Allergic Reaction

first published by great weather for MEDIA

 

 

It all began with an eyelash. Perhaps poison ivy found in Marquette, Nebraska. Or maybe some dust mites.

After returning from a two-week trip out west, I found myself in the ER of a hospital room in Brooklyn, covered in curious and extremely itchy red marks. As usual, I do my best to pretend away my body but when the blotches spread to my eye, my spouse insisted on a medical intervention.

As we waited, I tried my hardest not to itch, so I forced my attention toward the television above me. A new game show where contestants could win up to one million dollars just for naming that tune! I had twenty dollars in my wallet and two college degrees.

I always know I’m really sick when my appetite goes away. I usually dream about dinner while I’m eating lunch, so after spending an entire day with maybe 100 calories in me, I knew something was wrong.

I stared at the welts of varying shapes on my arms, legs, two on my belly, gathering beside my hairline. I imagined being this itchy for the rest of my life.

The smell of the waiting room was a mixture of fast food, sour cologne, and August sweat. I turned toward my mate and said, “Remember that eyelash? I can’t remember what state that was.”

“Minnesota, I think.”

“Yeah,” I paused. “I wished I were dead.”

I’m unclear where the tradition started that a stray eyelash gave permission for one wish if blown off the tip of a finger. But I feel like it had always been there.

I started to cry or maybe I hadn’t stopped.

“Do you still feel that way?”

“Not right now,” I spoke.

“I think it was from the dog’s fur, actually. I don’t think it was an eyelash.”

When my name was finally called, the nurse weighed me and asked about height and habits. Then she sent me back to the waiting room until the doctor was available.

Recently, an almost-stranger grabbed my forearm and asked about the state of my skin. “You get attacked by some zoo animals?” they asked.

I can’t remember any time I understood my skin. It was never smooth and unbothered. And if it was, those memories have all dug themselves away.

When my name was finally called again, I was sent to a room with beds beside each other. “Take the second one,” a nurse instructed.

A young, long-lashed physician assistant approached me. I removed my sweater, so she could observe all of my itchy constellations.

I watched her burnt caramel eyes approach a diagnosis.. “Any idea what this might be?”

Suddenly, I panicked. I’m paying $150 to diagnose myself?

“I’ve been traveling the past two weeks, so I’ve experienced different environments. Been outside a lot. Maybe…poison ivy? I’m extremely allergic.”

“Everyone is, really,” the doctor said.

“I don’t know. Maybe bug bites?” I don’t mention the eyelash and my fear that wishes (if wished enough) do come true. I don’t mention my fear that these welts are the beginning of my end.

“I’m gonna put you on steroids for a few days and some Benadryl.”

“But you don’t know what this is. But—”

“They’re all treated the same,” the doctor interrupts.

I used to be allergic to milk. Then, perfume. For a significant portion of my life: men. On and off, I’m also allergic to any derivative of happiness.

I’ve wished on eyelashes my whole life. Over three decades of birthday candle wishes. Two or three shooting stars. I have no memory of any wishes coming true.

Day three of these unconfirmed mountains of itchiness and I do my best NOT TO ITCH. My spouse tells me they are fading. I wish I could wish this itch away, but I’ve sworn myself away from fallen eyelashes and my birthday is a long way off.

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Imposter

first published by great weather for MEDIA

 

You worry you enter rooms just for the free coffee. 

I write this into my notebook and leave it there, unattached to anything else. I try not to think about all the times I have walked into spaces I didn’t belong, or didn’t think I belonged. But this is not a story about coffee. Although, I am drinking some as I write this. No, this is about my life as an imposter.

I am approached by seven doors by the time I get to work. Some open and close without my hands pushing on them; some need to be messed with. I have a key to two of the doors, yet even when I’m inside, I’m not quite sure how or if I should be there.

I am a teacher. Some call me professor. Though that word sounds way too buttoned-up and makes it sound like I brush my hair or wear deodorant (I often forget).

Three days a week (sometimes four), I head into the Bronx and teach at a community college. Throughout the hour and fifteen minutes commute there, I read. Write in my notebook if there are enough words collected inside of me. Sleep. Stare at people staring at their phones. Marvel at the ways in which our lives can twist and turn us into so many different variations of being.

Every other week, I receive my paycheck and still grow astonished that I am getting paid to swell minds.

Growing up, I always thought teachers were aliens. Like flesh-covered dictionaries and encyclopedias. I firmly thought libraries of every book and fact lived inside their bodies, pressed up against their organs, which of course they knew all the names of. Ask a teacher anything and they knew the answer; this is what I believed.

My parents never put my report cards on the refrigerator like my sister. She was in the extra-advanced classes; I was in the low self-esteem club (yes, there was such a thing).

I wanted to be a veterinarian until I figured out I’d have to deal with blood and death. I thought about being a hairstylist, and then changed my mind to a pastry chef until I became a drug addict and that took me away for a bit.

I have been a nanny, a house cleaner, a barista, a bookseller. I’ve worked in a movie theatre, a diner, a dollar store, a fast food chain, a bagel shop. I’ve sold jewelry; I’ve sold my body.

Ten years ago, I never thought I would call myself teacher. What am I saying? Five years ago, I wasn’t sure I could call myself this. For most of my life, I never quite knew how to be. How to sit straight, how to socialize, how to be a girl, how to study, how to be bad, how to be good, how to remain.

I tell my students that doors represent an opening. An engagement with another side, land, perspective. I tell them that our bodies contain doors of varying sizes. Doors with padlocks; doors with police taped ribboned around; doors with broken locks. Doors with windows, screens, metal, wooden, translucent.

Even an imposter has a door to their insides. The problem is that sometimes they just don’t always know the way in or through.

I carried around an EXIT sign sewed into both my wrists from all the times I tried to walk out and jump off the ledge of this body. Yet I always found a way to get up and keep walking. But this is not a story about my mental illness and all the scars creating an alphabet on my skin.

I am an imposter. But maybe we all are? I mean, what qualifies any of us to be in any room? I want my students to remain and get their degrees, but that paper doesn’t necessarily get them into a room. Because then there are other STOP signs, which might assault their path like gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, must I keep going?

When I walk into the classroom, the students have no idea how nervous I am. Are they really going to listen to me? Me? But I almost flunked high school. I was a restless mess in college. And when I pass by the other teachers, I wait for them to ask me about my credentials. How many books I’ve read and if I’ve gotten through the literary cannon (definitely not).

In New York, where I teach, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those ranging in ages of 15-34. Every semester, my students tell me about their depression. Their anxieties. Their losses and their fears. I do not tell them all the times and ways I tried to walk off the ledge of this body. How I still feel this urge…

I do not tell them because what I show them is far more important: I always come back. At the start of every class, I welcome them as writers (because they all are) and remind them to be as present as they can be. At the end of the semester, I tell them I will always be their teacher, even when we are no longer walking through the same door.

And yet, I still cling to this word of imposter. I’m not trying to deceive anyone, as the definition often suggests. It’s more about how I feel.

I scratch hate crimes into the death of my skin, dry from winter fornicating with its oils.

I find this in my notebook, dated a few months ago. I have a steady job and a magical spouse who I love and a dog and an apartment and things and nourishment, but this does not mean that I don’t fall sometimes. Mess up. Relapse into old behaviors. Hence, my self-stuck imposter label.

I worry that I am an imposter in my marriage because I don’t believe in this word. I’ve had no great examples around me, and even though it’s a word my people have fought to have access to (and won), I still feel unclear by it

I am an imposter hippie. Swallowed by panic attacks at marches and rallies. Hairy but hungry for all varieties of animal. Can I still be a non-conforming subculture beatnik, and live inside this queer-stained heteronormative lifestyle?

Recently in my Women’s Literature class, my students and I watched Lidia Yuknavitch’s TED talk titled, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit.” Though I have watched this many times, I still feel emotional throughout. She said, “Even at the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don’t even know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly.” Afterwards, I asked the students to react and one announced that she felt like her soul had been touched. So often we don’t quite have the words to say how we feel or even what we are. And then someone else articulates it as though they have been swimming inside our lives, our brains. A student asked, “But what is a misfit?” And I let the other students answer: outsider, someone unlike the others, someone who doesn’t fit in.

Maybe being an imposter is like being a misfit. It’s this giant secret I have living inside me. Like seeds of my former lives growing in my gut, pushing it out. It feels like the reason I should not be welcomed, but maybe being an imposter is the reason I should be here.

I have an exercise I do with my students each semester. It is based upon all the times we are approached by boxes: a box to check off our gender, our race, socio-economic class, educational background, religion, etc. Before the students arrive, I tape up blank pieces of white paper all over the classroom. Then, I ask them to stand up and approach a piece of paper.

This is your box, I say. Think about all the times you are asked to check boxes that may not include what you are or how you see yourself. Boxes with someone else’s language and expectations. Boxes which aim to label you with words or categories you may not feel connected to. Boxes just not big enough to include your vocabulary. I tell them that these pieces of paper are their boxes. They get to fill it in with their words. In the past, students have written: mother, battered, divorced, misunderstood, smart, latina, multi-racial, brother, son, survivor, queer, human, pansexual, Muslim, and even a question mark.

I ask them to sit down when they are done and write in their notebooks about what it felt like to choose their lexicon. Then, we get back up and walk around the room, taking in each other’s language. We notice the repeated words, what we have in common, and what words surprised us. For some, this is their first opportunity to give away their self-identified language.

I absolutely hate labels, even though I wear this imposter one across my bound chest. And I wear other labels too, which I self-imposed. Do I do this before someone else does?

Dictionaries are thicker now, and so are we. In brain stem, worry lines, and flesh stretch.

Maybe we need new definitions? To take these words out of their tightly-sealed casings and wrap new syllables around them. Make room for more meanings. Expand the width of our doorways.

A Story About Luggage

first published by great weather for MEDIA

When you are carrying all the baggage around from childhood and a mismatched set from adulthood as well, it’s really hard to get around. Everyone is tripping over your teenage years and let’s not even mention ages 24-27, 32-34, 35 too. You can’t fly because you can’t afford the extra fees for the weight of what you carry around with you everyday. People (before meeting you) think this is a metaphor. Oh, right, baggage. But this is inconveniently heavy with zippers and hidden pockets and it all looks the same so if you left it alone, you wouldn’t know it’s yours and this is when you realize other people carry around baggage too. Lots of the same shapes, but some a little smaller and (yeesh) even bigger than yours. There are dull colors coding these bags, but bright ones too. You swear you can see a leopard print in the distance.

Now that you start to see other people’s baggage, you realize you aren’t alone. So, you start to walk more, sweating and grunting a little by the weight of it all, but while you’re out, people start to ask if they can help.

“That looks heavy,” one says. “Can I…can I carry something?”

Your eyes grow wide like your hips when you went from girl to woman and you say sure. You give them a bag and suddenly you feel lighter. Just a little, but enough to notice the difference.

You keep walking and notice someone else. They have tied all their bags together with hemp string and masking tape, carrying the whole lot on their back.

You approach them because you recognize the pain in their face.

“Hi,” you say.

“Hey,” they shoot back.

“Looks like you’ve been carrying all that for a really long time.”

“I have,” they say.

“See that water over there? They call it the East River. Think we could walk over there together and just…let our baggage go? If not all, then some?”

“OK,” they answer.

So, you and this stranger walk to the East River where the birds fly just above the water and the secrets down below carry their own version of baggage and you each choose a few bags to let go of. There are moments you each cry, dropping tears into the water like soft stones creating hints of rings swelling the salt. There are no words spoken between you as you lift and let go. Lift and let go.

When you are done, you notice what is left. Still a significant amount, but some of the heavy ones are gone, doing a limbless breaststroke away from you. The stranger beside you has walked away, with only one bag left.

*

Now, you step outside more. venture inside new places. Your arms still carry this baggage around but you have enough breaths in you left to speak and even sometimes laughYou thought you saw that stranger again, though you almost didn’t recognize them by the width of their smile. And when you looked down to note their baggage, all that was beside them was the comfort of others.

You still have your bags. Far less and not as cumbersome to carry around. You’ve since met others who you’ve walked to the water with to let go of some weight. It makes it so much easier to live.

notations from a present-day teacher and formerly-frustrated student

first published by great weather for MEDIA

 

  1. I thought it was because of the desks, which were never quite big enough to contain my well-read anxieties. Always entertained by the carvings of other restless minds, I frequently ran out of classrooms, cloaked in my invisibility.
  1. They call me teacher now. Professor. Mis-pronouning me, but I let them.
  1. I spent much of senior year in high school in a small classroom for other detainees with behavioral issues. They didn’t like that I chose my skin to carve instead of the gum-stuck desks. They didn’t like that I skipped gym class because I couldn’t articulate why I felt so uncomfortable in the girls’ locker room.
  1. A student shares with me a history of mental illness and a desire to keep trying to exit. I think about all the ways to convince this student to remain, knowing words are too much like band-aids: they cover up, but the wound remains. I do not share that I am a survivor of myself as well. I do not announce all the ways I tried: Kurt Vonnegut the first time, Diane Arbus more times than I could count, couldn’t bare a Hunter S. Thompson or Hemingway (but knew others who did), oven could not hold me like Sylvia, too afraid of water to Virginia, tried to Sarah Kane myself twice, too many Kurt Cobains and Brautigans that I couldn’t bare to join the list, thought about a Spalding Grey, not bold enough to Yukio Mishima, but something still keeps me here.
  1. When I got into graduate school, I thought I’d be finally be okay.
  1. These students are like notebooks with hard-to-read-but-worth-squinting-for footnotes and hidden pockets and four leaf clovers stuck into the pages.
  1. Even amongst other poets and imaginators, I had a difficult time committing to being alive.
  1. As a teacher, I think about every book on my book shelves and all the ones I still need to read and how to climb so many pages into a semester without them losing track or losing faith. So I Audre Lorde them and James Baldwin them. So I Zora Neale Hurston and Claudia Rankine them. I Gabriel Garcia Marquez their minds. I Vera Pavlova and Naomi Shihab Nye them. Give them Allen Ginsburg and Amiri Baraka. I Rilke and Junot Diaz them until they cannot breathe. Until finally, they gasp, feeling the smoke of poetry and magical prose envelope them. Changing their shape. Sweltering their minds open.
  1. I wasn’t even supposed to graduate high school. 41 days missed, sophomore year. Failed math and can’t remember going to physics. Maybe they felt sorry for me. Maybe they hoped giving me that paper would keep me from climbing further out.
  1. I fill the classroom with blank pieces of paper. Tell them: these are your boxes. Think of all the times you’ve been presented with squares and labels which do not match who you are. This is your time to fill it with your So, I watch them approach their box. Fill in with words like: human, mother, biracial, Hispanic, poor, student, wife, bisexual, alive, battered, left behind, a question mark.
  1. I memorized the offices of every guidance counselor I ever had. Ms. Lefthand. Ms. Rosenblum. Ms. Garguilo. When I would forget how to swallow all the grey in me, I’d sit and they’d hold me with their ears and eyes. And also Ms. Herkus (7th grade English teacher) and Ms Runquist/Soback (creative writing teacher) and Ken DiMaggio and and and and.
  1. They expect me to forget them. To lose faith in them. I understand how difficult it is to keep walking through doors, sitting at desks never big enough for all the handouts, putting names on things they don’t always understand. They expect me to stop caring, stop noticing them, stop coming. But. They are the ones who keep me here. Head out of ovens. I hang on now. Persist. Hoping they will to.

it’s ok….actually…..please don’t smile.

WARNING: This post may cause abdominal pain. And it may increase digestion. And those who read this may develop bed sores on their bed side. Side effects may also include: increase of oxygen to most parts of the brain, teeth whitening, freckle recognition, harmonized memories and unambiguous thoughts.

******               ******               ******                  *****

Resting against my face is not a smile. I used to take pills to push one into my skin like the imprint a foot makes in the sand. But there were all those side-effects and suddenly a smile just wasn’t worth all the small print tumbling me into nightmares, dry mouth, loss of sexual appetite and on and on.

I walk on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn from home to subway and three different humans (all male-bodied) stop me and say, “Smile!” as though I had forgotten how.

On the train, I study the commuters who travel like I do and try to decipher the language of their faces. I realize that my lips are turned downward. I lift one side, not quite into a smile but less than a frown. Then, I stop myself. Who am I manipulating my lips for?

I enter a room and collect a bouquet of “How are you’s”. I answer wisely: “Well” or “Good, thank you.” But what I want to utter is: “Troubled, at times” or “Feeling stifled by language which I cannot connect to myself” or “Traumatized by my trip here” or “Okay, but I’d really like to be better.”

My father reads my blog. Tells me my posts have grown sad. I want to tell him that my words are all from the same seed. That the soil they live inside is sometimes colder and sometimes rotten and sometimes neglected but always feeling. I want to tell him that I am a writer and words cannot all be yellow with three dimensional, rotating suns singing in unison. Sometimes syllables shake and have to sit down.

I just don’t want to fake it anymore because in that fake there is tragedy. I want to frown in plain sight; how terrible it feels to be in hiding.

At night, our faces can rest. No one needs clarity when the lights are turned down and we travel into REM. We can wince and we can furrow and we can twist our flesh into sorrowful sighs. And how beautiful and how real all that is. To just rest in a face you really feel without having to make someone else more comfortable.

It’s okay……really…..please…..don’t smile…..just be.

how to be found

originally posted on great weather for MEDIA

 

how long until/ the limbs become/ just/ skin’s memory 

 

I travel west to contact every doorframe and window hinge I have ever touched. I want to know if they remember my fingerprint configuration. I need to know I am impactful.

In my pocket are three words I did not know before three days ago and one references a fruit I have trust issues with: aubergine. I contemplate renaming myself this word because I like the sling of its third syllable slapping tongue against roof of mouth. Is it ever too late to retitle oneself?

My mother calls me while I am pretending to write and she goes off script. She tells me my uncle has passed away. How long until a body loses its shape? And what shape does it become? Death lay there in his body for at least three days until. Until.

How to be found.          Out.

While living in suburbia, as a teenager with a license, I walked out of my psychology class one day with a mission to drive to my favorite park and hang myself. I was without weaponry, but I much preferred DIY techniques anyway. No one noticed when I walked out, right as the teacher—with three day beard or lipstick on teeth, I cannot recall—was offering a lesson on fight/flight and the biology of mental illness (or perhaps something completely unrelated). Slowly, I walked through the school parking lot to find my car, which really my sister’s, and it was red with only two doors. If I listened to the radio, I would have searched for Nirvana to scream his suicide notes into my ear.

This was the 90’s.

This park I liked was small, with evidence of duck excrement littering the ground like confetti. I did not care enough to watch where I walked; I just wanted to find the perfect tree to keep me elevated.

I ask my mother how he died and she does not know. I use a word like autopsy because of movies and over-saturated crime television programs like CSI and Law and Order. I need to know that even after addiction and depression, one finally reaches an age of understanding and stillness. I need to know I won’t want to revisit that tree with DIY weaponry when I am in my sixties.

I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain died. Less than one year later in 1995, I will try what he succeeded at, choosing pills and knives over shotgun. When Kurt died, everyone around me draped themselves in capes of flannel. When I die, I wonder if everyone will dye their hair red or just head to work because. Because. Why not.

On my travels west, I reach a doorframe found in an old school house, now called apartment complex. I licked the doorknob to see if it still tasted of me. All I can report is my tongue felt like pocket lint and pennies for the rest of the day. There was no sign of recognition.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an American commits suicide every 12.9 minutes. In the course of writing this, at least four people have died.

I ask my mother once again about an autopsy, sounding out each letter slowly. Don’t you want to know? I ask. But I know that I am really asking me.

The last song Kurt Cobain recorded with Nirvana was titled, “You Know You’re Right” and I wonder if we ever really do. The lyrics haunt like the loudest lover you never could get over.

Kurt growls, “No thought was put into this/ I always knew it’d come to this/ Things have never been so swell/ And I have never failed to fail.”

The tree refused to elevate me on that day I casually escaped the confines of high school. Instead, I carved my name into a bench that faced a manmade lake. I contemplated what I was contemplating. Almost twenty years later, I look up that lake on the computer, and find that it has a yelp page. People express joy for its vastness; a perfect place to picnic; a spot for fishing or handholding. I ponder submitting my thoughts on the trees and how they may have saved my life that day, when I might have contributed to the census of Americans who end their time. How many stars would I give and would I mention that I used to think this park was a perfect spot to die, but now I just think it’s the right place to remember how to be found.

but also because of this.

[for Lily.]

 

You asked me when I started writing. Where did it begin and what caused it.

I mentioned Lou Reed. Bob Dylan. My sister’s old boyfriend, my favorite, who encouraged me to poem and to hippie. I mentioned that assembly freshman year of high school when I read a poem that caused all the teachers to warn my parents that I might try to Sylvia Plath myself. I mentioned open mics and giving up my dream of being a pastry chef.

But also because of this.

I started writing when my razor’s blade grew dull. And I started to write when I ran out of girls to kiss. And

I write when I binge on too much food, and feel the need to purge something.

Here’s the thing:

I’ve been writing letters to this old, white guy named Richard Brautigan, who keeps feeding my book shelf.

And I think of my student who asked me: Prof, why do so many writers off themselves? 

And I said, because so many come from tragedy & addiction & too much sadness to be cured by prescriptions, and it is the writing that keeps them alive, until….it just no longer can.

So I write to stay alive. Until I no longer can. And then maybe someone who needs a reason to remain will find me. And I will feed their bookshelf. And we all can just keep saving each others’ lives. One poem, one story, one page at a time.