Her Tattoo is My Name & My Name is a Poem

Amy Lam

I traded a McDonald’s two-cheeseburger extra-value meal for a tattoo over a decade ago. A friend permanently inked my parents’ house key against my spine, in between my soft shoulder blades, as I hunched over a folding chair in a dining room with bad lighting. Afterward, in my old Corolla, I took us to the drive-through on a rare drizzly Los Angeles winter afternoon.

A couple of years before that, I made my then-boyfriend swear he wouldn’t tell anyone I paid the tattoo shop’s minimum of $50 for a simple drawing that didn’t take longer than five minutes to sink into my skin. I was more embarrassed about having paid so much for the tattoo than about the tattoo itself. Fifteen years later, it’s now a faded, blurry, red line sketch of a two-inch-tall pitchfork. A tiny triangle makes the small point at the end of each of the three prongs. The pitchfork points upward, standing just a few inches above my butt crack.

The pitchfork and the house key are two of the seven tattoos on my body. Each of their creations was a vibrating catharsis, proof of a feeling—a time stamp rather than a tramp stamp. Some of them are reminders to myself—saturated with history and aspirations. Some of them are more like a pitchfork above my ass.

Punch Line

Molly Tolsky

cw: suicide

I want to write a funny story about suicide.

I want to write a funny story about suicide because the person dear to me who died by suicide was a very funny person.

The person dear to me who died by suicide took comedy classes at an establishment called Improv Olympics, which sounds exactly like the kind of establishment that this person would despise. A lot of people might despise an establishment called Improv Olympics because a lot of people despise improv.

I know I do.

When we met, the person dear to me who died by suicide—that phrase is rather clunky so I’m going to call him K—was taking a class at Improv Olympics about writing two-liners. Two-liners are just like one-liners except they have two lines. They are the kind of jokes that people like David Letterman and Jay Leno say during the opening monologues of their evening shows. Those are dated references because this is a dated story.

Time is a funny thing.

K died by suicide eight years ago. At the time of his suicide I was twenty four and he was thirty two. Now I am thirty two and that is kind of funny.

Not funny like ha-ha but funny like weird.

The root of the word weird comes from the root of the word fate. A different dear person told me that, a person whom I was romantically involved with, and after we broke up I used that fact as interesting banter on several dates.

Now here I am, using it on you.

K sent me a suicide note that wasn’t funny at all. It was the first non-funny email he’d ever sent to me. I described it to friends as “weird” before I knew for sure it was a suicide note, even though I sort of knew it was a suicide note right away. But it would be two days before I knew for sure, and in those days I read the note over and over again, looking for the joke.

It began with, “Well Molly, I love you,” which is not something we had ever said to each other before.

Love is a funny word because it has so many interpretations and I didn’t know which interpretation K was using in his suicide note. In the course of my life I’ve proclaimed love for water and books and cookies and family members and water parks and television shows and boyfriends and brothers and Sundays and sunflowers and a bowling alley.

I didn’t know if K was saying he loved me like a boyfriend or a bowling alley, so I didn’t say I love you back when I responded to his note. I said, “Are you okay? Please call.”

In retrospect, that was kind of a funny response. I don’t think we ever talked on the phone.

Once K wrote a joke for a stand-up routine that I really loved. In the joke, he talked about doing sexy role-play with his girlfriend. They’d go into separate rooms of their apartment and call each other up on the phone. He’d say, “Pretend I’m on a business trip, and I know exactly what I’m doing with my life.” The joke was that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing with his life. The not-joke was that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing with his life. To be clear, that joke wasn’t about me, because I was never his girlfriend. We slept together for a year but never called each other anything other than our first names, or sometimes, “Little One.” I don’t remember when I started calling him Little One, but I know it started out as a joke because it wasn’t like me to come up with a pet name so sincere.

When I was younger, like twenty four, I had a hard time being sincere. One boyfriend I had would get frustrated with me because every time he wanted to have a serious conversation, I responded with a joke. At that time I thought being funny was the best thing I had going for me. Being serious would wipe off the sheen of my personality. I wouldn’t be able to see myself anymore. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t know what I would be.

Now, at thirty two, I talk about this with my therapist and we think it has to do with my fear of vulnerability, my fear of rejection, my bottomless well of fear. I cry in therapy every week, even when I’m making jokes because I like to make my therapist laugh. Sometimes I get there early and I can hear her laughing with a different patient and I get jealous. I want to be the only funny patient. I want to be a relief.

Some science: There’s evidence that the part of the brain that causes us to laugh also causes us to cry. This is why sometimes you laugh so hard you cry, and sometimes you cry so hard you laugh.

Laughter and crying have some other things in common, too. They both release endorphins, which are supposed to make us feel better after an experience of high emotion. Also, laughter enhances our cardiovascular function while crying lowers our blood pressure, both of which sound like nice, healthy things to me, but I am not a doctor. I just read this on the internet.

I also read an article on the internet called “The Top 10 Comedians Who Committed Suicide.” From the headline it is unclear whether the comedians listed are being rated by their success at comedy or their success at suicide. The introduction to the list makes me laugh because it is very, very bad. It includes the line, “No one never lacks a good reason for suicide,” which I can’t comprehend no matter how many times I read it. There’s a widget in the right hand rail of the website that directs you to related content, including “The Top 10 Race Horses of All Time.”

Another article I read on the internet asks, like Seinfeld, “What’s the Deal with Comedians and Depression?” It was published the day after Robin Williams died by suicide. The main takeaway from this article is that being funny is not the same thing as being happy.

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

That was a joke coined by Richard Jeni, who, following a conversation with his girlfriend about his next career move, shot himself in the face. The comedian Freddie Prinze, following a phone conversation with his estranged wife, shot himself in the head. Doodles Weaver was a comedian in the 1950s who shot himself at the age of seventy one. Charles Rocket played the bad guy in Dumb and Dumber and then slit his throat in a field near his home. Paul McCullough was a comedian who, upon release from a sanitarium, went into a barber shop for a shave, grabbed the barber’s razor, and cut his wrists and neck.

Did you know there is an entire page on Wikipedia dedicated to “Clowns who committed suicide”? There are only three listed, but still.

“I’ve thought about becoming a cop, as some sort of elaborate suicide attempt,” K once chatted to me, online. “But I’d probably just become a hero. Which would suck.”

Sometimes when I find something really funny I fall down to the floor and declare myself dead. This is common parlance these days, I’m sure you’ve heard it before. When something is funny, you are dying. When it’s really funny, you are dead.

When a comedian does well on stage, we say they killed. The more the audience laughs, the more the comedian has killed.

The comedian kills. The audience is dead. These are just some observations about the way we talk.

When you meet someone who shares a similar sense of humor to you, you might say you really click. This is because you will laugh at the same things and the sounds of your laughter will come together in clicks.

When I’m really laughing my voice goes high and I try to talk through it but the words become more and more like squealing, like one long wheeeeeeee.

When K was really laughing, he wouldn’t make a sound at all. His eyes would squint and his whole body would heave forward and if he was wearing the sweater he always wore, he would push up both sleeves like a sitcom dad. The sweater was brown. His eyes were, too.

Any good comedian knows that the structure of a joke is very important. Most agree all jokes follow a three-part structure: the framing; the telling; the payoff. The funny part needs to come at the end. It’s called the punch line. That’s Comedy 101.

Victor Raskin’s “Script-based Semantic Theory of Humor” posits that for a joke to be successful—success being defined by an audience finding it funny—two conditions must be met: “(1) The text is compatible, fully or in part, with two different scripts and (2) The two scripts with which the text is compatible are opposite […]. The two scripts with which the text is compatible are said to overlap fully or in part on this text.” Something is funny when the punch line causes the audience to abruptly shift its understanding from the primary, more obvious script to the secondary, opposing script.

It’s about shifting perspectives, subverting expectations. It’s leading people to believe you’re telling one kind of story, when in reality you are telling a different kind of story. This is what I’ve learned from the Wikipedia page on humor. You can find almost anything there.

Let’s go back to Improv Olympics.

A few hours before our first date, K sent me his two-liner homework in an email. It was a list of ten two-liners and I thought most of them were pretty good. My favorite one went like this:

I was watching my flat-screen at my condo recently, and the economy isn’t looking too hot. When I say condo, I mean the YMCA. And when I say flat-screen, I mean the shadow of myself eating a Danish.

If we put this through the Raskin theory, script one would lead you to believe the speaker is doing well enough, despite the poor economy, to own a flat screen TV and a condominium. Script two tells us otherwise. It’s funny because it’s sad.

After I found out that K had died by suicide I didn’t know when I would laugh again. That sounds like a cliché but it’s true. Turns out I would laugh the very next day. I discovered the hard part was not laughing again, but not having K around to tell him why I was laughing.

Laughing is objectively better when done with someone else. You feed off each other and you laugh even more. You laugh because the other person is laughing, because the sound of laughter is funny, because laughing is contagious, because it would be really odd to sit there in silence while someone else is laughing out loud.

Have you ever seen somebody laugh out loud to themselves in public? Did you think they were crazy? It’s okay if you thought they were crazy. This is why we need somebody to laugh with.

This is why it’s hard.

Eight years ago, when I was twenty four, I woke up on a Monday morning feeling irrationally happy and then I checked my email and found a suicide note from K. I didn’t know it was a suicide note but I didn’t not know it was a suicide note. I went to work that day, thinking about the email. I called him every hour on the hour until his phone went straight to voicemail. I told my friends I was worried about him, but that I was sure it was nothing. I was sure it wasn’t nothing. I responded to the email, “Are you okay? Please call” instead of writing, “I love you, too.” Even if I wrote, “I love you, too” it wouldn’t have made a difference. K was already dead. But in a funny way, it would have made me feel better.

Not funny like ha-ha but funny like wheeeeeeee.

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, check out the resources below. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line, for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling.

International helplines can be found at International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Molly Tolsky is a writer and editor originally from Chicago, currently based in New York. She’s the founder and editor of Alma (heyalma.com) and senior editor of No Tokens. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature online, Modern Loss, and elsewhere. You can visit her website at mollytolsky.com.

This Truth About Chaos

John Freeman

If my father smelled of anything through my childhood, it was cut grass and sawdust. Most evenings, before dinner, I’d find him in the garage, standing in shirtsleeves before a table covered in screws and greasy rivets, wrestling with a machine. A lawn mower, a sprinkler head, some piece of pipe. If an appliance broke, he fixed it, and if it wasn’t broken he made sure it would be by tinkering with it. My father wasn’t particularly handy, but he grew up in a generation that distrusted objects they couldn’t master. When these things resisted him he’d let loose a string of compound epithets and I knew it was time to lie low.

Even then, in my early teens, I understood his fiddling with tools was a displacement activity. By day my father ran a nonprofit family service agency that provided what the government no longer would. The agency employed social workers to counsel people going on or off welfare, drivers to deliver meals to shut-in seniors, patient and skilled therapists to operate a suicide hotline at its Sacramento offices. It was good work, and I know my father was proud of it, but I also sensed—from being around him—that the job was like bailing a leaky boat. One day he arrived home flecked in blood: a client had cut her arms open and died in the office’s entryway.

We Live Here: A Food and Drink Guide to AWP 2019

Thomas Ross

Tin House was lucky enough to have been founded in the 20th century, right at the tail end, when the dot com bubble hadn’t yet burst and the world was still on its first or second guess at just how boundless the internet could be. Without Slack, Submittable, or Skype, a magazine, like most businesses, still needed a physical headquarters—a hometown.

Luckier still, ours was Portland: a blindly, gloriously indulgent city; a city of visionaries and goofballs, heroes and clowns; a city that drools as much for the lyrical provocations of actual geniuses as it does for the accidental breakthroughs in nacho-making that only legal cannabis can bring about.

Portland has been the home of Ursula K. Le Guin, Beverly Cleary, Chuck Palahniuk, and Katherine Dunn—but one of the great writers to come out of Portland was James Beard, the chef and writer whose name, through the annual James Beard Awards, is still synonymous with the best of the best in food and food writing.

Like the Portland Beard knew over 100 years ago, Portland today still indulges the wildest culinary and literary ideas. We at Tin House are so bad at separating them, in fact, that if you have ever submitted to us, it’s safe to assume a drop of IPA, a splash of Fernet-Branca, or a blob of artisan ketchup has graced your writing’s pages at one of the fine establishments below.

We know you writers offer an infinite array of interests and obsessions. To that end, here’s a list of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, arranged by corresponding genre. Whatever you’re into, here’s where you should get into it:

On Janet Malcolm’s Diana and Nikon

Alice Bolin

I found Janet Malcolm’s first book, her 1980 essay collection Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Art of Photography, because I was reading all of her books that were available at the University of Montana library. I started with her criticism and journalism on subjects closer to my wheelhouse—The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath’s biographers, and The Journalist and the Murderer, about the surreal ethics of true crime—and grew addicted to her weird and brilliant writing. I would read her on anything. I had (and still have) no more than a basic knowledge of fine art photography and very little interest in it; nevertheless Diana and Nikon enthralled me. Compiled from Malcolm’s photography column in the New Yorker, Diana and Nikon works with utter (and sometimes peculiar) precision and decisive authority while at the same time doubling back on itself, retreading ideas and refining them. It provides an enchanting glimpse of the critic at work over time.

I often recommend the book to students, but I don’t think any of them have read it, primarily because it is depressingly out of print. I don’t even own a copy. After reading it the first time, I checked out Susan Sontag’s On Photography, hoping for more of the same and knowing that it was considered a classic of criticism on the form. I was a bit let down. I remember loving but distrusting Sontag’s sweeping aphorisms, thinking her art criticism lacked rigor and her abstract pronouncements seemed to come out of nowhere.

The Making of an American Feminist: An Interview with Sophia Shalmiyev

Nanci McCloskey

I met Sophia Shalmiyev through my friend (and amazing author) Leni Zumas. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time: I was in the midst of separating from my husband with whom I share two small children. Things were ugly. I was a mess. Leni said, “Sophia can help. She’s an incredible resource.”

I took her advice and shortly after I met Sophia over whiskey (for Sophia) and wine (for me) in a bar in Northwest Portland. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but Leni’s wise words were exactly right: Sophia Shalmiyev is incredible. With just a small amount of information, she is able to extrapolate, understand, and empathize. She listened and consoled. She developed a plan for me. Even so, I confess that I was skeptical my new guardian angel might be too good to be true.

An angel with an art degree and an MFA who can sew and paint, drink and garden? Sophia grew up poor, sometimes desperately so, and mostly motherless, yet she has devoted her life to women: artists and victims of domestic violence. How does a person like this come to be? When I learned she was writing a memoir, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I read it in two sittings, staying up way past my bedtime. And then I started it again from the beginning. Slower the second time, luxuriating in the language.

Mother Winter is the fiercely and urgently told story of the making of an American feminist. We had the following conversation below over Google chat, and I hope it gives you a peek into the mind and spirit of this truly extraordinary thinker and writer.

My Dinner with Dubravka Ugresic: On Anti-Nationalism and Home

Nina Herzog

With titles like The Culture of Lies (1998), Lend Me Your Character (2004), The Ministry of Pain (2006), Karaoke Culture (2011), and Europe in Sepia (2014), Croatian (Yugoslavia-then) born Dubravka Ugresic is arguably our foremost literary authority on lies.  When a friend alerted me that she was in New York for a publicity tour for the release of American Fictionary and a new novel, Fox (both Open Letter Books), I was eager to discuss America’s recent slipping toward authoritarianism with one of Europe’s scathing darlings of anti-nationalist critique. Despite winning the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (“the American Nobel”) in 2016, she remains largely unknown in America outside of pockets of international literature devotees, but her sustained and wry exploration of culture and nationalism (in her words, “the ideology of stupid”) have much to offer an anxious America.

The short “essays” that comprise American Fictionary were written in weekly installments in Croatian for a Dutch newspaper while she was teaching at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, during 1991-1992, creating a conspicuous absence from her domovina (homeland) during the years war broke out in Yugoslavia. Previously released in the US in 1995 under the indelicately ironic title Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream and updated with a few editorial changes, they paint a stark contrast between an unselfconsciously fortunate country (US) and a self-consciously unfortunate country.

I met with Ugresic over dinner in the early evening of October 17, at the Bohemian Spirit restaurant on the Upper East Side, close to where she was staying with a friend, about three weeks after the release of American Fictionary, and just five days before President Donald J. Trump proudly proclaimed himself a nationalist at a rally in Houston.

Ugresic liked the restaurant, commenting with satisfaction about the waitress and the liver pate, “She’s right. It is real,” thus in one small exchange single-handedly betraying the genetic skepticism – a gnawing suspicion that you’re being duped, a gentle paranoia – common to all Eastern Europeans and what she calls out in American Fictionary as that mix of “condescension and cunning.” This genetic skepticism lies at the heart of American Fictionary.

Ugresic left Croatia for Middletown after continued harassment and having been publicly declared a witch, along with several other prominent feminist authors including Slavenka Drakulic (How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed), for decrying the resurgent strain of Croatian nationalism within the independence movement. Croatian atrocities during the second world war are widely described as having trumped Nazi torture both in creativity and zeal. Ugresic explained that “Yugoslavia was an emancipatory project for everybody. … People were happy to forget all those crimes done during the second world war.” But history, as Yugoslavia has shown, is difficult to bury and Ugresic decided not to return.

“At the moment when I wrote American Fictionary, I was sort of angry, but I was angry because of that war in Yugoslavia. And that anger and sadness sometimes simply isparava se iz teksta (exudes from the text like vapor),” she told me. Indeed, when Have a Nice Day came out in the mid-90s, these essays were received defensively by American reviewers who lacked the requisite appreciation for the Yugo cynicism gene, and perhaps more importantly, were unable to understand that its anger cannot be separated from its sadness; it is, in fact, a function of it.

At the same time, Ugresic herself seems to have gained something from the criticism. This version contains edits to parts that she now considers “too harsh.” And a section questioning William Styron’s depression has been removed for “moral, ethical reasons.” Of that section, she stated at a reading where I served as her interlocutor, “This was not nice.” America’s own nervous system has become sensitized to the possibility that indelible institutions can be eroded. And it is within this reality that her comment, “Let us hope that this time people will read it differently,” seems possible.

But what of the responsibility of the unselfconsciously fortunate to lean into an uncomfortable experience for the sake of exploring someone else’s reality? American Fictionary – with its unannounced leaps between fact, limbo and fiction; point-of-view shuffling; and whimsical genre-fucking – offers, for those who are interested, a simulation of what it might feel like to have your country disappear, your identity wiped out, your passport defunct, your street name changed, your language no longer exists.

In “Homeland,” one of the strongest “essays” in the collection, a chorus of exiled Former Yugoslav characters haplessly sit around in a New York apartment. Through repetition, the group perspective grounds us as we navigate a mercilessly shifting landscape, coordinates erased. Their refrains move the piece forward like a dirge:

“Some have been killed, others have fled, others have lost the roof over their heads, others their career, some have lost their homeland, others have gained theirs, the only thing that is true is that no one is unscathed,”

Often after a critical rant where Ugresic is deconstructing some unimportant America idiosyncrasy – the organizer, manual, shrink, addict, couch potato, Coca-Cola, bagel (each of which is a chapter name) – she delivers a reflection on Yugoslavia and its original sin: Who is to blame? Thus the skeptical current of the book flows both ways; the skepticism at America may be laced with anger, but the skepticism aimed at herself and Yugoslavs, the one drenched in sadness, is mortal: “I don’t care whether I, myself, am perpetuating the stereotypes about the Balkans and the ‘Balkan curse.’ My guilt is negligible. The tale of ‘Balkan doom’ is being earnestly inflated by the local murderers and butchers, not the writers. What worries me, however, is something else. I am aghast at the thought that my momentary scornful arrogance might be of the same ilk as the malevolence with which my agile compatriots are destroying their country.”

And so, of course, as long as the distrust is aimed both out as well as in, as in Ugresic’s case, there is reflection, reason, thought, and therefore resilience in pain. As she told me, “There is some progression from that [starting] nervous position [in American Fictionary]. It goes more and more into this sort of relaxation and love.” She offers the newly added post scriptum, she says, as “a voice of reason.”

This descent into nationalism, I asked her, could it happen here, under the guidance of our newly self-minted nationalist leader, @realDonaldTrump? “It can’t,” she told me. “In Europe, history is longer. So they have this territoriality which Americans do not have. Somewhere in your genes, it is imprinted that it is not yours, that you are a guest here like everybody else. And then there is a history of protest. Americans are not submissive people, they know how to demonstrate. [She laughs.] So I am positive.”

As we wrapped up, she told me she was working on a piece about the Yugoslav Brutalist Architecture exhibit at the MoMA and just finished a book of essays entitled, The Age of Skin. I had begun the interview by asking this Yugoslav-born, Croatian national, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian-speaking, Dutch resident, where she felt the best. “Everywhere,” she said. “Home isn’t home anymore.” When I asked her how she planned to spend her remaining few weeks in New York, she replied, “I will just walk around. I will come and drink coffee or I will go to Central Park, or I will go to some parts of Manhattan I have never seen before. I would like to see theater. And then I will meet people. It’s easy for me. Because I am a guest. I am a privileged guest at someone’s house.”

Dubravka Ugresic is the author of seven works of fiction, and six essay collections, including the NBCC award finalist, Karaoke Culture. Exiled from Croatia, she currently lives in the Netherlands.

Nina Herzog is a Croatian-born writer with an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She was the coeditor of Global City Review’s International Issue and has contributed writings on and interviews with former-Yugoslav writers to Words without Borders since 2010.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals and she has received awards from the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, Millay Colony, Anderson Center and others.

 

The Tidying Up of the American Mind

Deb Olin Unferth

I heard about it on podcasts, from coworkers and in-laws, saw it mentioned in magazines and online. If you have somehow managed to avoid The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, I congratulate you. It has sold eight million copies. I did not avoid it. I bought it and read it whole.

• • •

I don’t take issue with Kondo herself. She’s not the source of my visceral rage and disgust, which have not dimmed with time. She seems delightful, charismatic, and smart. Kondo aficionados talk with reverence about her innovative tidying techniques, such as “vertical storage” and “handbag nesting.” It goes without saying that non–independently wealthy people do not have time to do the “KonMari method” on their homes, but I accept that this is a book for the leisure class, the Eat, Pray, Love conglomerate.

My problem is with the book’s effect on the American mind.

On Gayl Jones’s Corregidora

Jamel Brinkley

I’ve always been uncomfortable with being looked at. For me, being seen has very often meant being vulnerable. When I was a boy, and then a younger man, having my image fixed in a photograph meant having all my flaws on record, my scrawny bowed legs, my too-light skin, my odd betwixt-and-between hair available as evidence against the case I tried daily to make for myself, to disguise these features by way of optical illusion. But the baggy shirts and jeans in which I attempted to hide and the brims of caps under which I tried to shadow my face were useless against the sheer force of being looked at, truly and piercingly observed.

At the same time, however, I also have a certain terror of not being noticed. Or maybe what I fear, more accurately, is not being thought about. I don’t want to be the center of attention, because that feels like one step away from being ridiculed, but I don’t want to be entirely ignored, because that feels like one step removed from being dead and gone, forgotten. This collision of shame and ego is absurd, of course, but maybe the contradiction I’m alluding to is, first and foremost, eminently human.

Resident

Elizabeth Miller-Reyes

Tin House is proud to partner with the Writing Our Lives Workshop to bring our readers a series of Flash Fidelity essays from their alumni.  

Medical eligibility means a physical; it means fasting.  It means being extra clean. To my mother, it meant making us drink oregano tea. She said it would kill anything inside of us that was not supposed to be there. It looked putrid—dark, forest green liquid against the white cup—and it smelled like the seasoning it was, not like a drink to be drank—salted, toasted oregano. It came up before it passed our throats. If there was any doubt we were fasting, there was none now.

 

Only now, when the government takes children away from their mothers, does the rest come into clarity. I am called into an exam room with my mother.   I lay on a table. Nothing is covering me. I am vulnerable while the towering figure of an older man looks over me, my mother across from him.  I feel cold instruments in places I’ve never felt cold instruments or any objects for that matter.  He blurts out a question much to fast for my fear to comprehend and I wonder if there is something wrong with my parts, something wrong with me.

My mother simply witnesses.

 

There’s a large brown paper bag we must get to Tia Carmela’s house before we leave.   Out of the corner of my eyes, I see my mother put a gun in it. It was a revolver—white, carved with black at the grip to match the cylinder. Had they always had it?  Where did they get it? I start to feel like we are fugitives.

We get to Tia Carmela’s porch, ask for her blessing and watch her and my mother disappear into a back bedroom. They return empty-handed. We say goodbye over refreshments and small talk. There are certain things you simply cannot donate or leave behind. They are much too special.

The day came, and we had green cards in our hands. There was mention of all the names on them, but one was missing—my oldest brother’s. There was additional information needed for him that we did not have.

How could a mother not know everything about her children?

The paperwork could only be provided by his birth mother. His birthmother was not my mother but another woman. My mother had raised him almost four years before having her first born. Mothers hold in so much more than what they give. We have never spoken of this.

 

We arrived in Los Angeles. My youngest brother and I started junior high and walked from class to class holding hands so as not to be separated. Everyone else finds this strange and ask if we are boyfriend and girlfriend. A school of mostly Hispanic kids could not understand why this dark-skinned girl with kinky hair who spoke only Spanish was neither Cuban nor Puerto Rican. In gym class, there was another girl who stood out. She was tall and African American. She sized me up and asked what I was mixed with. I was not a part of her. I was not a part of them.

 

My hair is relaxed to assimilate. The kids call me EZ-E because they don’t know tangles, they see a Jheri curl. When you don’t understand the words, it’s hard for them to offend you. When you are learning new words, you run as fast as you can to your next class so that you don’t miss a thing. In my momentum, I collide with a white teacher. He stops and asks me a question. I don’t understand. I attempt to continue to run, but he holds me back. He is asking me to apologize. I look blankly at him as I still don’t understand. I am now in the middle of a crowded hallway where everyone is watching me being made an example. He asks me to say sorry, but I don’t know how. I mimic what he mouths and repeat after him: “sorry.” I am free to go, only now I am late for class.

How many times must we apologize for things we have yet to learn language for?

Elizabeth Miller-Reyes is a poet and personal journey writer. She dances with nostalgia and humor from her experiences as a Dominican immigrant, wife, tia, and woman seeking a spiritual journey. Elizabeth is an alumn of Writing Our Lives Workshop and OneRoom Poetry Writing Group. Elizabeth is renowned from Arizona to California for her brown butter pancakes and empanadas. She resides in Phoenix, Arizona with her wife and three fur babies.

Hair Like a Cactus Needle

Yollotl Lopez

Tin House is proud to partner with the Writing Our Lives Workshop to bring our readers a series of Flash Fidelity essays from their alumni.  

There are two types of hairdressers: those who obey the clients and do as they ask and those who think they know better than their clients and cut off three inches when they said, “Justa trim.” My sister is the latter. After one bad haircut, my father never let her touch him again. It didn’t matter that she had always been his favorite; this was a matter of his hair.

When I began my cosmetology training, my sister mocked me and said if Dad didn’t trust her with his hair than he would trust me even less. However, my father still refused to let my sister touch his hair even as it grew shaggy and long, losing it’s Ricky Ricardo shape.

One Sunday, he came up to me and asked if I’d be willing to try his haircut.

I set up the stool in the garage, shook out the cutting cape and wet his hair down, moving the water through with my hands. Like me, my father has pin-straight black hair that doesn’t obey or hold any shape unless chemically altered and beaten into submission. “Hair like a cactus needle” my mother calls it. It required a perm every three months, a color-touch once a month, and a cut every two weeks, and today he was trusting me. I combed his hair out and asked what he’d like; as if he was just another client.

“Half eeench ohhhl overrrr,” he said in his thick accent circling his head with his index finger.

I knew he meant business. He only ever spoke to me in English when he really wanted me to pay attention. I told him to sit up straight and patted his back. Told him to put his feet flat on the ground. I held his head in my hands and tilted him left, then right and down as I snipped away nervously. Finally, I combed his hair into his usual hairstyle: a Ricky Ricardo swoop. I put my hand on his shoulders and spun him around to look in the mirror. He ran his hands through his hair inspecting just like he had inspected my sewing at age seven, my planting at age twelve, and my oil change at age fifteen. Finally, he released his hair and declared,

“Yeah, thaz goot bebita.” He hadn’t called me bebita since I was eight.

After that, I took over his routine: cut, color and perm. My sister was shocked and infuriated that he had chosen me as his designated hairdresser. Every so often she’d run her hand through his hair and find small mistakes.

“Did you use the clippers on him? This looks so uneven!”

“No, just scissors over comb, as usual.”

“Geez, look, this side is uneven. Dad, you should let me do it next weekend.”

Dejame!” he told her exasperated. “Me gusta como ella lo hace. Tú me lo dejas mochado como burro!” Like a donkey! I couldn’t believe it. He had insulted her with the worst Mexican insult known for hairdressers. He said her haircuts left him looking like a donkey had chewed his hair! She stormed off as he giggled.

Another time my sister criticized how long I took doing his hair.

“When you’re in a salon you’re going to have to be faster you know,” she snapped her fingers at me repeatedly, “Time is money.”

But she never knew why I took so long. It wasn’t so much about being careful. Over time, I perfected the routine to where I could get done with a cut and color in thirty minutes. No, with him this was the only time where I had prolonged contact, alone, just us. When I was growing up, his hugs never lasted more than two seconds and consisted of tight little pats when he hugged me at all. But here, in my chair, I could hold him as long as I wanted. In the name of perfection, I took my time moving his head and making sure his hair was even on all sides. I doubled cross-checked my sections and cut stray hairs carefully. We never talked much during these haircuts, but I was able to take my time, look him in the eyes, tilt his head and touch his face.

Here, I was able to do something right. Here, I was the trusted one. Here, I was the loved one.

Now, years later, I sit my father down on the little stool one last time before I leave California for New York. He’s loosened up on the rules over time. He lets me open the garage door now for fresh air while I cut, color or perm his hair so long as I keep his back turned, so the neighbors don’t see. He’d still like everyone to think he’s naturally this youthful-looking despite being fifty-nine.

“What would you like?” I ask in Spanish.

“Haf eeench all overrr. Como siempre.” Like always, he says. It’s a private joke by now. Eight years I’ve been cutting his hair, but I always ask, and he always says the same thing. Same haircut, same stool, same routine, same house, same room. New York will be such a change from this.

After we finish, when he’s not looking, I pick up a curl and put it in my pocket.

“Que va pasar con mi pelo cuando se vaya mi Yoyita?” he asks.

It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself.

Yollotl Lopez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and was born and raised in the Mojave desert of California. She is currently a writer and a doctoral student at New York University.

The Road to Ors

Norman Allen

During a five day pilgrimage to the sites where my grandfather fought in World War One, my sister, elderly father, and I spent every waking moment together, and shared a single room in a series of French inns each night. It was with giddy relief that I left them sleeping in Arras, found the rental car in the dark hours of the morning, and headed southeast. I hoped to cover the fifty miles quickly, spend an hour in Ors, and return for a late breakfast with the family. I knew little about my destination, only that it was a small village, and that my ultimate goal should require a minimum of detective work.

If she had been alive, my mother would have come along for the ride, navigating from the passenger seat. Our pilgrimage would become a story to tell the neighbors, already intimidated by her reading habits. Every summer, when I came home to visit, I found Mom on the deck, seated among the redwoods, a Trollope novel in her lap, and an iced tea at hand. When we spread her ashes high in the Sierra, I read aloud from Doctor Zhivago: “But all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations and transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn.” The words brought only greater loneliness that August morning, where once they would have sparked a lively conversation.

Core Being

Jaclyn Gilbert

At fifteen, I was no longer a child, but I feared the adult I could become. I barely had breast buds, still no period to speak of.  In high school, I ran for the varsity track team and my legs had grown more muscular, enough to fill out my jeans.  One Friday, when my father pulled into the driveway to pick up my sister and me for the weekend, he complimented my legs.  I had been wearing tights and a jean skirt and had felt oddly warmed by his words: my legs proof of my delayed sexuality, my strength. But a few months later, at a Christmas party, my father’s tone shifted. Disapprovingly, he’d said my jeans looked too tight.

I have always had my father’s slim, muscular legs, and as long as I didn’t let them thicken or my hips begin to curve, I believed I could stay boyish and close to him.  My father still resented my mother for the child support he owed her every month, the college funds he would soon be required to provide.  I already had my mother’s facial structure, her laugh and quirky mannerisms, and I knew that if in puberty my body traced the lines of her hips and breasts more fully, I would be that much more deserving of my father’s scorn.

Running allowed me my first flight from that destiny.  With every mile, my legs preserved their childhood musculature. Each time I saw myself in a dressing room mirror, or through a storefront’s reflective glass, I would study my thighs, tracking their thickness, the elusive line between mother and father that my livelihood seemed to depend on. 

Lost & Found: Samuel Annis on Christopher Manson’s MAZE

Samuel Annis

When I was a child, I was given a book that was not really a book at all.

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It tricked me at first. I believed anything with pages to turn, words, and pictures was a book, but as I turned this object’s pages, read its words, looked at its pictures, I felt myself in the presence of something fantastically different than the other books scattered throughout the house. In a book, I began at page one, moved to page two, and by this way eventually found myself at the end. No matter what occurred on the pages, if I kept reading I would eventually reach the final sentence, whether I wanted to or not. The thing disguised as a book, on the other hand, did not take me from page one to page two. “This is a building in the shape of a book,” it said. It elaborated, told me it was a maze and that by traveling through the rooms I might find my way to the center. Clues lay hidden in each room to suggest where to go next. Not all the clues were going to help me. Some would try and get me terribly lost. Unnerving as this was, it was also irresistible, and I spent many hours on my stomach, the maze before me on the carpet, as I wandered through the rooms, trying (unsuccessfully) to untangle the clues, and continually opening a door leading to a room that was pitch black except for the dozens of eyes staring at me. A room where I died over and over and over and over and over again.

Room-01

The title of this work that consumed large chunks of my childhood is MAZE (with the flavorless subtitle, Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle). It is one of a handful of works written and illustrated by Christopher Manson, and though his others are similar in their use of fairy tale and mythic elements, MAZE alone possess a hypnotic power, transcending its binding and reaching toward something else.

Each double-page spread depicts one of MAZE’s 45 rooms. The left page contains between seven and thirteen lines of text while the right page features a lush pen-and-ink drawing of the room itself, eerie as a de Chirico with its impression that either someone has just left or will shortly arrive. Manson loosed his prodigious imagination in the creation of these spaces, crafting each room with a general theme and them cramming most of them with a mix of baroque furniture, shrubs manicured into geometric shapes, exotic birds, Kafkaesque machines, musical instruments, trap doors, lamps, crumbling porticos, strange glyphs and signs carved into the walls. Or, instead, a room may be empty except for a fire raging inside a hearth whose cavernous depths are crowned by mantle carved to look like a gaping mouth. Inside each room are doors, and each door will take you to another room. You are challenged to find a way to room 45 and then back to room 1 using the fewest steps possible. Furthermore, a riddle is hidden in room 45, and the riddle’s solution is tucked away in the other 44 rooms.

What sounds simple at first becomes morbidly, maddeningly difficult. Rather than not having enough information, the challenge becomes one of over-saturation as each elaborately arranged room and block of narrative text provides numerous pointing fingers (sometimes literally) without there being indications as to which are more valuable than others. Will the solution to a particular room become clear only after you turn the room upside down? Is a face hidden in the carving over the door?  Should you rearrange the letters in words spoken by the characters? As you move from room to room you find yourself going in circles, collapsing back into already experienced scenes, and you can’t help but wonder, as though this were really a book by Robbe-Grillet, whether or not something obscure but crucial has changed.

Room-26-1

Of course, things have changed. As you reenter a previous room, the returning images—an umbrella leaning against a doorway or the shadow cast by a bowling pin—become new in light of something else recently seen. Each room builds on your lexicon of figures, signs, and your MAZE language. Your perception deepens, and so, to adapt the Zen koan, you never enter the same room twice.

In the attempt to unravel MAZE’s devilishly hidden secrets, a possible solution something greater presents itself. If we can take something away from this work—other than an appreciation for cross-hatch shading technique and unsettling dialogue—it is the idea of repetition as a path towards sublimity.

Room-41

Our lives are, it seems, composed of a few recurring acts and motions, such as making dinner and falling in love. Once these repetitions are noticed, it can become difficult to see anything but constantly overlapping patterns tying your birth and death together in a bow. The patterns become avenues towards disquiet, the sense that we are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground. And this is true. We are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground.

MAZE’s major triumph lies in urging us to recognize the inexorability of continual repetition, something that becomes even more crucial in our increasingly labyrinthine world. We live with the expanding illusion of different and unique rooms, each seeming to offer momentary justification for our existence. We bound through chambers of experiences and believe ourselves to be continually ascending towards…what? Enlightenment? God? A consciousness-shattering orgasm?  But the elaborate approaches to fundamental anxieties are not new rooms so much as rearranged furniture. The rooms are the same, a fact we don’t realize until we suddenly recognize our surroundings and think, “how is it possible I am still here dealing with this?” We hold the proof of our varied and wild experience, but proof does not equate with meaning, and the awareness that our hands are gripping shrinking fistfuls of sand begins to feel like the darkest moment of our lives.

Room-22

MAZE recognizes our learned desire to progress and then creates an environment where such progress is almost impossible. “You haven’t spend nearly enough time here,” MAZE seems to say, “keep looking.” At first this can seem like a punishment. We want to move upwards and onwards! How dare someone deprive us of our right to ascend! But, and this is a beauty of the printed page, MAZE does not respond to our rage. It sits patiently on the shelf until our curiosity bests our petulance and we take it down again. Then it continues from where we left off: at room number 1.

Of course, the 31 years since the book’s publication gave people a chance to solve most—I hesitate to say all—of MAZE’s puzzles. If you want, you can simply Google the answer. You will find websites and podcasts dedicated to MAZE exegesis and emulation, where fans of the work debate the meaning of symbols drawn on a scroll or the importance of an apple partially hidden in shadows. They will also tell you the identity of the narrator and how to reach room 45. However, I will caution you: knowing the solution to the riddle or the shortest path through MAZE will not unlock the secret of the work.  That can only happen by accepting the puzzle as it presents itself, in all its opacity, in all of its chaos.  Anything less is—to use a key MAZE theme—a red herring. You may think you’ve reached the center, but in reality you will have only skirted around the outer rim, never allowing yourself to be swallowed whole.

Room-24-b

I have never reached the 45th room, which means I am always starting and continuing through MAZE. I’ve stopped expecting I’ll find the shortest route, and I can’t even think about solving the riddle. Now I enter primarily to breathe the strangeness of the spaces and to show friends who haven’t ever heard of MAZE: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle. Because I always follow the rules and enter with disbelief suspended there are several rooms I haven’t ever seen. I’m sure I’m missing something obvious, and maybe this should bother me, but I am content to wander through the rooms whose surroundings I recognize and provide continual delight. In room 7 an abandoned toy duck looks up at me.  In room 20 a tortoise crawls across the carpet. In room 26 several devils perform a play. In room 42 a small bear holds a sign reading “saints that way sinners this way.” And in room 45? That’s something you’ll have to find out on your own.

Tiny-House

Samuel Annis is a writer and piano technician in Madison, Wisconsin.

On Likability

Lacy M. Johnson

This essay was originally given as a talk during the 2018 Summer Workshop. 

My daughter comes home from school at least once a week and announces to me that no one likes her. She has done something that is too weird, or bold, or has said a thing with which others disagree. She has had to sit alone during lunch or play alone during recess. She even sat on the buddy bench, she tells me, and no one came. At the moment she says or does the weird bold thing, she doesn’t care what anyone thinks or whether they agree or disagree. It’s only afterward, after she has felt shunned, ostracized, and completely alone with her decision that she begins to question it.

She is eleven and a half. When I was eleven and a half, I liked to play the Commodore 64 and read Choose Your Own Adventure Novels and I liked making tapes of my favorite songs that I recorded off the little radio my parents let me have in my room. I liked New Kids on the Block — I liked them so much I called it LOVE — and I liked sitting next to my friend on the long bus ride home when we could talk for hours about who we liked better, Joey or Donny. I liked Joey. She liked Donny. (Wrong.) I liked to climb the row of mulberry trees that grew beside the long driveway to our farm. I liked to wander into the woods and eat blackberries straight off the vine. I liked being alone sometimes, but not always, and I liked how my arm hair glowed in the sun.

When I was fourteen, two and a half years older than my daughter is now, I liked a boy who was a few years older than me. He played on the basketball team, was over six feet tall, had chest hair, and on his upper lip grew what was, in retrospect, a very sad excuse for a mustache. I liked that he wore Drakkar Noir, stood with his hands in his pockets, drove a fast car. I wanted him to like me back, so I agreed to sneak out of my friend house, where I was supposed to be spending the night, and I agreed to meet him down the road, and when he picked me up in his fast car and drove to a liquor store that mostly disregarded the state’s liquor laws, I agreed to drink from the bottle he handed me. I liked how it tasted, how giddy and free being drunk made me feel. I agreed to sneak him back into my friend’s house, to the basement. I didn’t like what he did to me. I didn’t like how he kept kissing me after I told him to stop, or how he overpowered me, held me down, put a pillow over my face so no one in the house would hear me crying for help.

I agreed to doing things I didn’t really want to do that night because I had been taught somewhere along the way that it was a blessing to be liked by a man, that I should be flattered by the attention: from the grown men who called to me on the street while I was walking home, from the one who kept calling even after I asked him to leave me alone, from the drum major who wanted me to suck his dick in the backseat of his car. I learned, soon enough, that being liked meant favor, meant preferential treatment, meant I was safe but only in certain ways. I was supposed to be flattered that my Spanish professor liked me enough to invite me to his apartment while I was still his student, to his bed, that he invited me to live with him. He was the one who taught me that it actually didn’t matter how likable I was, there was always the threat of violence or punishment for saying or doing something he didn’t like. We could be at the market choosing fish and fresh tomatoes for dinner and his hand would be resting on the small of my back and the next moment it would be raised to strike me. I tried diminishing myself in such a way that I wouldn’t provoke him, wouldn’t anger him, tried to bend myself according to his pleasure so that he would like everything I did and said and thought. It didn’t matter, because no matter what I did, it was never enough. I kept at it anyway, until there was almost nothing left of me, of the person I had been. And that person I became, who was barely a person of her own, is the version of me he liked best.

 

I wrote a memoir about that, about how that happened, about how a man convinced me to give away all of my power and authority and to reject everything in the world that brings me joy without even realizing I was doing it. It wasn’t easy to write that book, and I knew that if he ever read it, he wouldn’t like what I had said. The first time I read from The Other Side, it was here, in the amphitheater at Tin House. I am not exaggerating when I say I thought he might show up to shoot me with a gun. But what actually happened is that my story found an audience instead.

After its release, a criticism waged against my memoir was that my “narrator” (which, spoilers, is me) isn’t likable, that I write things that make my readers uncomfortable and that I make choices with which my readers disagree. As if my most important job in finding language for a story that had none were to please. As if by labeling me unlikable, they don’t have to listen to the story I needed to tell. Raped women are unlikable, apparently. So are strong women. Women who survive. Ambitious women are unlikable, women who are good at their jobs, women who tell the truth. Women who don’t take shit are unlikable, women who burn bridges, women who know what they are worth.

Why shouldn’t women know their worth? Just because we’re not supposed to? Just because people don’t like it when we do? I know that I am good at lots of things — I am not good at singing (you’ll hear what I mean at karaoke tonight) but I know I write like a bad motherfucker. I am very funny in person. Also, I just ran a marathon. It wasn’t pretty or fast but I persisted and it is from small confidences like these that I draw courage to tell the truth, without regard for my likability.

As a woman, I have been raised to be nurturing, to care for others feelings’ and wellbeing often at the expense of my own. I have been taught that to be liked is to be good. But I have noticed that certain men are allowed to be any way they want. They get to be nuanced and complex. Adventurous and reclusive. They can say anything, do anything, disregard rules and social norms, break laws, commit treason, rob us blind, and nothing is held against them. A white man, in particular, can be an abuser, a rapist, a pedophile, a kidnapper of children, can commit genocide or do nothing notable or interesting at all and we are expected to hang on his every word as if it is a gift to the world. Likability doesn’t even enter the conversation. His writing doesn’t even have to be very good.

I am still talking about writing, though there is an uncanny resemblance to current events in the wider world. Let us consider, for example, our most recent presidential election. On the one hand, we had such a man as this: an unapologetically racist, sexist, homophobic, serial sexual assailant — a grifter, a con man — and on the other hand we had a woman many people didn’t like. That election cycle reminded us of all the words for an unlikable woman: she was a bitch, a cunt, a hag, a harpy, a twat, a criminal — she was unbearable, unelectable, unlikable.

 

Unlikable to whom? I’m saying women are told we are unlikable, but let’s be honest, this pressure isn’t exclusive to women, especially not just to white women. The world tells black women they are unlikable when they are angry, even though they have the most reason to be angry. I find it unlikable that more of us aren’t angry alongside them. The world tells black men they are unlikable when they are too confident, too intelligent, when they behave like kings, when they are not men but children who reach into their pockets or stand together on corners. People who have immigrated to this country are told they are unlikable when they “take American jobs”; they are just as unlikable when they do not work. They are unlikable when they cross the border in the desert under the cover of night and when they come through a checkpoint in the middle of the day. We put their stories in cages.

This is not a metaphor.

There is no end to the reasons people are labeled unlikable — because of the way they look, or the configuration of their bodies, or the choices they have made about how to live their lives, what kind of family to build, how to love, how to worship God, or not, or the language they speak, or the country where they were born, or because someone does not like the things they have to say. At some point, we must acknowledge that the question of likability is not one about craft, but about sexism, racism, homophobia — it’s about bigotry.

 

The pressure to remain likable exerts power over us and the stories we feel it is safe enough to tell. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously writes in “The White Album.” Stories are how we know ourselves, how we understand our relation to others; stories are the lenses that allow us to look at the chaos of the world and see with clarity and wisdom. We remember our past through the stories we tell about our mistakes and successes, and through these stories, we teach our children lessons for the future. We resolve conflict through stories, especially those of us inclined toward a tidy narrative arc. Stories keep us sane; they give us meaning. As a writer of nonfiction, I understand that if some of us tell stories in order to live, others must tell our stories in order to survive.

In my own life the stories I have told have created paths for me that did not previously exist, have helped me to escape from prisons of my own making or another’s, have become the form through which I have made the case for my own humanity, or another’s. What I have found to be most powerful about these kinds of stories is that they are almost impossible to deny. This is not to say that people haven’t tried to negate, or degrade, or defame the stories I have told — they have, which is my point — but my point is also that when I tell a story that is mine and true they cannot simply say no because the truth is not a request, is not a question, requires neither permission nor forgiveness.

If you come to the page to ask for forgiveness you have come to the wrong place. Forgiveness asks everything from the forgiver, asks her to give her pain away, to act as if the harm never happened. It’s the wrong question to ask. I’m not interested in letting go of my pain, but in transforming it into strength instead.

I have made so many mistakes. And I experience those mistakes I have made as a burning shame. But I can tell a story that transforms that too, not by taking your pain away — because it isn’t mine to take — but rather through understanding the harm I have done, the pain I have caused in you. This is what I mean by “a reckoning”: it means I take responsibility for that pain I have caused. It means that I feel that pain in myself and that I also feel it in you. This is, to me, the first step toward reconciliation. Forgiveness comes only after.

 

The pressure to be likable keeps us from doing this hard work, keeps us from telling the truth. Not just on the page, but in the lived experience of our bodily lives. Every day we go to great lengths to be likable. Some of us spend hours altering our bodies so that we can be better liked: we starve ourselves to be thinner, we bind, we constrict, we take up less space. We make ourselves paler or darker. We cover up or show more skin. We tell lies to survive and to fit in.

We feel pressure to disfigure ourselves on the page in these same ways — we constrict our stories because we are told they do not deserve to occupy space in the world, we tidy up our histories to make them more presentable to others, we carve up lifetimes of mistakes and wrong choices until the story we tell is only a shell of the truth, which isn’t really any kind of truth at all.

The truth is: sometimes I am afraid of what I write. You should be a little afraid of the story you are telling, too. And if you’re not afraid that someone won’t like it you’re still not telling the truth.

 

Think of all the emotional labor that requires: planning each of your actions and weighing them against the emotional consequences they might have on every person, and bending yourself in anticipation of what others might feel — always scaling back your own desires and rejecting your own needs. It requires a constant negotiation of what you can say and do in the world, constantly diminishing yourself because of the effect it might have on other people — which you cannot actually control or predict.

Think for a moment how much time you have spent in your life replaying conversations where maybe you said the wrong thing, or how you were maybe too curt with that person in the checkout line, or too forward with that dude you met on Tinder; how maybe you speak too much in meetings or make your views too known. How much time you have wasted fretting about whether other people like you? Just do a quick calculation: how much of your life, do you think, you have spent this way? An hour? A whole day? A week? Maybe entire years? What masterpieces could you have made by now if you directed your energy toward writing like a bad motherfucker instead?

 

There will always be some people who won’t like what you have to say. I recently spoke on a panel at a conference in Iceland and I told the attendees (a room full of mostly women, and a handful of men), that I don’t actually care whether men like my writing. There are specific men whose opinion matters to me — my husband, several friends, the men running this conference, the men in this room — but as a demographic, no, I don’t actually care at all whether men like my work. After the talk, two of the men who were in that room approached me (one of whom was the conference organizer) because they wanted to tell me they didn’t like what I said.

Imagine, for a moment, the luxurious freedom of being so appalling unselfaware!

Maybe now those men call me “that bitch” (which is fine, I’ll put it on a tote bag), maybe they call me a cunt, a hack, a whore. I don’t have to answer. That’s not my name. I know my name. I know my purpose. I know my place, and it is rising.

 

I think, perhaps, one reason — maybe the primary reason — that the world tries so hard to pressure us to be likable (and to punish us when we aren’t) is because they are afraid we will realize that if we don’t need anyone to like us we can be any way we want. We can tell any story. We can tell the truth.

We can be wrong sometimes. We can make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. We can be crude and vulgar. We can change our minds. We can say something wrong — or better yet we can say something that is unpopular but right. We can admit that we have sometimes loved the wrong person or gave away too much of ourselves in exchange for fame, or favor, or fortune. We can tell the stories of our addictions, our falls from glory, our kink, our abuse. We can tell the hard truth we learned at rock bottom, and we can admit that it is precisely by climbing back from that lowest place that we have drawn power and strength. We can let ourselves be vulnerable enough to admit our most unforgivable errors, to find our way back from the brink of oblivion, and even if no one likes the story we have to tell, there is no story — none at all — that makes any of us unworthy of love.

I want to tell you this: There is a truth that lives inside you and no one can give you permission to tell it except yourself. You can tell the whole thing, the full truth — and you deserve to. You deserve to tell the story of your anger and heartbreak and regret, your foolishness and apostasy and your unquenchable thirst for revenge. You deserve to admit that sometimes you behave in ways you later regret, that sometimes you hold back when someone needs you to give, that sometimes you take more than you need. You deserve to name the harm that has been done to you by others, and you have a responsibility to name the harm you have done. What I am asking is that we make space for these stories of our failures, our ugliness, our unlikability, and greet them with love when they appear.

 

I’m almost forty now. These days, I still like being alone sometimes, but not always. I like running. I like the feeling of my legs moving and my feet on the ground. I like how working my muscles makes them feel tired and sore. I like learning how to swim. I like setting small goals and achieving them. I like singing to pop music with my children in the car — especially when it is very loud and very bad. I like it when my daughter talks back to me, even though it also makes me mad, and I like it that she is so bold and so weird. I hope she stays bold and weird forever. And I like it when a piece of writing comes across my desk that is brave and vulnerable enough to tell the hard story that is underneath the easy story people like, that shows me the ugly truth that has been wearing a beautiful mask. I like it when a writer confronts my assumptions and biases and I realize I have been wrong. I like to change my mind. This is the work that stories do in the world and stories are how we will save it. I like feeling so ready for your stories to arrive in my mailbox and on my desk. I will love reading them.

Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is the author of  THE RECKONINGS(Scribner, 2018) and  THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House, 2014).

The Pit Bull Porch

Jen Hirt

I am walking my dog through a February storm when my mom’s heart stops beating 300 miles away in her paralyzed body. She’s been dying through decades of multiple sclerosis, lesions on her brain like patches of ice blizzard-blown onto the tree trunks and branches and brittle twigs of the head nerves and spinal cord. There is the snow that falls in one night and then there is the winter that builds, ice compressing ice until you can’t remember what it was like to walk without slipping.

I follow a strange path through drifts. Tracks cut with concern and burrows of worry: Not because of my mom, who for all I know is still alive in this moment, but because of a new renter in the house behind mine. He has two pit bulls. Most days they are out on half of a second floor back porch, barricaded by a broken-down door on its side, chewing railings until they can angle their huge heads through and stare down to me with tiny yellow eyes. Sometimes it seems like their skulls are stuck. They try to back out of the railing but can’t figure how they angled their heads in to begin with. They have never been allowed in the back yard. I have to wonder. I worry about them in the cold. I worry about them in that house with the smashed front window covered in cardboard.

The snowfall is a tranquilizer I can catch on my tongue and dose out for hours, but as I reach one hour on my walk, something makes me turn for home. I feel uneasy. I wonder if it is a premonition about the pit bulls. I get home and check the back porch right away; they’ve been moved inside for the storm. At least there’s that. But then I notice my phone flashing on the table, where I usually leave it. There are text messages and voice mails from my brother, a flurry in the last hour, the crisis in the next state. The cardiac arrest. The ambulance. On his way to the hospital. No signs of life. We speak, a rarity, not because of animosity but because we usually just text. Death calls for voices. He and my aunt have just told the doctors to turn off life support – a Do Not Resuscitate order invoked, no heroic measures against this degeneration of more than twenty years. The moment we knew was coming comes and is over like that and all worlds hush to white.

All my life has had a clean sparkle of privilege, the kind that lets me admire the snow because I don’t have to move through it on someone else’s terms. Now is no different, at first. I don’t have to explain a sudden absence from work because the storm has shut the campus, and it will remain closed most of the week.

I don’t have to see a body because I am here, not there.

I can walk away from the phone and see if the pit bulls are stuck on that upstairs porch again.

I don’t have to call anyone. I don’t even call my dad—I text him and he texts back. I just have to watch my phone light up with message after message until I turn it off and find the bedroom, where there is a door with a window where I can look out to see if the pit bulls have been put back outside and might be staring at me across the upstairs space of two yards.

Eventually, I don’t even have to keep the phone. I drop it in a white bag, postage paid.

Eventually, I call Animal Control but all they can do is issue a warning. They tell me they’ve seen worse.

Some part of me kinks and will not undo itself. This is new. Some part of me becomes a place for everything to get stuck in a snowdrift. The clean sparkle of privilege hardens to a sheet of black ice on that kink. It’s like I’m one of the pit bulls on the porch, working hard all day to angle my head through the railing only to find that the message through those railings is the same grey afternoon, the ground far away, the air just as cold, the help and heroic measures no closer.

Jen Hirt’s chapbook, Too Many Questions About Strawberries, is forthcoming from Tolsun Books. Her other books include Under Glass: The Girl With a Thousand Christmas Trees; Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers; and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg.