Poems & Essays

15 Feb

Thawing

General/Column No Response

Frozen solid. All the doors of the van are frozen solid, the folly of a car wash earlier in the day. I try and fail to yank the doors open, throwing my entire body weight into the tug. I insert a credit card into the crack by the door, attempting to dislodge the ice. Bending close—my nose pressing against the frosty window—I breathe long, hot breaths into the crevice, hoping for a melting drip, praying for a miracle. Nothing works.

My toddler twins, Isaac and Madeline, huddle together in the shopping cart, nestled among the grocery bags. Madeline peers up at me. The icy air has brightened her aqua blue eyes, which stand out against her fair skin.

She has pulled her mittens off. I reach over and tug them back onto her cold fingers.

“Leave them on,” I instruct.

Isaac pulls off his hat. I yank it back down over his blonde hair.

“No, Isaac,” I command. This is no time for toddler shenanigans, with the wind gusting across our faces.

Nathan, my five-year-old, sits on the van’s rear bumper. His cheeks are chapped and reddened, and he, too, has removed his hat. But he swings his stubby legs back and forth, back and forth. He is blissfully unaware of his angry cheeks, or the bitter cold or—more importantly—our uncertain situation.

It’s such an absurd problem—doors iced shut—and yet I am numb to a solution. Little has prepared me for the length and ferocity of Minnesota winter, or for incidents such as this. I purchased heavy-duty winter gear long before we left Virginia, while the tulips were still blooming and before the summer cicadas began their seasonal concert. Back then, my husband Brian and I sat on our back porch and discussed ice melt and snow blowers, warm boots and thermal underwear. In moving to Minnesota for one year of specialized medical training, we knew Brian would be travelling among two dozen hospitals and medical clinics across a large geographic area. Because of his rigorous schedule, we also knew I would be on my own to navigate six months of winter—with small children in tow. I figured the season would bring, at most, a degree of hassle and inconvenience. I believed I was prepared.

Winter roared in on a Saturday morning in early November, not long after our move. I stood at an upstairs window and watched the dense snow paint a blank white canvas over what had been a colorful autumn world. It blew in sideways for eight hours, stopped long enough for plows to treat the city streets, and then just a few days later, started again.

Since that first storm, I have grown familiar with this beast that is Minnesota winter. I have encountered blizzards and flurries and everything in between. I know the angry bite of subzero wind chills on my exposed flesh; I have felt piercing pain of blizzard-level snow, blowing horizontally, striking the whites of the eyes. I have discovered the blinding intensity of the noonday sun on the coldest days, as well as the barrenness of a world dressed in white and dulling to grey. I have begun to measure the short days and the long nights by the ever-growing mound of cleared snow on our driveway. It is nearing shoulder height.

While I have struggled to acclimate, Minnesotans have dispensed plenty of advice. I have been counseled to keep kitty litter in the car, along with a shovel, snow pants, signal flares, and energy bars. A cashier told me to avoid semi trucks and to quadruple my travel time. I learned that “cold” meant any temperature below zero. A neighbor advised me to drink a glass of wine before opening the February heating bill. And I was admonished never to run a vehicle through a car wash on a frigid January day.

As I recall this nugget of wisdom, I feel frustrated by my own stupidity. I lean against the frozen sliding door and wonder whom I can call for help. My husband? No, he is at work many miles away. I feel a twinge of irritation that Brian is not available to come to my aid. My meager list of local contacts offers no possibilities, either.

We are stranded.

The glacial air chills the solitary tear on my cheek. I picture the numerous evenings when I tuck the children in bed and then sit in the living room, alone. Curled under a blanket, I listen to the wind howl around the corners of the house and wisps of air whistle through the windows’ insufficient seals. They are the only sounds in an otherwise silent house. My phone does not ring, and I do not know when Brian will return. Such evenings have begun to feel like a tomb.

In short, I am frozen into inaction by both acute cold and aching loneliness. I long for color beyond neutrals, for warmth beyond Gore-Tex. I yearn for Virginia winter, with its crisp afternoons, where children skip down snow-dusted sidewalks and their parents walk alongside them. In the depth of Virginia winters, “cold” merely requires a thick jacket, “snow” means a day off of school or work, and “winter” simply necessitates a good shovel and a bit of patience.

My patience with Minnesota winter expired weeks ago.

I sigh, looking around the empty parking lot and back at my children who, thankfully, are calm and quiet. Nathan remains perched on the back fender but has stopped swinging his legs. Something has caught his attention.

I follow his gaze to a nearby mound of freshly cleared snow. A squirrel is attempting to climb up and over the mound, but it becomes submerged, the snow closing around him like a whirlpool. A moment later he reemerges, dusted in white, laboring onward. Several seconds pass and he sinks in again, the snow closing over him. Again he emerges, bounding upward, energized by the fight.

Surfacing from yet a third deluge of snow, the squirrel’s long tail flicks the snowflakes into the air, casting them off with bravado. The streetlight above illuminates the individual flakes, suspending them in mid-air, highlighting their graceful spin. And onward forges the little squirrel, undeterred, up the mound to the summit.

I watch the squirrel’s tenacity and see in it the doggedness of my fellow Minnesotans: Nathan’s wizened hockey coach, who holds practice during raging snowstorms. The young mother, whose daily exercise consists of cross-country skiing on a snow-blanketed golf course. The generous neighbor, who unearths the four hundred feet of sidewalk around our house, and the recent acquaintance, who invited me to go Christmas shopping in forty-below temperatures.

Two weeks ago, the students at my children’s school gathered at our neighborhood’s outdoor soccer-field-turned-ice-rink. The students brought their own skates. The teachers did, too. The girls, in polka-dot scarves and purple hats with pom poms, clung to each other and giggled as they spun in circles. The boys got up a hockey game, their sticks slapping the ice as they scrambled for the puck. Two timid third-graders clutched their teacher’s hand, slipping along the ice. Parents laced skates and tucked in gloves and distributed steaming hot cocoa. Other parents zipped around the rink with their children. It was a community celebration that was full of life, and color, and warmth of a better variety.

As I picture that Rockwellian winter gathering, I suddenly recognize the ridiculousness of my own ineptitude. I feel it bubble up from deep in my gut—a fleeting pang of embarrassment soon followed by belly-wrenching laughter. It comes unbidden, spilling out in tears and gasps and forming tiny clouds of vapor as I exhale, staccato-like, into the frigid air.

The children stare at me. They have no idea why I am laughing, but it is contagious, and they soon join in. Madeline claps her mittened hands in glee. With an impish grin, Isaac yanks Madeline’s hat off of her head once again. Nathan hops down from the fender, and he flings his arms around my legs.

Mid-laugh, wiping my nose, eyes and cheeks on my gloves, I throw back my head and look up at the foggy night sky.

And I declare enough.

No longer will I allow winter, or loneliness, to hijack me into submission. Instead, I resolve to look for beauty in the season’s white-cold ashes and to stand firm against its wailing wind. I will seek out warmth in new friendships, find pleasure in activity, and see color in my children’s eyes.

I will choose to be independent. Resilient. Resourceful.

I bend down and give Nathan a hug, and then I move to the back of the van. I grasp the handle on the trunk. I pull hard. Pull again. And then a third time, a fourth. At long last, there is a faint crackle of ice being pulled from the seam.

 

Jennifer Swenson lives in Southwest Missouri with her husband and five children. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and is working on an MFA in creative nonfiction at Bay Path University. Her writing has appeared in Segullah and AlbemarleFamily (now CharlottesvilleFamily).

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12 Feb

Her Empty Nest

General/Column No Response

It’s late in her evening,
dinner is set on the kitchen table
and pink geraniums stew
in the crystal vase near the soup bowl,

as her husband dodders
back inside from the half-lit back porch,
she tells him that dinner is ready,
but her gaze shrugs past the glass bay,
parts the curtains,
creeps out to the old swing
by the tall pines where her children’s
footfalls still lay wrapped
in blankets of shadow
and sere grass,

funnier then, how she will stop
and stand so completely stock-silent
by the mist-veiled windows
as she watched their laughter
pulsed against the soft summer rain
with warm breeze hugged
their sodden clothes–
and wistfully now, she feels that same quiet
symphony of waiting stealing again
inside her bones,

nostalgia is worth a thousand
rainy kisses even when they are as abstract
as wisps of the finest silk flowing
through her aged fingertips,
so she stands there forgetting to
how mindfully her husband’s web of
words can fetch her back,
back to every signal of
an empty nest house.

 

A Pushcart nominee, Lana has works of poetry and fiction published and forthcoming with over 170 journals, including a chapbook with Crisis Chronicles Press (Spring 2016), Abyss & Apex, Chiron Review, Coe Review, Columbia Journal, Elohi Gadugi, Foundling Review, Fourth & Sycamore, Galway Review, Harbinger Asylum, Literary Orphans, Lost Coast Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Quarterly, Roanoke Review, William Jessup University, and elsewhere, among others. She divides her time between the US and the coastal town of Nha Trang, Vietnam, where she is a mom of two far-too-clever-frolicsome imps. https://www.facebook.com/niaallanpoe

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10 Feb

Book Review: Becoming Mother

General/Column No Response

Reviewed by Dana Schwartz 

In Becoming Mother, author Sharon Tjaden-Glass takes her readers on an intimate journey through her pregnancy and first year postpartum. But don’t be mistaken – this is not simply another guide for new mothers. Tjaden-Glass explores pregnancy, labor, and new motherhood with an unflinching gaze and deep introspection. There is conflict in her story, as there is for every mother, new or not.

The book is divided into six sections, beginning with pregnancy, and most of it is written in the present tense, with breaks in between for reflection. This unique structure creates a sense of immediacy and also offers the reader breathing room during transitions.

Not unlike active labor.

One thing I particularly appreciated is how the author maintains a sharp focus on the mother’s experience even after the baby is born. Instead of the newborn taking the spotlight, we remain with Sharon.

Though she is elated by the birth of her daughter, she explains the ramifications of her doctor forcibly breaking her waters (without permission) and another doctor’s cold comments while stitching her up. These moments leave scars as deep as any C-section. Sharon boldly pokes holes in the popular yet condescending mantra, “all that matters is a healthy baby,” with her honest and wrenching account.

While she opted for, and succeeded in having, a natural birth, this book in no way fits tidily into any single style of childbirth or mothering. In fact, Sharon blows up the assumption that mothers should opt for one approach over another, encouraging women to pick and choose what works for them and their babies and to honor flexibility over any dogma or parenting camp.

We follow Sharon into the heady and delirious days of new motherhood and her painful struggle with breastfeeding. She goes into great detail about this specific challenge and how she initially feels like a failure. Even readers who don’t share this particular issue can understand the hard-earned lesson of reality knocking against theory.

When we’re pregnant we make decisions and proclamations that often get thrown out the window when the baby arrives. For example, how many of us fully intend to enforce strict sleeping rules but end up bed sharing in order to get what little sleep we can. Becoming Mother offers a crucial reminder for all mothers, at any stage, that it’s always okay to change your mind.

Sharon captures the beauty and awe of new motherhood as well as the less glamorous but realistic aspect of anxiety and loss. The first year of motherhood is a trial by fire. No matter how much preparation or research you do, nothing can truly prepare you for the changes in both body and spirit, yet most of us try to find answers ahead of time. We take classes, read books, scour blogs, and ask friends. I remember on the last day of my childbirth class, one father asking our instructor the question burning in all of our minds. “But what is it like?”

We all knew what he meant. He wanted details, minutia, a play-by-play. The truth.

This is what Sharon’s book does – she invites the reader along on her journey and doesn’t hold back. She offers the truth, her truth, of course, but with universal sentiments and wisdom.

“It’s not about being a good mother. It’s about being the right mother. For this child. In this moment… seek to be the right mother. Every day. And if you can do that, you can find peace in the chaos of motherhood.”

Becoming a mother is not something that happens in an instant when the baby arrives. It’s something that continues to happen, for years, maybe for the rest of our lives as our children grow up, and one day, grow away.

 

Sharon Tjaden-Glass blogs about pregnancy, motherhood, grief, and the writing life at http://www.becomingmotherblog.wordpress.com. She wrote her first book, Becoming Mother, because it was the book she would have wanted when she was pregnant with her first child.

 

Reviewer Dana Schwartz lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. She has published short stories in several literary journals, was a contributor to The HerStories Project on female friendship, and will be in the forthcoming anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness (November 2015). She also writes about motherhood and the creative process on her blog, Writing at the Table.

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08 Feb

Moving Out

In Mother Words Blog No Response

It’s something I used to do when I was a child—staying in the tub so long the bathwater turns tepid, my fingers pruned into deep whitened grooves. As a seven year old, I would stay in the tub for hours, tracing worlds out in the marbled Formica installed above the tub sides—a swirling blue-grey that turned into wild oceanic currents, astral breezes suspending ships born aloft, or father wind, blowing furiously from the north, attempting to capsize my crew. When the water got cold, I would drain half and add straight hot, skinny seven-year-old butt planted on cold tub side as the hot water mixed in, feet propped against the soap alcove built into the opposite wall, rubber toys buoyed under legs arched like a bridge. But no matter how hot I made it—immersed skin turning angry shades of red—the water would again grow cold before I’d completed my high-seas adventures. My collection of beloved rubber bath-toy animals eventually rotted from overuse, their undersides growing mealy until in a last gutting, they disintegrated altogether, spewing slimy gray water in a heartbreaking demise.

Like then, tonight I’ve stayed in the tub so long the bathwater has turned cold. I drain half and add straight hot, cupping my hands and swirling the water to mix it in. Today has warranted a double bath, settling in with a good book and too much wine instead of make-believe adventures—solo time after everyone has gone to bed to deal with my reeling emotions.

The washcloth I dry my face with as I cry—because that’s to be expected, tonight of all nights—smells of men, of boys. My boys. Some subtle male cologne from my husband and three teenaged sons. And the smell is enough to take me over the edge into full-blown sobbing.

As an eighteen-year-old college student, my oldest son has just moved out. Flown the nest. Taken flight. It is his first night gone, and even though I’d promised myself it would be fine, that it was a celebratory occasion—because it is, because he’s ready—I’m a blubbery mess. But I’ve waited until now, when I’m alone, to feel it all. To mourn. My child. My first-born. Gone.

The nurse attending my son’s birthing chanted for hours through the end of my labor: push, push-push-push, push, push-push-push. And I did, breaking dozens of tiny blood vessels in my face with my twenty-six-hour laboring effort—the contortion of my face then not unlike the contortion of my face now as I cry, letting him go.

Earlier in the day while he was at his new place putting up the new dog run for his husky pup, I went shopping for the last round of things on his moving-out list: jelly, fingernail clippers, lint rollers, eggs, spoons, mugs, coffee filters, coffee, soap, razors, deodorant, oatmeal. At the mall, I distracted myself from the list by looking at dresses at the discount store. A Calvin Klein for $38, normally $138. I almost bought it. Weirdly enough and in ways I don’t understand, the sudden shopping compulsion was something to say: are you going to be okay? Is the new dog run tight enough for your pup to not escape and meet his end on the highway zooming by? All the dangers he might encounter. All the dangers you might encounter. Something to say: do you have all you need? Tell me, are you going to be okay? Or maybe: Am I going to be okay?

Instead of the dress, I bought a new laundry hamper for our family bathroom. It’s a nice hamper: four alternating colors—dark variegated brown, blonde, and rust. It has woven handles and a rounded top that won’t, like the last one, scrape the paint off the wall behind it. I sip wine and stare at it from the tub, unable to concentrate on my book, imagining my son’s roommate—whom I think imagines himself as an older brother figure—and the roommate’s girlfriend talking to my son tonight. A new surrogate family. The roommate’s girlfriend was home making a cup of tea when we moved my son in earlier in the day; she said to put things wherever we wanted, my arms full with a globe, a box of clothes, and a tangle of plastic clothing hangers. I think of him there with them instead of us tonight, and I wonder how it feels for him.

It is time. I know that. And I’m so happy for him, for us as parents to have reached this point—a self-sufficient and capable young-adult child who is doing well as he moves into his adult life. But still. His clothes and shoes in the new closet; his stereo and desk and dog’s toys in the new bedroom; his dishes and the cast-iron pans we re-oiled this morning in the new kitchen. His new life. My little duckling. My sweet boy. All grown up. A fledging who’s left the nest.

I let myself sink deep in the tub, immersed up to my chin in hot water, dabbing at my face with the cologne-smelling washcloth. I whisper: Sleep well my dear and blow him a kiss from afar. I try to remind myself this is a new beginning, that there is still so very much yet to come, but it feels like the end of something so big it takes my breath away.

I breathe deep and my body rises in the water, buoyant, my lower abdomen striated with the silvery paths of pregnancy stretch marks no less distinct after eighteen years. A bringing forth. A letting go. The sweet pain of motherhood’s ongoing dance.

 

Annie Lampman has a MFA in creative writing and is an English Writing Instructor for Washington State University. She lives in Moscow, Idaho with her husband, three sons, and a bevy of pets. Her essays, poetry, and fiction have recently been published or are forthcoming in: TriQuarterly; The Massachusetts Review; Orion Magazine; High Desert Journal; Crab Creek Review; Cirque; Adanna Literary Journal; Wild Horses: The Women on Fire Series; Dunes Review; WORK Literary Magazine; Wilderness House Literary Review; word~river; IDAHO Magazine; the meadow; Copper Nickel: Women Writing the West; and Talking River. Her work has been awarded first place in the Everybody-Writes contest and awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention as well as an Idaho Commission on the Arts writing grant and a national wilderness writing residency. Her first novel is under consideration in New York.

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