown, somehow, the way tannins of the river wash everything brown over time.

“Fleas?” I asked my dad.  “Peas,” he insisted, or “beans.” By now I was crawling past the high school, where a friend of mine said she’d taught theater arts to Madonna in the ‘70s.  Yes, that Madonna.  I once saw a newspaper headline that proclaimed, “Madonna, Live from New York City!”  I bet that pissed off Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, and the whole mitten-shaped state.

“Beans, Dad?  I see you eat beans all the time.”

“Seeds!” he shouted through some miraculous shift in cell towers.  Like my commute, it seemed the world wound down to stillness and in that stillness came focus.  And something else like sadness, regret, or humility.  I’d been chatting happily about bread, Seeduction bread, which was full of seeds:  pumpkin seeds, poppy seeds (earthy and a little dusty – a bit like termites without the mint), sunflower seeds, whole millet, tricolor quinoa…  and this bread had seeduced me from day one.  This had been the item I was most looking forward to if my commute ever ended.

Here’s the thing, my father had given up nuts and seeds many years ago after recurring bouts of diverticulitis – excruciating and sometimes requiring long courses of antibiotics or hospitalization.  We all knew.  Even so, he’d started introducing himself to friends and strangers as, “Hello, my name is Inocencio Martinez, and I do not eat seeds,” something like, Mandy Patinkin in the Princess Bride:  Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die. It had all become a family legend, and here I was babbling about a bread that was chock-full of seeds.

I’d finally cruised through the Livernois intersection and was nearing the hospital, walking distance from home, as another family legend surface, far older than the diverticulitis that had stricken somewhere in my dad’s 60’s.  This was the one about all the epic ways my father had experienced being misunderstood since coming to this country in his late teens.  There was the airport van driver who asked my father “what airline?” to which my father answered “Delta.”  Repeatedly.  Somehow this mono-tongued, mono-eared, driver managed to hear and respond with:  Malta? Northwest? TWA? Air Lingus? before finally conceding that my father had said, “Delta.”  In Atlanta, Delta’s hub, no less.

Personally, I only speak English fluently, but I do speak some Spanish and some German, but moreover, I have a curiosity about languages and an uncharacteristically high level of patience when it comes to listening to people whose first language isn’t English.  At the time of said commute, I didn’t think in terms of “being seen” or “being heard,” but I knew its presence as a felt sense of safety, warmth, belonging.  And I knew its absence as a queasy, off-kilter quality of misalignment.  So empathy bloomed in my chest whenever I encountered immigrants or visitors struggling to be understood in the face of the American Linguistic Cyclops.  It still does.

“Seeds, he said again, “I don’t eat seeds.”

“Oh!  Seeds…” I laughed a little sheepishly.  In the space between strong cell signals I had become a Linguistic Cyclops.  “Yes, Dad,” I backpedaled, “of course, I know you don’t eat seeds.  I also bought some great pumpernickel – caraway all ground up – and the biggest jicama you’ve ever seen.”  I paused for a moment, by now turning into the haven of our neighborhood, and went for the save, “Hey, how’s Mom anyway?”

Time to decide

I’ll probably be fined for saying this, but I do not meet 2021 with relief, and I definitely do not bid 2020 good riddance. For one thing, it’s never felt to me like an arbitrary flip of the calendar blinks us suddenly into a new dimension. More than that … what a beautiful year it was. Even in its sorrow. Even in its pain.

I can’t be the only one who doesn’t want it to end.

Not the crises. Of course not. Of course not. Not the despair. The separation. The loneliness. The unnecessary deaths and heartbreak that this year has brought with it. All that can end.

For me, what can’t end is the beautiful inwardness of it all. The circumstances of daily life (a privileged one, no mistake) that only grows more liberating for me by the day. I watch in awe as massive shifts disrupt and reveal so much of what hasn’t been working in our world.

I am not tired of this yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be.

Still, very soon, we’ll fully reclaim our characteristic human stranglehold on Nature—wresting her to the ground, hog tied and gagged, so that we can get on with the making and spending of money, so that we can get back to the commutes, the offices, the parties, the bars, the places that take us out of our homes and out of ourselves, so we can stop doing all this reflecting, all this truth-telling, all this meaningful bonding with those in our immediate surround.

We’re so close to resuming the blind march forward: our laser-sharp, tunnel-vision gaze on the bleak horizon of ‘normalcy,’ deaf to what Nature might have been trying to tell us through that pangolin or bat or whatever wise and innocent creature, flushed out of its environment and hunted for meat, got this whole ball rolling. Consume, destroy, expand, drive, run, win, sell, sell, sell …

It will all happen again—the tide of ‘progress’ reclaiming the precarious lessons. It’s happened throughout history; as with the tide itself, we can trust in its return.

Again and again we chew off entire limbs of humanity to escape what feels like the trap of a slower, saner existence. Again and again, we double down on our identity as the parasites we are, consuming a planet that is constantly and forever trying to tell us that this isn’t the way.

Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a matter of moments before this magnificent Earth shakes us off her back like so many fleas. Before she deploys some last resort of an internal remedy that she really hasn’t wanted to use but now, she’s afraid she must….

The ‘excuses’ we’ve had this year for lightening up on how much we abuse her and ourselves daily are evaporating. With the crutch of excuse about to be revoked, it’s time to start deciding for ourselves.

What will our decisions be? I think I know mine—or, rather, what will help me make them.

Again, I speak from a place of privilege. I’m under no illusions that my circumstances—including my ability to think and write these thoughts—are an all-out luxury.

And.

In all this I have found the capacity to be with people in a different way—to be gentler, more receptive, kinder. To help them feel safe and loved. To take the time to be with them in their fullness rather than resent them for their demands on my time. I’m finding how to do that. Yes, ‘finding:’ it was there all along, I was just too yanked apart to be able to feel it, see it.

I see it now. I’m not letting it out of my sight.

So once we implacable humans track down the last discontinued cog, tighten the final screw, press the red plastic button, stand back and watch as the long-obsolete machine smokes and coughs itself back to life, spewing its ancient poison into the air, I am vowing here to engage with it in a different way.

Not in any way that is epic, or even noticeable to anyone but me. Mostly it’s about listening. I’ve learned to listen this year. I want to get better at that.

One feeling that’s been easy to listen to—and as such has become a great ally—is relief. Relief at not having to be places, to drive as much as I did. At not having to shock my settling system by dragging it back out in the evenings to do things that are ‘good for me.’ Relief the dearth of needless errands to acquire vapid things and shorten my meager stacks of coins. Relief at being held back from slamming my sensitive body into those merciless waves of daily life to prove how strong it is.

The relief is intense, physical. It’s been at the fore for nine months. There hasn’t been a moment where it’s dissipated and I’ve said, “ya know? I kind of miss the way it was.” And the way it was wasn’t bad by any stretch—it’s just that it was devoid of space to breathe, to feel into what has meaning for me.

I can’t be the only one, can I?

Regardless, as the masses wake up in these first mornings of 2021, heaving their collective sigh of relief, assuring themselves that last year was all a terrible nightmare and everything is going to be OK now, maybe we don’t have to be so quick to dive back into what had been true, automatic and reliable before we entered the dream. Our hearts can be heavy and hopeful at the same time—they have the capacity to feel many things at once. Perhaps we can let ourselves linger for a few more minutes in the in-between, wander through the apparent wreckage, and notice what shines up at us.

What will you let yourself keep?

What it used to be like

by Michelle Hynes

What it used to be like to see my friends: A festival of baking and hosting and hugging. Pouring tea. Sharing bites.

Yesterday I gathered with dear ones — on Zoom. We lamented the loss of rituals for this time of year. The ways we used to see our families, see each other. Now reduced, smaller. More spacious and less nourishing — like eating sponge cake rather than a rich bite of brownie or beef stew.

What we shared yesterday were tears. Stories of grief and loss. And then we took a deep breath and said yes to a new way. We will gather. We will gift. But six feet apart.

So many things about “what it used to be like” are ripe for letting go. I know we need new ways. And I desperately want the feeling of holding my friends in my arms, leaning on their shoulders, looking at the horizon together. I want what it used to be like. 

The First Thing I Remember

by Hao Tran

It is the thing that I have forgotten. It is a soft rain, so soft you can’t see the drops. You only feel its cold and moist touch on your skin, enough to dampen your hair, your shirt.

“It is dew,” my brother says.

He notices the puzzled look on my face. I remember now. It has been more than forty years since I last felt the dew in the early morning. The time of day in the tropics, same every day. The roosters crow and then the sun rises, at six o’clock. Everyday.

You can count on it. In the dew, people walk with baskets balanced on bamboo sticks, up and down, bouncing toward the market. They carry cabbages, potatoes, mangos. In this dew, children get ready for school. In this dew, Ma cooked me my favorite breakfast: rice left over from the day before, turned over in the frying pan with browned shallots, a few peas, and an egg.

In this dew, I am puzzled–where have I been all these years, so long that I have forgotten the simplest thing that I should remember? Dew! It feels like home. It is moist and soft, like a caress.

Dear Muses

I found this today. It’s a piece I wrote in December 2014. The muses have answered, gently. It hasn’t been nearly as chaotic as I feared. In fact, it’s been great fun.

Dear Muses,

I’m stuck. You know this. You know because you’ve been knocking on the door, calling and getting a busy signal, sending registered letters that get returned. No such addressee. Return to sender. No solicitors. Go away. I’ve refused you. I continue to refuse you. Have you given up? Or have I gotten so wonderful at refusal I can’t hear the knocks, the rings; no longer see the letters dropped through the slot?

Is it fultile to contact you now? After all I’ve done to shut you out? Insulting you, disrespecting you? Judging you as too mischievous, too brazen, too dangerous to be in my life?

Because let’s face it. If I let you in you’d trash the place. Upend tables with trinkets placed just so, rip out pages of rule books, open the cages and let the birds fly free. You wouldn’t listen to me when I say stop, quiet down, you’re making a mess and upsetting the neighbors. You wouldn’t care that you were embarrassing me as you ripped open the heavy velvet curtains to reveal me, naked and uncertain. None of that is your concern. Your mission is to free me and you’ll do whatever it takes. No matter how thoroughly it disrupts my life. Your job is clear. You won’t stop til it’s done. You’ll ruin me if you must.

And still. And still. I’m tempted, drawn, seduced. I feel about you now like I never have. I’m so bored in this house, with its dark, neat rooms and silent order. I fear that if I swing open the door I’ll want to follow you out into the day, into the danger of the unknown, unprepared, fragile, sensitive to the light and the noise. I’ve become a shut-in, you see. A recluse. Set in my ways.

But I want to come with you, muses, because I see now it’s the only way you’ll be of any use to me. I can call to you but I must acknowledge your replies. When I send for you I need to expect that you’ll show up, like you have, again and again, only to have me respond by drawing the blinds, pulling the covers over my head and pretending to be asleep until you went away.

I hear you knocking, calling—god knows you’ve been writing—and all because I’ve asked you to. I’ve needed you to. Next time you knock, I hope I have courage enough to go to the door, peek through the hole, maybe even pull it open to the length of the chain. Submitting, eventually, to your ever-invitation to come out, come out and meet myself.

Please, muses, don’t give up on me.

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