Rachel Hruza

Sometimes we all need a bit of fiction.

By

Carter

Rachelcartersnow
“Men,” said Mr. Kyle, “people have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love – the deepest kind of love.”
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Once, during a British literature course I took to meet a requirement and of which I knew little about, my classmates began discussing dead dog poems. Apparently it was a taboo thing to do, something that everyone did or had done, which was also something I wasn’t aware of as just the semester before I’d shared a poem I’d written about my recently deceased family dog (a robust shih tzu named Sassy who was God’s answer for a feminist dog—she was the best) with U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser in a poetry class. (He wasn’t judgmental, for the record, but told me about a poem a famous poet [and much better than me!] had written. Then I cried. I cried in front of U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser several times. He wasn’t my therapist, but maybe he should have been paid more that semester for the wonderful sage and patient advice he gave me about school, life, and of course, dogs.) Despite my failed attempt at trying to create a dedication or just a simple closure for my fluffy friend of over ten years, I don’t blame myself for trying. Dogs are awesome. Maybe the problem is we try to write about them after the fact. So, Carter Jensen Hruza: this one’s for you.

People find Carter annoying. A rugged overweight by five pounds peekapoo (Pekinese and poodle mix) with a snaggletooth we adopted from the Humane Society when he was four, he barks, doesn’t trust men when he first meets them (rightfully so!), and licks blankets, rugs, and sometimes hands incessantly, only at times when you are very busy. His breath borders on halitosis and on one memorable occasion, despite being neutered, he humped his bed and ended up with an erection for two hours that then had to be cared for by a vet. On the car ride there, he just wanted to see out the window, but he whined in pain the entire time as he stared at the streetlights and people walking by in the night while I, at the wheel, sobbed about the entire thing.

But that’s not all. About once every two weeks he tries to assert his dominance over my husband by relieving himself somewhere in Tim’s office. This is the only place he goes. He has yet to succeed in becoming the leader of our pack of three, mainly because he’s been misled. I am the leader. Duh, Carter.

Besides the times he’s dug into my arms and legs, scratching for attention, or scampered up, froze in place, and stared at me so his crazy-whites-of-the-eye showing just so he can jerk his head away and run in the opposite direction, he also sometimes refuses to spend evenings with Tim and me, choosing to head to the bedroom by himself rather than resting cordially and just plain politely with us in the living room. He will bark ferociously if he thinks I am attacking (which I’m not) or hugging Tim (Carter hates goodbyes), and if people run, he runs too, and be way too happy about it to the point where he scares the people in what he considers playful chasing.
He is one of the loves of my life, and I can’t imagine what the past four and half years would have been like without him.

Where the Red Fern Grows is one of my most hated books from my childhood. It is difficult for me to hate a book, so this is a powerful statement. It was one of those books our teacher read to us out loud in class, and my fourth grade teacher read while other students worked on homework or passed notes. Usually, I just sat and listened, staring into space because with this book I could vividly picture everything. That is true of a lot of books, but the images in this book were pure torture because 1) Raccoons, my favorite animals, were killed, 2) People—including a kid, in this instance—were killed, and 3) Dogs were killed. Living things dying do not a happy ten-year-old Rachel make. Had my family had a dog at the time, I might have burst into hysterics. Instead I cried quietly in my chair, my reaction of choice (see first paragraph) throughout all my years of education.

Carter doesn’t hunt, although the other day he did accidentally step on a fly and kick it, and then stepped on it again and disappeared it somewhere, I suspect, in his fur. He knows three tricks, one of which (“Lay down”), I am proud to say, he learned just last year. He sleeps most of the day, and one of his favorite past times while awake is to go outside and bark at the neighbors’ goings-on. He is a little white ball of fluff who trots down the sidewalk like he’s fifty feet tall. He is exemplary at not following orders, efficient at wasting time, and he sometimes pukes in weird places that we find hours or days later, sometimes with bare feet.

He doesn’t hate anything I do.

I love him unconditionally.

I know everyone might have a dead pet poem somewhere in their soul, and to me, that’s not a bad thing. Animals can reveal to us who we truly are by how we treat them. But animals who allow us to live with them are creatures worth hanging on to, worth crying about to famous smart people who, due to passing time and passing students, might not remember you years later. But they might remember the poem, however bad it might be.

IMG_1122

By

The Worst Traveler

DSC03862The Worst Traveler

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view.”  -Jack Kerouac, On the Road

            Last week, after driving by corn in countless fields and arguing about whether it was dead or not quite dead yet (there was green “in the middle” according to my husband, whatever that means),  viewing the smooth and hypnotizing gigantism of wind turbines stemming from hill after hill in Iowa, and finally experiencing the entrapment of a toll road for the first time (at least that I can remember), my husband and I arrived in Chicago, Illinois, what I have considered to be the land of plenty for many a year. This was meant to be our vacation, a getaway since the four years since our honeymoon in Minnesota (apparently we really like venturing just a little bit East and maybe North together), but I fear it turned out to be  Tim dragging  me around like a tiny shaking Chihuahua who could also stress and complain. A lot.

I’ve always held Chicago up as some ideal city where the adventurous and skyscraper-loving me could connect with my reserved Midwestern gal who enjoys deep dish pizza and would someday reside. Why? I don’t know. Books, probably. I’m not saying I’m ruling that possibility out, but let’s just say my ideal is a bit different now. “Vacationing” was an exciting idea my husband and I had been formulating for some time, but once we got there, I ended up being on “survival mode” more than “relax and let the breeze take you mode,” which is probably to be expected. I fretted so much that Tim ended up saying, “This trip is just one thing you hate after another, isn’t it?” It wasn’t, but I can see why he felt that way. I am a great ruiner of exciting things. I like to think I make them more exciting by offering ALL the scary possibilities of what might happen, but really, I think I’m just the worst traveler. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Driving with lots and lots of traffic.

I’m not the worst driver, but I’m definitely not the best. Driving a car in more than two lanes going one direction and more than one other car on the road is enough to make my heart race and my armpits to overpower my deodorant and sweat profusely.  I can drive under these conditions, but again, I’m not the best at it. But driving into a city with hundreds of other cars where the destination was just more roads with more cars had me on über sighing mode. Mind you, Tim was at the wheel, but I had all of our irrational fears of crashing or getting lost or driving straight into the river or a building ready at a moment’s notice if we needed them. But Tim drove into town (three days!) and nothing eventful happened (unless you count us having to drive extra blocks downtown because I couldn’t read the GPS—to my credit, the little red dot had fallen behind real time, but I guess the map was still there).

2. If the boat’s a floatin’, Rachel might be ralphing her lunch over the side.

Tim claims he once read that motion sickness is “the least sexy thing about a woman.” I, for one, do not trust his source, and two, believe he made this statement up to make me feel less sexy and therefore keep my ego in check. Not really. But I probably am pretty irresistible when he does a U-turn in the car and I flop my head back and moan, “Noooooooo. Now I’m carsick!” Sex appeal abounds. Anyway, as tourists to the Windy City, we did touristy things like take a boat tour through downtown to see all the spectacular buildings. While I downed Dramamine and everyone on the big boat (ferry? I don’t know boat sizes—it was bigger than a rowboat but smaller than a cruise ship) was looking up at the buildings, I was staring at my knees, trying to keep my eyes from spinning. Tim spent the first five minutes grabbing my arm and asking if I was okay. Meanwhile, his grabbing my arm adding to my head spinning. Eventually though, I was fine. I saw the sights, got some pictures, and forgot I was on a boat for a little while. And I didn’t throw up. Part of me was even sad when it ended though I was glad to have my feet back on the ground an hour later.

3. Tall buildings are scary.

I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid of the idea of them. Tim and I dedicated 2 horrible hours of waiting to go see the view from the top of the Sears (now Willis—who knew?) Tower. From outside, I careened my neck and camera to get a view from below, and YOU CAN’T EVEN SEE THE TOP OF THE BUILDING. It’s that tall due to magic, or complex math I don’t understand. After sweating out the first hour and a half in the basement in a line waiting to get on the elevator and then sweating and trying not to cry as I squeezed the life out of Tim’s hand for an entire minute and fourteen seconds (it wasn’t long at all, but I figured it would take less time for us to crash and die) as we rode the elevator to the top. I’ll admit it was neat to look out and see the view, and we even waited to stand on the new looks-like-glass-but-it’s-not-glass viewing panels. It didn’t fall the second I stepped onto it, either.

4. Tall Ferris Wheels are also scary.

You can get the gist of this one. Tall ride. Out in the open. Moving. Could break or maybe keep going up into space. Me scared.

5. People can be scary too.

I’m not afraid of people, but crowds seemed to have a mind of their own. Once a hoard began walking, it did not stop. People don’t move for you; you move for People. How you become a People, I don’t know, but you must need to belong to a crowd. People would also leap into traffic before crossing signs changed, and keep walking as if an invisible force field floated between them and cars. Once I figured out how to dart, I was golden. Darting is fun, so this became less of a fret and more of a game.

What I discovered about myself was that I needed to have more faith in manmade objects and if need be and there’s a market for it, I could be a professional Doomsdayer. The best part was once I experienced something, I didn’t let the neurotic part of my brain get the best of me anymore. Experience gave me the strength (and the logic to override said neuroses) to know that if I feel like I am being irrational, I probably am. There were so many things I loved about our vacation—art, theater, museums, history, walking for hours without worrying about having to be somewhere, spending time with Tim—and yes, after a few days, I was able to think of the trip as a vacation.

So I may have not been the ideal partner for venturing out into new territory, but once my eyes could see past the distorted fears I had in my head, the view became a lot clearer, and it was beautiful. Why expect the worst from something good? I know I have a habit of thinking about the worst possibilities of any situation, so when something bad happens and it’s not as bad as I thought, I know I’ll be able to handle it. But I hadn’t considered this might be making ME a worse person. Sometimes going somewhere new can change who you are. I’m hoping I left my distorted fears behind me in Chicago where hopefully they’ll just blow away on the breeze and drift off into space, possibly right above the Ferris Wheel.

 

By

A World Away

photo (1)

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The ability to imagine is one of the most powerful we as humans own. It gives the doctor the ability to cure, the barber the confidence to cut, and the lawyer the ability to convey a simple solution to a complicated case. It even helps us cope with change as unexpected surprises lead us in new directions we’d never dreamed of traveling.

Working in various writing centers and teaching at several community colleges over the past three years have led me to believe that the imagination is strongest when put into action. So many students that I’ve worked with are students because they have imagined their lives in a different light than the way they were headed before. There are adults who who lost a job or became so bored with what they were doing that they needed a challenge and students who hadn’t considered ever attending college and have found that is exactly where they belong. But the students who generally stick in my mind the longest are the ones who have survived the realms of imagination and traveled countries, oceans, and continents just to create the worlds they’ve seen in their minds—even if what they imagined was in a different language.

English-language learners or English as a Second language students—the classification dependent on school, personnel, and student—have obstacles to overcome, that is certain, but they are by far some the strongest willed people I have ever met. They have accomplished things that many people in the United States, especially the Midwest, can’t fathom. Some students emigrated with parents, others came alone as refugees, and still others have a group of people to which they cling that is reminiscent of their previous home, and their cultural education is sometimes even more of a struggle because of this separation of school and home. But each of them has expressed the same reason for accepting this daunting task of answering the call of creativity: to have a better life.

To me, it is nearly impossible to imagine moving to a land with a language I can’t speak let alone never heard before, and I wonder if I were in the same situation if I could flourish the way these amazing students do. I struggle enough at public events and parties with strangers where small-talk is a necessary skill—and everyone there speaks English, a language I know and love. If it were French, or Spanish, or Swahili, would I attempt to create a new life? Or would I curl up in my cry-it-all-out fetus position and shrivel up as a stagnant fruit? I have always been happy and comfortable in the middle of America, but maybe too comfortable. Maybe having an arguably sheltered and protected life has stifled my desire to imagine greater things, not only for me, but others around me, and the life I’ve imagined for myself fits easily inside that creative box with room to spare. Rarely have I had to think out of it. The moments I have treasure most are the times I have.

“Ambitious” is a word I have always applied to myself because if I want to do something, I accomplish it. I credit my imagination and belief in what I imagine—“belief” being the most important word as the quote above from Carroll suggests—for that characteristic. That doesn’t mean I’m great or miraculous, just persistent. It is one reason I hope to someday be a published author. But I think many people associate “ambition” with fame and fortune and that is not fair nor true. The students I have had the honor of working with every day are the best examples of pure ambition, no matter how long or how many times it takes them to pass an English class or qualifying exam. They are the reason I have a job I love. They are the reason I keep writing despite the hundreds of rejections I’ve received in my life. But most importantly, they are the reason I keep hope that the ambitious, imaginative people in this world will make sure to keep it a place worthy of the good people who live in it.

By

On Settling

photo“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
-Jorge Luis Borges

I am twenty seven, and I have been married for almost four years.

This is a sentence I didn’t expect to say a decade ago. In high school, I always imagined I’d be off trying to save the world in some capacity or another in my twenties (Peace Corp.? Maybe. Caped Crusader? Even better.). Or headed around the world with just a backpack to my name. Despite these early dreams, I haven’t hosteled through Europe or traveled the treacherous trail of the making of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, but that’s okay. I still can do those things.

I can’t, however, find a man exactly like my husband, and I suppose that is why I am able to say that unexpected sentence. It may not seem like much (four years? Try forty, say my parents), but it is a lot to a twenty-seven year old, and the pressure that comes with it to grow up and on is a whole other issue. A few months ago, we decided to buy a house. I love my house. It is old and somewhat rickety and I find some new irritating thing about it almost once a week that I will “someday” change. This step felt somewhat like the first step toward adulthood, more so than getting married. I don’t know if it’s because my husband and I had been dating for five years (forever, right?) before we got hitched, or if it’s because it was just “the right time,” or all right, I’ll say it–because we were and still are very much in love–but there wasn’t a lot of pressure there. We got married. We got a dog. Life was good.

Buying a house was a bit different. We have a loan from a bank which we will pay umpteen times more on interest than seems necessary, and we had to sign so many papers I’m sure we bought some ocean front property in South Dakota someone wanted to sell us. People are depending on us now—to pay for this old house. So many other hundreds of thousands of people are in the same boat, to which my husband and my many dedicated hours of HGTV can attest, and it may not seem like a big deal. But again, once upon a time, I didn’t think I’d own a house at twenty-seven, and I do. Suck it, eighteen-year-old Rachel?

On Facebook and other social media, I see others who are roughly my age who have been bitten by the wanderlust bug and give in to the infection, and I find myself rifling through their photos and stories in excitement (and okay, I’ll admit it, jealousy). I tell myself someday we’ll have money, or someday it will be easier to do things like that, but I know I’m lying to myself. I want to travel out of these continental United States not because I dislike my life or the settlement my husband and I have made, but because I think I’ve always liked traveling—in a metaphorical sense. Thinking back to that seemingly miraculous time when I learned to read—and I actually can’t remember not knowing how to read—I have traveled not only to different countries and continents in our world, but to the past, the future, and worlds besides our own. Books have taken me to places I have envisioned, and some places I even feel like I’ve been (Middle Earth, for example, and numerous times). There are places I’d never want to visit from the books that have described them, and then there are the places I can almost feel in the sweat on my skin or the taste on my tongue or the songs I can hear from silent voices.

I’m grateful to have a house, but I think I have a fear of being settled. While I haven’t lived out of the state of Nebraska (besides a short stint in South Dakota from birth to age six), I’ve moved at least once every three years or so since graduating high school. Now, I’ve put down roots. I tell myself that my husband and I aren’t permanently stuck anywhere, that we’re more like a band-aid that sticks strongly for a time and then slowly loosens until it’s ripped off and tossed away. Maybe part of me is worried that I won’t want to leave, that settling might be okay for awhile.

So, while buying a house and being in lots debt might seem limiting and maybe even frustrating at times to me now, I know that someday, if I truly desire to do so, I can travel (and I must get over my debilitating fear of flying, which is something I’ve always been able to avoid with books) to the wild and beautiful places I dream of seeing and experiencing. Until then, I can just pick up one of the books next to me and get lost in a world I haven’t even imagined yet.

By

In Memoriam

gmajeanIn Memoriam

“And then her heart changed, or at least she understood it; and the winter passed, and the sun shone upon her.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Sitting for almost two hours in the waiting room of a local car dealership waiting for the oil of my husband’s car to be changed (best wife ever? Probably not, but close), I pretended to read and instead found myself listening as the other families in the room visited. Apparently they had been neighbors or friendly acquaintances at some point, and were catching up. One couple was past middle aged and each drank a cup of complimentary coffee (should have been champagne for as long as we all had to wait) and the other was a couple in their late thirties who had two children along with them, a very small girl who played with Duplos on the table, and the one I immediately fell in love with: a small baby boy in a onesie who looked remarkably like the CGI character of Golum/Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings films. Coming from me, this is a compliment. His lack of hair, wide eyes, large shaped dome and lower set ears captured my heart, and when he smiled, I couldn’t help but lower my book and grin back.

Listening about his and his sister’s story made my heart warm towards these strangers who earned blue collar wages and were adopting four children—brothers and sisters with these two now eating crackers included—whose autistic mother could not care for them. Health problems would haunt these children forever, and therefore medical bills would probably be catastrophic, especially for the baby, who at over one year old was the size of a baby half his age. As an adult, he’ll never grow taller than thirty-six inches.

These moments probably make people think grateful thoughts like, “Oh, be glad for what you have,” or “At least my life isn’t that bad.” But when the woman of the older couple commented, “What lucky children they are,” the mother responded without a beat, “We’re the lucky ones.”

The relationship between children and parents has grown in interest to me as I’ve aged. Not only are my own parents also growing older so my dependence has become less physical (the whole food, clothing, and shelter thing) and is more mental and emotional, but I watch my brother and his son interact with each other and I am amazed by how direct one can be with a three year old. But one relationship in particular has always intrigued me, and that is the one between my father and his mother. At the end of this year, my grandmother passed away, just a few days before Christmas.

Grandma Jean was always a fun and boisterous person whose eyes glistened with happiness and love whenever we would go visit her in Wisconsin at her house on the lake. She would worry about us going too close to the water, walking off into the nearby woods, or disappearing in some outlandish way—eaten by vultures, maybe. On one of her visits to our hometown while she watched us for the week, she took my sister and me to our local department store. We were eight or nine and headed directly for the toy section because, duh, toys were bomb, and not even two minutes later we heard our names being called over the loudspeaker to come to the front of the store. Grandma waited nervously by one of the registers, and it was all my sister and I could do to keep from shouting that we were fine. And we were pretty large kids for our age with ambitious ideas for fighting people off; in fact, we probably weren’t too far off the same size as Grandma Jean.

At about five foot, she wore a size six shoe, and I can remember being in my teens and her saying how cute was a pair of shoes I might be wearing. Then she’d ask what size they were, and when I’d tell her nine, her head would lift slightly with an amazed “Oh,” as if she’d never been more surprised. For me, Grandma was quick to laugh, easy to please, and always armed with a compliment. She could dance for hours, something I witnessed at my cousin’s wedding, and her low alto voice resonated in ears until the very end. Those happy times are immortalized in my mind, and those are how I will remember her.

I will cling to these memories not only because they mean a lot to me, but also because Grandma Jean suffered from depression and Alzheimer’s. As time went by, these memories, if she shared the same ones, were lost. The Alzheimer’s began much sooner than we realized, but the depression was present for a good portion of her 80 some years. Despite the happiness and happy memories I have, I know my grandmother suffered mentally for much of her life. After divorcing my grandfather, she clung to a close family friend and they married not long after. I also discovered that my grandmother claimed to have been raped as a child (I remember hearing as young as age three or as old as eleven—not that eleven is “old” by any means), and it was only in her eighties that she sought legal advice and help for this atrocity, long after the evil person had died. For awhile in my naïve teens, after I learned of my grandmother’s past, I wondered if she just refused to be happy. While married to my grandfather, the two of them square danced, and she was a talented caller. I like to think she had true joy then, while she was also raising her two sons. Music gave her joy throughout her life, so she would have blips of forgetting her depression, but her pride in her children all her life was unmatched.

I know now that happiness cannot be forced onto people, and sometimes trying to lead them to it is like walking in a pitch black labyrinth with no way out. The one light that shined in my grandmother’s life was her family, her sons. Though the prefacing quote describes Éowyn, a strong-willed female character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, I also think it applies to my grandmother. There were moments when the clouds would pass and her heart understood happiness and her face would warm with a smile. On one of my father’s many visits to see her since moving to a nursing home over five hours away this last year, though she knew few other faces, she looked at him and said with sincerity, “You’re my son.”

As far as I know, Grandma had forgotten her past, the dark and the light, and she lived in the now. Her days were spent on routine, but sometimes that routine was interrupted by her brain, lost and confused, and she fell several times. I was able to visit her about five or six months before she died. She came shuffling out of the bathroom, kicking her feet in a little dance and shrugging her shoulders, something she’d done a lot when I was young. For a moment, I thought she knew me, but when I hugged her and pulled away, there was no recognition in her small bluish green eyes. Though she wasn’t quite sure who I was, she liked to hear about me. She saw a picture of my sister in her wedding dress (a wedding she was unable to attend because of her health), and said, “Beautiful.” She liked the flowers on the table outside the nursing home.

It was difficult to leave on that last visit. I honestly didn’t think it would be the last one, but time makes fools of us all. I don’t feel as if I’ve said goodbye to the woman who had such a powerful impact on my life, and I don’t know if I ever will. Maybe I don’t need to say it.

Parents may think they’re lucky, but I realize now that luck has nothing to do with it. Love, not luck, changes us, and it shapes us. Sometimes, the good shapes are hard to find, but Grandma Jean was one of them. Despite her past and depression, she raised two wonderful boys who grew into caring, loving husbands who also became caring, loving dads–one such dad who kept his own children from learning such evils could happen to children so young. Such atrocities weren’t fathomable in our family even though hate, anger, and sadness secretly raged in someone we loved. Because of her, I know that courage is not something that dies and disappears; it is something we must use and live with everyday, even if that means putting others before ourselves. My father is direct proof of this. Many may not see it or guess it from the woman they remember or the choices she made, but the most significant of sacrifices can easily go overlooked. The greatest of these being love.

By

Halloween

“Fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.”
-William Golding, Lord of the Flies

I’ve always loved dressing up. Many hours I’ve spent pulling my mother’s old prom dresses, fake furs, and jewelry from a large vintage trunk and wearing them around the house or dancing in the living room (at age 8 I even donned the flowery sheer overlay of my mother’s engagement party dress—sans chemise—with a pair of Cabbage Patch roller skates and a headless broomstick and headed outside. The mailman greeted me with polite adieu). So it only makes sense that when Halloween rolled around, I looked forward to dressing up for the world to see.

However, Halloween has never been my favorite holiday. Yes, candy is awesome, but candy doesn’t have to be obtained from the front doorsteps of strangers. Part of it could be that I am a horrible door-to-door salesman, and the association with selling magazines, Girl Scout cookies, and asking for donations for charities are all tied up with my memories of going door-to-door dressed up in a costume.

Or it could be that I’ve always hated being afraid. The idea of making another living thing feel afraid makes me a bit nauseous, one reason I am against hunting, and to think other people get a thrill out of striking fear in others makes me dislike other people. I avoid slasher flicks and movies where people are killed for the sake of being killed like the plague. To summarize: I don’t mind a bit of Halloween fun, but creepy, rapey, horror vibes are not for me. Fear can hurt others, and the lasting effects can be life-long. That said, I do have good memories of the upcoming day.

One of my favorite costumes to date was dressing up as Jasmine from Aladdin. Women empowerment be damned, I felt good pretending to be who I considered the prettiest Disney princess. We’d found the perfect teal outfit with puffy pant bottoms (it was all one piece—no bare midriff for this modest first grader) and headband hot glued with a turquoise jewel.

I believe that was the same year that we went to some kind of retirement home where all the senior residents had been lined up in chairs with buckets of Sweet Tarts, Dum Dum suckers, and other hard candies. My twin sister (princess-with a turtleneck), older brother (Superman), and I walked down the line with a few other children, and reached in the buckets to take a piece of proffered candy with a meek “thank you” in return. I picture all the chairs as a mustard yellow color, and the room being somewhat beat-up, but I’m sure it wasn’t. Some people commented on us being cute, and one woman had taken the time to wrap Kleenexes with permanent markered eyes and mouths around Blow Pops and make ghosts. That made quite the impression. But what I remember most was the woman who sat there and said loudly, “Why do we have to give them candy? They should be giving candy to us!”

She went on to grab one of our buckets. It might have been my brother’s because he went on to give her some of his while the neighbor of the somewhat-grouchy-but-validly-questioning woman chewed her out. I believe I left crying, confused by a mixture of 1) humiliation for parading around these people who didn’t really care but were tired of staring at their communal television and 2) guilt for taking their candy.

When we went out for the actual Trick-or-Treating, we stopped at houses in our neighborhood, and then drove around town to other areas where my parents knew other families. We stopped by a house that had many people leaving it. As we climbed out of the conversion van, a man with a hockey mask stepped toward us and pulled the starter on a chainsaw in his left hand. Screaming, my mother’s solution was for us to run TOWARD the house, away from the man. We did, and what ensued was something worthy of a B-movie or a kitschy sitcom. We stepped onto the porch and rang the doorbell. Someone reached up and grabbed my brother’s foot underneath the railing. He kicked the attacker, and a woman opened the door and welcomed us to grab candy from a ten gallon cauldron. On top of the pile was a hand that moved and crawled over the candy. My sister and I, repulsed, refused to take anything, so my mom grabbed packs of gum, tossed them in our bags, and we tried to leave. Once we reached a porch, my sister’s crown became entangled in some low-hanging cobwebs, and it bounced there in midair just out of our reach. We screamed, probably crying by this point, and my mom untangled it, and we raced for the van. I believe the chainsaw man had realized our utter fright by this point, so he didn’t chase us. Or maybe he was a dick and he did. A lot of the evening is a blur in my mind with stand out images of horror.

Today, this memory is more humorous than scary to me, but I do remember refusing to chew the gum we got as our “treat” from that house. If I remember correctly, my sister and I dug it from out of our buckets, tossed it in the front of the van and said we wouldn’t touch it again.

My mom, a bit shaken with the whole experience herself, said, “Fine. Your dad will take it.”
And he did—even after he had heard the story—which made sense to me because my dad was fearless. Chewing the gum that may have been touched by a fake hand didn’t faze him one bit.

Horrifying or the joke of a people willing to give others a cheap thrill, I still don’t really enjoy the concept of the modern day Halloween. But traditions give us holidays, and I like holidays because of their traditions. Like many holidays, Halloween is just another time when I appreciate my family for all they are. When I think of children who don’t have the support and explanations I had as a child, I wonder how I got so lucky. Because of my fam I can tolerate a grump, scream and cry with them when frightened, and laugh about it all later. Fear then becomes a thing of the past, only visited again, once in awhile, in dreams.

By

An Ode

“I had decided early on that if I couldn’t dress elegant, I’d dress memorable.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees

Scoliosis. It’s a word resonant of the mouths of snakes that slivers down the spine and stays there, tangled and permanent. For years of my adolescent life, I felt hounded and haunted by it, and though everyone has her or his own story of discontent with pubescence and coming of age, we oftentimes are too absorbed in our own shells to realize that the majority of the outside oyster doesn’t really give a crap. But at the time, it doesn’t seem that way.

So, for the two and a half years of wearing a back brace through junior high and high school, I tried to hide the fact that I was tightly bound in plastic from buttocks to boob. Several petrifying moments occurred including sneezing during a read-through of a play in seventh grade and the Velcro straps that cinched my brace together severed their secured connection and exploded open (luckily my sneeze was just as loud as the ripping Velcro the and the extra large t-shirt I wore didn’t expose the loose brace to the untrained eye). Or in eighth grade, walking down the steps that passed by high school study hall (seniors and all!), and just sat down when my legs gave out for no reason, my very hip-to-the-max navy and red “Scholastic” bag that held my algebra books tumbling down next to me. The latter had nothing to do with the brace, but it added to my mortification.

Luckily, I had someone at my side who could reconnect my Velcro and laugh about the dork who had fallen on the steps. Having a twin sister (identical? Maybe. We look a lot alike, but have never done the blood work), who is in many ways much stronger than I, changed everything. Looking back at my life, I know it is because of her that I ended up with any sort of confidence whatsoever. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees has a protagonist, Taylor Greer, that reminds me of my sister for many reasons. Not for the fact that Taylor is from Kentucky, a bit rough around the edges, and a tad too trusting of strangers, but rather I sense my sister because Taylor is strong, honest, and resolute in what she knows is right. I see Sarah, and that’s what is memorable to me. She was and still is the wick to my flame, the Green Knight to my Gawain, the Louise to my Thelma, the Tony Wonder to my Gob. Admittedly, we’re both introverted at times—me the more—but when we’re together, it’s like all is right with the world, and even the stupid things I mumble are funny because she makes them seem that way.

The quote that prefaces this musing, when Taylor references the way she dresses in bright colors to make herself stand out next to the other girls’ plain and boringly expected tans and light pinks, reminds me of Sarah’s and my childhood. We had our fair share of matching sweats (mine in teal and Sarah’s in pink), dresses, and windsuits (me-purple, Sarah-pink, once again). 90’s fashion was ostentatious at times (you dressed us well, Mom! Don’t think this is a criticism!), but we were memorable not for our bright colors, but for our alikeness, our same faces. So when we wore back braces and wore large clothes to cover up the hard body Tupperware, it didn’t really matter. We couldn’t dress “elegantly” as our peers did, but we were still memorable because there were two of us. At a certain time, we both probably resented this. I don’t mean we took each other for granted or anything, but we liked to be recognized as separate entities, separate hearts and minds. A select few—mostly family, friends, and our volleyball coach—did this anyway. Now that we live in separate towns, I wish more than anything for someone to call me “Sarah” or “one of the twins,” just to have the taste of what it means to be memorable once again. I don’t dress “elegantly”—and who knows what “elegant” means on a day-to-day basis?—but being memorable has a new meaning for me now, and it is something I must find on my own.

Having lost the back brace to a storage room in my parent’s house and traded up (not necessarily willingly) to titanium rods in my back, it is always easier to find clothes that fit when Sarah is with me. No matter what voice has taken control of my head that day or how I may vent about my physical attributes and put myself down, Sarah brings me back to Earth with a call of logic or a complaint of her own about herself, which I am quick to deny, just as she is mine. Knowing I can call her up and tell her anything oftentimes gets me through a less than peppy day, and though I don’t necessarily believe in ESP, I know so much of what I feel in life mirrors what Sarah feels. And remembering that is greater than any outfit I could put together.

It is nice to say I have grown more confident in who I am despite my deformity, occasional adult acne, and larger than average derrière, and I have accepted these things. Time and age can change so many wanton beliefs of oneself. But ultimately, people change us the most. For me, the best part is getting up in the morning and knowing that somewhere, not especially far away, someone who looks a lot like me is up too, ready to take on the world.

By

B.

“I will simply take the position that the spoken word, like the written word, amounts to a nonsensical arrangement of sounds or letters without a consensus that assigns “meaning.” And building from the meanings of what we hear, we order reality. Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.”

-Gloria Naylor, in “The Meanings of a Word”

I first learned the power of a single word when I was in kindergarten. There was a boy, we’ll call him B., whom I found funny and kindhearted, the kind of boy many other boys and girls liked to pick on. We often would end up near each other in our seating arrangements, and once he told me I looked cute with my ponytail. I returned the compliment by saying he looked cute in his glasses. It wasn’t young love, just kindness.

In my elementary school years, at least up until 2nd grade, I was a champion for the lesser known, the bullied, the proletariat in grade school in a small town in Nebraska. Before I allow myself to soak in the warm blush of the music from my own horn, I should preface the rest of my story with the fact that I was also one of the largest children in my class. My twin sister and I were always tall for our age, and though we averaged out in the end, for most of elementary and middle school, we helped raise the standard height for our grade. It was nice to be big. It was helpful in many situations, including the following.

Above-average-height-kindergarten-Rachel, wearing plaid stirrup stretch pants and probably a purple turtleneck, was just meandering about one recess, when cute-glasses B. was spotted across the playground, struggling to get his baseball cap from another student. A much taller second grader had B.’s hat and was gesturing that she was going to throw it over a fence where the school vehicles were kept. I’d seen B. hanging around her before, so apparently they knew each other; however, I didn’t like to see people get their things taken away. Many show-and-tell items (often the items students treasured more than most) became the lofted target for drawn-out games of Monkey-in-the-Middle. One of my favorite pastimes at recess was to end those games by snatching the toy out of the air and handing it back to the rightful owner (It angered many of my classmates, and sometimes even the “monkey” seemed a bit disappointed. Maybe the attention was better than the toy they’d lost. It’s best to believe that NO ONE took my things, but I also didn’t bring my most prized possessions.). Being a fairly quiet and reserved child, I wasn’t often seen as a threat.  Stealthily I climbed the cement steps near the bus area, and when the girl sat the hat near the top of the fence, I jumped up and grabbed it for B.

Suddenly I heard a bloodcurdling cry emitting from the girl’s mouth. At the time it sounded like “You WITCH!” but even then I knew that wasn’t the word she had said. I think I dropped the hat or let her rip it out of my hands, for the shock from the word, from the expression of it, had shaken any ounce of heroism I had in me. I also know I began crying. Running from the fence, I ran into a girl from my class (coincidentally the shortest girl in our class) who saw me crying and took me to the teacher on duty. Poor Mrs. L., who would be my first grade and favorite teacher, asked me what was wrong.

“That girl called me a name!” I said through big hiccupping sobs. Any onlooker would have thought the girl had killed my dog or stabbed me through the throat the way I wept.

“What was it?” Mrs. L. asked.

I remember panic setting in. I didn’t know. I knew it sounded like “witch,” but I’d never heard the word before. For all I knew, the word could have been very complimentary, and maybe the girl had dubbed me queen of the playground. But the way she had said it, how it left her mouth and the sting it left when my ears tasted I – that was how I knew it was mean. She had said it to hurt my feelings, and she had.

“I don’t want to say it,” I said, the sobbing subdued to sniffles.

“Whisper it in my ear,” she said.

She leaned down and there I was, inches from her adult haircut and pierced ear. I know I said something, either “witch” or “it sounded like ‘witch.’” But at that point I didn’t care. I hadn’t been trying to get the girl in trouble; I hadn’t even known what she’d done to make me upset. But the damage was done. I’d been hit with a word, and I knew its impact before I knew what it meant.

Mrs. L. interrogated the student, and she lied about what had happened and what she’d said. Again, I didn’t really care. B. had his hat back, so I’d been victorious after all.

We all have moments like this in language, whether we remember them or not. I’d grown up dictating stories to my mother, making her write down the words to the pictures I’d drawn, and the “books” at the end were some of my prized possessions (note: these were never taken to show-and-tell). But until that day, when a bully was able to strike fear in me with a single utterance, one word that didn’t even register in my vocabulary, I never realized how powerful words, or a single word, could be. Gloria Naylor writes about this in her essay “The Meanings of a Word” which originally appeared in the New York Times in 1986. She writes about the first time she heard the word nigger and how it was because of its use by a classmate that it registered so clearly, so resolutely as a negative term. She goes on to examine the word and its uses. But before she writes about the word itself, she introduces the idea of language:

Language is the subject. It is the written form with which I’ve managed to keep the wolf away from the door and, in diaries, to keep my sanity. In spite of this, I consider the written word inferior to the spoken, and much of the frustration experienced by novelists is the awareness that whatever we manage to capture in even the most transcendent passages falls far short of the richness of life.

Words, however powerful their individual meanings, gain significance because of how we use them. This idea made me want to write in the first place, to put pen to paper and try to combine words so they could have an impact on the people that read them, however few and far between those people are. As for being a “witch” or a “bitch” or a mixture of the two, I suppose I don’t care very much at this point in my life. After all, depending on how you use them, there are good versions of both.

By

Things

“—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!”

      From Book 1, Paterson by William Carlos Williams

My mother is a piece of music, composed of flowing melody and grace notes that repeat sweetly and often. My father is a book of comedy, laden with jokes and the wondering afterthoughts of deeper mysteries that humor cannot expose. What I have learned, intuitively at a very young age, and now consciously accept is that my family is a family of things. Some people see this as a bad thing. In our materialistic society, the yearning for unnecessary things is something we are taught as we learn about and accept capitalism: those that have money have things and will prosper. Many people will remember Show & Tell days at school, and the stresses they suffered while trying to come up with the biggest bang for their two minutes of time in the proverbial second grade sun. Someone who had the greatest toy (or the unbeatables—the parents who would bring a dog or interesting pet), could entertain an entire day of glory. While this idea in itself has ethical and moral issues, I think that despite the feelings of guilt or aversion, there is joy in knowing what physical things are needed, but are not necessary, in a human life.

A few months ago I helped my parents go through my grandmother’s house. Her dementia and Alzheimer’s taking a turn for the worse, she and my step-grandfather moved into a nursing home, leaving behind years of furniture, dishware, and clothes. And even though my grandma unfortunately doesn’t remember everything about herself and wouldn’t if she saw what we packed into boxes and took to divide amongst ourselves or left for auction, through her things, we received insight into what makes up a life. Grandma had knickknacks of all kinds, colors, and sizes—Avon figurines emptied of their cologne, gold metal horses, and angels playing violins or singing, or standing elegantly in their heavenly regalia. She collected dolls: babies, grown women, men, porcelain faced and delicate cheeks painted in rosy hues, and one creepy clown that appeared to have imbibed in spirits, its visage plastered to be plastered forever.

While these objects were all interesting, these were the things I already knew about her. They were bits and pieces that made up my childhood vision of who my grandmother was. When added up, they are just a fraction of her and her life, but they were a fraction nonetheless.

In the basement, we found the boxes. Grandma had saved mementos from her home in Kentucky, autograph books from her school years up to eighth grade in Chicago, letters from men in the military during World War II including every single letter from my grandfather. They divorced after nearly three decades of marriage, and despite resentment (for complicated and various reasons) from each side remaining until his death, she kept those letters in a box, neatly collected together with string, each top crease of each envelope carefully torn with a letter opener held in waiting fingers over sixty years ago. The meaning behind her keeping these last mentioned letters is twofold: she cared enough to keep them, but it is doubtful if she went through them once she tossed all of them all in the box together, each former suitor associated with her past life. These were things my father didn’t care to read, let alone examine. Some things we keep aren’t what others want to remember.

On my mother’s side, things also have value. My grandfather had a hobby of antiquing, a hobby that turned into two garages he built by hand to contain all his metal signs, seed bags, and hog oilers. I loved to go to his shed where he often worked, and look at all the “old.” I could write a book about all of his antiques and the emotional and monetary value in his things. Unlike my father’s mother, my grandfather was able to watch his things be divvied up at several auctions. Phonographs, tin, iron, and brass toys and penny banks, magazines over sixty years old,  tools, farm equipment, everything my teenage mind could think of—it all seemed to grow out of the woodwork of Grandpa’s life as more and more was sold. Part of what Grandpa found valuable was not only the thing itself, but the value that other people saw in it. He sold his items, and he knew the right price. But he could part with them.

I don’t know if it was his age or maybe his logical brain didn’t attach to each thing once he acquired so much, but watching him relinquish all he had collected throughout his life was a story in itself. Hundreds of stories, really, about where these things came from and what they meant not only to him, but the dozens of people before him who had implemented that tool or hung that mirror on a wall. Grandpa could live the remaining years contentedly, knowing his antiques, his things, had found new life.

Things are important. I think we hang on to the objects and mementos that remind us of a happy, not necessarily happier, time. My mother has saved all the significant toys from my older brother’s, twin sister’s, and my childhood. Even though she is her father’s daughter and probably has undiagnosed symptoms of hoarding, or in the very least, packrat-ness, there are other underlying emotions that make me fully support her decision to this day. While the Rainbow Brite dolls, Precious Places, and Legos are not going to make us millionaires (or even thousand or hundredaires) down the road, these toys probably mean more to my mother than they do to us. She wanted children so desperately (think Jennifer Garner’s character in Juno); she was born to be a mother. And while she’s happy with her adult children, she’s held onto those toys, boxed up and out of sight, knowing that even though someday her grandchildren will find joy in them, the joy they already brought is enough to make them worthy of keeping.

Who knows if I’ll be willing to give away my precious toys to any future children? A selfish endeavor, but I could probably complete that task quite handedly. Maybe I’ll never be able to part with my first jewelry box or the first dining room table my husband and I purchased. I’m okay with that, aside from my jealousy of my future offspring playing with Molly, the American Girl Doll, and her very similar knockoff acquired earlier at a Target store named Hannah. Some things I will part with, and I will become more objects in the future. For now, I know I am composed of the  people who also lived in things, and I am content to admit that I too am made up of things, some I’ve known for a long time, and others that I realized over time. I am a quilt stitched in pieces of pink, white, and navy. I am a baby blanket, the white cotton wearing and the edges torn off and dangling precariously by threads. A collection of decoupaged Robert Frost poems over a teal coffee table. A red pleated skirt. A tin whistle.  But my heart rests in pen and paper, blank and ready for the ideas that will fill it, ideas formed from things.