Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What Happened on 12/21/19: Sarah Barnett, Scott Russell Morris, Cindy Bradley, Peta Murray, Jill Hill

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


First thing this morning I tried to finish the last fifty pages of the novel I'd been reading. But I came to a line that stopped me cold.
     The narrator reminisced about a pet alligator he and his brother had as kids. The man can't remember how big it was or how long the family had kept it. "I wished I could call my brother up and ask him. That was the worst thing about everyone being dead."
     I spent a sizable portion of the rest of the day thinking of the people I'd lost recently, the people I couldn't call. My parents are long gone, but more recently I've lost my daughter, my brother, my former husband, to whom I was married for thirty years. Friends disappeared from my life—a best friend from high school, a man from my writing group whom I'd known for ten years. My list included people I'd known casually and people who were friends of friends and well-known people I didn't know but admired—Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings, Cokie Roberts.
     I didn't know what to do with all this loss. Had I reached that age where I knew more people who were dead than alive?
     On my afternoon walk with the dog I saw a large flock of snow geese rise up from the cornfield where they'd been resting. Hundreds of pairs of flapping wings produced a loud humming, a whistling motor-like racket that rose and fell as the geese flew first one way and then another. I wanted to phone my daughter when I returned home. I just saw the most amazing thing. A bird ballet.
     Around three o'clock I decided to make latkes to bring to a family Hanukah/Christmas celebration later this week. Making potato pancakes is a three- hour, messy undertaking involving peeling potatoes, shredding and soaking them, making a batter of eggs, flour, onions, potatoes, frying the pancakes in sizzling, spattering peanut oil, spreading them on layers of paper towels to drain and finally, wrapping and storing the finished product. Add an hour for wiping grease from countertops, mopping floor and washing assorted dishes and utensils.
     My daughter and I used to make latkes together in her kitchen, so I talked to her in my head as I worked. Is five eggs enough? I decided to add another. The potatoes didn't drain enough; they seem too wet. I attacked the shredded potatoes with paper towels to wring more water out of them. Then I remembered Michele's laid-back attitude. "They'll be fine," she'd say. I stopped worrying and began frying.
     They were fine, as I discovered when I sat at the kitchen table with a plate of two latkes, one spread with applesauce, the other topped with a dollop of sour cream. For once I'd been a patient fryer, allowing the pancakes to brown completely on one side before flipping them. The outsides were brown and crispy, the insides soft and savory. I was grateful I'd remembered to light candles before the frying stage. The kitchen's lingering scent of fried food was softened with hints of vanilla. 
     Today's winter solstice marked the shift from days of growing darkness to days of growing light. During Hanukkah, Jews light a candle on the first night and add a candle each night of the eight-day celebration. The holiday celebrates liberation from oppression. I like to think of the growing, glowing lights each night as symbols of survival. 

Before retiring and discovering the joys of writing creatively, Sarah Barnett had careers as teacher, librarian and lawyer—a period she refers to as "killing herself by degrees." She enjoys leading Free Writes, teaching writing classes and composing essays and short fiction while walking her dog on the beach.  Her work has appeared in Delaware Beach Life, Delmarva Review, and other publications.


Dec 21 / A Catalogue of Things We’re Recovering From

Artistic Deprivation

It isn’t until 1:00 pm  that I find a moment to myself to do my morning pages. I only started Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way yesterday, though I’d meant to start the moment grades, five days ago. As I write the pages, Cal watches cartoons on the Kindle, the baby is asleep, and Kirsten is off trying to get a part for our broken vacuum.
     I tell myself—literally, I write it into the morning pages—that as soon as I am done with morning pages, I will start writing something. I’ll continue the novel I’ve been slowly engaging with, or work on my essay manuscript. But instead, I play Hearthstone, an online rip-off of Magic the Gathering, negating my own creative drive. It is the same at the end of every semester: Though I rarely play computer or video games, I become mildly addicted to one for a few weeks. I hope to kick the habit by New Year’s so that I’ll have a clear head for my month of time away from students.

Cal’s Birthday Party

His party for his school friends was on Tuesday, several days early so we’d be able to catch people before they left for the winter. We’d assumed we’d have all day Wednesday to clean up. But on Wednesday, Cal woke with a fever and cough, so we couldn’t send him to school and we’ve spent most of the days since convincing him to rest while also balancing the grump he becomes when he watches too much TV. Instead of cleaning, his craft projects accumulated, so that on Saturday, a precariously leaning tower of used party supplies mingled with take-out containers and boxes from home-delivery groceries.

Cultural Adjustment

Around 3pm, I walk across the street to the high-end mall, the only shopping center easily accessible to the university campus where we live. It is snowing as I walk out, and the sidewalks are slushy. I am, nominally, looking for Christmas sprinkles, candy canes, and/or slippers for the baby’s stocking. I don’t have much hope—Christmas is barely a thing here in Korea. Two hours later, I return with a pint of strawberries and a box of tangerines, but none of the things on the list.


Cameron suggests a recovering artist is one who has lost their alliance with the Great Creator (God, god, the universe, inner strength, whatever). I suppose I relate to that. Since moving to Korea eighteen months ago, I’ve felt my creative energy slipping and with it my connection to God. This slipping has come mostly in the kitchen, where I often think of Brian Doyle’s dry humor from his essay “What Am I Doing Here?” He answers: The dishes, mostly.

An Eating Disorder

At 8am, my phone beeps with a reminder to log my breakfast. I put in a pancake, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and citron tea.
     This week, Kirsten and I re-started Noom, a food-health program we’d started when we first moved to Korea about 18 months ago. We’d both lost a bit of weight, but more importantly, we regained a healthier awareness of our eating habits. I finally felt I’d gained control of the compulsive eating disorder that had plagued me since our first child was born, but a stressful summer and then the busiest semester yet of our professional lives (let alone our personal ones) and we regained a bit of that weight and felt relationship to food slipping.

Falling off the Bike

The snow starts while Kirsten is out looking for vacuum parts in the early afternoon. The baby cries in the background, not quite settled in for her post-lunch nap, as I stare out our thirteenth-story window watching flakes accumulate on the abandoned museum construction site across the street and the mall next to it. I am still looking out the window when Kirsten calls to give me an update on the search. The store doesn’t have what we need, and the service center is closed on the weekend, but even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll have the part. I tell her to be careful on the snow, and she says it was beautiful riding the bike during the flurry.
     When she got home, she admitted that our little electric bike had, indeed, slid on out from under her in a wet patch. Her back, already troubled, begins to hurt all the more.


Perhaps because it is Saturday and we always do chores on Saturday morning, we finally muster the energy to accomplish something like cleaning. Five loads of laundry (one going in our small washer, and then four simultaneously in the student dorm building next door). Several consecutive loads in the dishwasher. The floors swept and mopped, the family room vacuumed as much as was possible with a vacuum held together with Duct tape.

Daily Responsibilities

It is, despite the season, a rather normal Saturday. Breakfast, chores, lunch, relaxing & errands, dinner, bedtime. But somehow, I can’t keep up on it. I sweep the kitchen three or four times. As soon as I finish cleaning up from one meal, it seems it is time to begin cooking the next.


Reviewing the first chapter of The Artist’s Way I mark an item on Cameron’s list of common creative recovery fears: “I will abandon my friends and family.” Rationally, I know family responsibilities and creative endeavors need not be exclusive, but scanning the room, I still see laundry on the drying rack, a pile on the floor, dishes in the sink. Even having been cleaning all morning, it is hard to convince myself that this is my time to write.

The Flu

Cal, five-years-old as of yesterday, wakes us at six in the morning with his hacking cough and a moan signifying his usual up-first-in-the-morning loneliness, amplified by his fever. Kirsten placates him with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the new reboot of The Magic School Bus. Thankfully, he hasn’t woken his sister, and Kirsten returns to bed.

Holiday Procrastination

After dinner, I get the kids ready for bed—stories, pajamas, potty tries—while Kirsten wraps presents. Or, at least, what presents we have. There are more we haven’t checked off the list, several Kirsten ordered online for me that are stuck in customs. Once she finishes wrapping, the kids watch more TV while she does her puzzle and I wrap a few presents myself, until the kids are too grumpy to not be put to bed.
     We plan the food for next week’s festivities, dreary through the outlook seems. Considering the coughing and fevers, we cancel the ugly Christmas sweater party we were going to host in order to preserve our energy. We decide we’ll still make soft pretzels, our ugly-sweater tradition, but only for ourselves. We’ll do a roast for Christmas Eve, beating out ssambap (Korean lettuce wraps) or roasted chicken. We will homemake the rolls. We will make a pie. We will still invite our guests, but we will warn them about the state of things.


There was a time, before this last semester hit full swing, that we regularly read the Bible each night and said a family prayer during the bedtime routine. Lately, we’re lucky if we remember even once a week, but during bedtime, Cal surprises me by asking to read scriptures. From his illustrated New Testament, I read the story of the Annunciation, asking him how he would feel if an angel appeared to him with a special purpose like Mary’s. Cal just giggles and, too tired to press the question, I send him to bed. But Mary’s response, keeping “all these things in her heart,” stays with me.

Lying to Kirsten

Kirsten calls while I am out, tells me to bring home dinner. She is craving hamburgers. I make vegetable stew for dinner, saying the hamburger place’s wait was too long. I serve up portions for everyone, but leave very little for myself. When Kirsten questions my small portion, I say there were so many dumpling free samples at the mall.

Lying To Myself

As I am out shopping, I make my usual route through the mall’s food court, where free samples abound, trying all the usual offerings: croissants, garlic bread, cranberry bread, fatty ham with sweet chili sauce, fried chicken in a sweet-spicy barbecue sauce, pork jerky, donuts made of soy flour, puffed rice snacks, sweet potato chips glazed in sugar. And then, at the grocery story, three different dumpling sample stations, some with multiple varieties, and a double shot of spicy ramen. As I wander the vendors, I buy a pizza-stuffed pastry reminiscent of Pizza Bites and a fruitcake cookie dusted in powdered sugar. I record none of this in the Noom app, telling myself I’ll do better tomorrow.

Last Night’s Dinner

There are still dishes in the sink from Cal’s birthday dinner—whole wheat banana pancakes—when I wake at eight to the sounds of Jo, the 20-month-old baby, crying. She has a fever now, too. Luckily, I had thought to put the leftover pancakes in a Tupperware so as not to dry out. I hand her a pancake and plop her on the couch next to her brother, who is still clutching a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich, his eyes glued to The Magic School Bus’s lesson on eyesight, the bus transformed into an eagle, the children all butterflies experiencing ultraviolet vision. I begin unloading the dishwasher.

Mild Depression

Kirsten ran out of her anti-depressants several days ago, and while she is at the appliance store trying to get the vacuum replaced, the doctor finally returns her call to say she can refill her prescription. But she’d already been thinking about going off of the medication, which she’d started taking after our stressful summer with family in the US. She decides definitively then, while she is on the phone at a mall looking for vacuum parts, that she’ll look for a councilor and go off the meds, recognizing that the recovery she needs will be better suited with that choice.

Resistance, Futile

After lunch, while the baby is sleeping, I beg Cal to take a nap, telling him it is the best way to get well. He violently refuses, and too tired to argue, I let him sit with the Kindle on our bed. Eventually, while I am in the front room playing Hearthstone, he mumbles something about being tired and curls into a ball on the one comfy chair we own. I lift him out of his contorted sleep and lay him out on the couch with a blanket. He is hot to the touch.

Resistance, Internal

I eventually get to my writing after Kirsten and the kids are all abed, but only after I order Christmas presents for our parents on Amazon and play Hearthstone for another hour or so. When I do write, I crank out a chapter of a fantasy novel about a family struggling to reveal their personal insecurities while defending their rural farm from a blood-witch. Only after writing, finishing around eleven, do I remember that I’d promised Kirsten I’d take care of the dishes, too. I load the dishwasher, leaving the larger pots for tomorrow.

A Sore Back

Before going to bed, Kirsten positions herself in front of the couch, removes her shirt, and I apply lavender oil to her shoulders and neck, searching out the knots, smoothing with my thumbs and palms the sore and tender parts.

Scott Russell Morris is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Utah Asia Campus in Incheon, Korea. He loves essays, bakes for fun, and is rather fond of squirrels. Find him online at www.skoticus.com


Winter Song

Waking up at 7:28am I open the blinds, hoping to see something resembling the blue sky of the past few days. Instead the sky is a limited palette of muted gray, the usual color for Fresno winters. Gray days, foggy days, – with maybe a few hours break of sunny skies in the afternoon, and maybe not – can stretch for days and weeks during the winter in this stretch of Central California.

I’ve got a cold. Which isn’t surprising, considering the bug has done a pretty good job of making the rounds through everyone else in the family: my daughter, her three girls, my oldest son, my youngest son and his son and daughter. Even my sister twenty miles north has come down with, for her, a rare cold. So, most of my plans for today, or at least this morning, are scrapped in favor of the couch, a box of Kleenex, and Christmas movies, alternating between the television networks, streaming providers, and maybe a DVD or two.

Nine o’clock, two cups of coffee in, tucked under my soft, poinsettia throw, and all I can think about is how much I still need to do in the next four days. Buying those last couple of Christmas gifts, grocery shopping, wrapping presents. I tell myself that if all I manage today is wrapping a few presents I’ll feel semi-productive.

The stray and feral cats have gathered outside my kitchen sliding glass door. It’s 2:15pm, and I’m up after a (rare, for me) four-hour nap. I’m hungry, and decide on toast and soft-boiled eggs, childhood comfort food. A little over a year ago a neighbor moved out of our four-plex, leaving behind a mama cat and her two babies, one black and one orange. The mama didn’t hang around long and it didn’t take the kitties long to find someone willing to feed them. Fast forward fifteen months and two litters later, I now have ten cats of various sizes and ages using my backyard as their home base. I know something needs to be done, it’s just too many cats, and I’m getting attached.

Every winter, especially near the solstice, I play “Winter Song” on loop. I’ve been listening to it so much this year, I’m just about listened out. I go to YouTube and pull up my Winter Songs/Holiday Song compilation, and “Winter Song” is right there at the top of the list. The video is whimsical and sweet,—Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson cartoon friends with matching pink heart shaped cheeks who get through winter’s dreary days with each other by their side,  waiting for spring’s inevitable arrival—but doused in a melancholy that feels all so familiar. Anything that rolls in from the sea feels tinged with melancholy. Anything with “carries you to me” aches. Anything that asks, over and over, “is love alive” is afraid it isn’t.

Rounding a corner that leads to Save Mart later in the afternoon, in pursuit of that one last gift card, I spot a lone seagull flying above. He’s bright white against the gray sky. No sun today. Whenever I see a seagull in Fresno I get a pang. We’re one hundred and fifty miles from the ocean. He’s a long way from home. I watch as he glides and circles and I imagine he’s looking for something recognizable, something that reminds him of home. I imagine his habits are still sea habits. His squawk is so plaintive, it penetrates my skin. I’ve heard that while most seagulls have built-in barometers and move inland to avoid oncoming storms, others are trapped when the storm hits, carried along by inclement weather. That’s the course I imagine with this gull. He’s rolled in from the sea. I know how he feels. Who hasn’t been tossed around in one storm or another, found themselves led astray, searching for anything familiar, and who hasn’t clutched remnants of all they know and love, while leaving traces of themselves far behind. Looking for and recreating home everywhere they go.

Saturday nights I usually go to my daughter’s house. I’ve been back and forth all day on whether or not to go, but as I’m feeling better and as all of my kids and grandkids will be there, I decide to go and stay for a little while. This has been a rough year for our family, so getting everyone together is something none of us take for granted or want to miss. She’s baking gingerbread men for the kids to decorate. The night before, everyone walked Candy Cane Lane, but I missed it, choosing to stay home. Candy Cane Lane, or Cindy Lane, is a neighborhood in neighboring Clovis that goes all out with their Christmas lights, decorations, and displays. You can either drive or walk the participating blocks, and there are stands scattered throughout that sell or give things away, like churros or donuts or hot chocolate. I knew it would be cold outside, and sat this one out, with requests to take pictures, which the kids did, and they were adorable.

On my way to my car I spot a penny. It’s next to my parking space, barely shining in the early evening mist. I think of the one I burned for, and I remember how when he’d detach I’d go round and round with a penny flip, – two out of three, three out of five – do I call, don’t I call – and I remember how I’d keep flipping in an attempt to manufacture the outcome I wanted, which may or may not have resulted in a successful phone call. I remember the pit in my stomach. And I remember the longing. I pick the penny up from the asphalt. It’s tails, my preference. It slips from my fingers. I pick it up again and it’s heads, so I figure I’m covered either way. Once I start the car James Taylor’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas” comes on the radio. It’s the part right before “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”, and I think, not for the first time, just what a great word muddle is. It covers so much, and you know without knowing how you know, exactly what it means. I think muddle needs to make comeback, and I tell myself, not for the first time, that I need to do my part in making that happen.

Nearing my daughter’s street and taking in the blinking and bright Christmas lights, a house with traditional multi-colored lights strung across the roof like so many others comes into view. As I get closer, I notice thin white lights flowing down in a trickling effect, like tears. We all arrive within minutes of each other, the kids play while the cookies are baking in the oven. Every time they get together it’s like making up for all the time they’re not together, and it’s a rush of toys, blocks, books, singing, and dancing. After some serious cookie decorating and eating, three-year-old Siena pats her full tummy and tells us she has a “food baby”. I look over at my daughter, and she’s laughing. Six-months pregnant with her first boy, I know where Siena learned the phrase. Two hours go by so quickly.

Goodbyes said, hugs dispensed, I’m back out the door and in my car, easing out of the driveway. It’s 9:00pm, not late, but the streets are deserted so it feels much later. I press Spotify and “River” begins to play.  I think about being hard to handle. I think about the ones who make us weak in the knees. I think about those who have passed through our lives or have passed on. I think about missing someone fiercely. I know the answer is yes, love is alive, it can’t die, not really, not if it’s really love. I drive on. I look at the houses with lights, and I notice the ones without. The equinoxes are a time of balance, of all things being equal; the solstices are not. I’m suddenly aware of a deep stillness. It occurs to me that even with all the busyness surrounding us this time of year, the lists and shopping and fretting and baking and working and the getting by, a stillness hums beneath it all. Solstice stillness carries me home. 

Cindy Bradley received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. She is an assistant nonfiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Her essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, Front Porch Journal, and Under the Sun, among others. Visit cindybradley.weebly.com or follow @cindysea429.


21 December, 2019

It is 4.45 am on 22nd when I start to write this. I have a cup of black tea. I can hear a TV show through the wall, and I am hoping that its noise, the canned laughter, and the sound of my fingers on these keys, and the blue light of this screen will not disturb my dying father. I am wearing the same clothes I wore all day on 21 December, and that I slept in, on a crash mat, on the floor of his room for a few hours. Slept? Dozed. Listened, breathed with and against the rise and fall of his breath, still steady, but short and shallow. There are breaks to the rhythm, moments when I hold my own breath, wondering. Is that it? Was that it?

I have been in this room on and off since my arrival yesterday morning, 21 December, at about 11am. I’d had a fitful night before, listening out for a niece, late home, staying in our loft room; then the text messages from the aged care facility coming in at 4 am that startled me awake. I wondered if I should get dressed and go back over there but did not. I stayed put, saw the niece off to work, got myself showered and breakfasted and prepared. As I did so, I realised I was packing for more than a visit, I was packing for a vigil. I had gone beyond the phone charger and the portable speaker and the pureed rhubarb I had thought to bring. I found I was packing extra clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, my meds, deodorant, a change of underwear. I found myself cooking a piece of salmon to put with the last of the pilaf from the other night. I found myself putting a bottle of rosé in the freezer alongside a blue plastic icebrick. I found myself pouring a small quantity of whiskey into my souvenir hip flask from Glenfiddich.

Once I saw what I was doing, I commit. There was no reason not to. My partner and the dogs were away, the day was cool, the garden watered after the scorching weather we had had, whenever that was. I secured the house, and drove to the Aged Care place, the facility, the place that is now the room that is now my father’s world.

It was an easy drive, even pleasant, in the car that I am soon to sell. I was less nervous about what awaited me. I had a system, too, with the electronic pass key I must use at a particularly tricky angle to swipe myself into the underground car park. I drove slowly, behind someone else’s relative, down, down into the concrete basement of this building. I got the same, good park, I had had the day before, and this too, pleased me.

There is a resident outside now, yelling. She has dementia and roams the halls at night, it seems.

My father breathes on.

When I got up to his floor there was music playing from his room. One of the new carers, the weekend staff, had been thoughtful enough to put some on. It was the right CD, just the kind of music to soothe him. I know most of the songs, even though they date back to the 30s and 40s, before my father’s heyday. He was born in 1932, on 29 February, a leap year boy, so he is actually only 22 or something. I am terrible with numbers but what I am trying to say is that although he is actually 87 he has had far fewer proper birthdays. He will not have any more, and it’s likely he will not see Christmas, either, still some days away. Even if we bring it forward, as we may well do.

The resident is quiet now, but I can hear movement in the corridor, and the clanking of a metal trolley as one of the night staff goes from room to room, doing obs. No one has been in here for a while now. I can smell the strawberries I bought.

To reconstruct the morning is not what I mean to do. The changing of the guard, of the continence pads. But when my sister arrived he accepted a few teaspoons of the rhubarb puree I had brought from home after blitzing it in the Nutribullet. It will be the last thing he tastes, and now I watch him being repositioned in the bed, and the gentleness with which the staff speak to him as they resettle him, and swab his dry tongue in his open mouth, and I can no longer smell the strawberries.

In his later years, before he came here, before we brought him here, with his consent, before we put him here, he lived alone. For several years he lived well, content in his own company most of the time, with his daily rites and rituals - a slice of lemon in warm water on rising, his home made yoghurt at breakfast, and the special rhubarb that he cooked for himself, and for his older sister, and drove down to her, over an hour in each direction, from time to time, and miraculously, without incident, delivered to the aged care facility in which she too resides. And lingers, still, as I write this, keeping to herself, just as he has, too shy, or proud, or anxious to mingle with the others.

And so we fed him rhubarb, and the occasional spoonful of thickened apple juice, and changed the music and through the morning we saw his agitation grow, his pain increase, his effort to get to the bathroom one last time, by himself, defeated. I do not want to report  on the interventions tried. We heard his bowels rumbling, saw the distress when it was clear he could not “void” as they describe it in facilities like these.

The morning was tough, so tough. We tried to comfort and reassure him, and waited for the nursing staff to handover and make good on the pall care nurse’s directions to increase this and increase that. The orally-administered pain medication was no longer “holding” him, so it was good when a cannula was inserted and delivery could be increased in a more efficient way. He settled then, relaxed, and fell asleep, and my sister and I said yes, that’s his snore, we’d know it anywhere, he always slept like that, snoring like that, with his mouth open. And we told some funny stories, and remembered that time some of the grandkids were staying with him, and there was the incident of the jumping and the falling from the bed, and when the other niece arrived we told more stories like that, and we even played some Dolly Parton for a while, but that didn’t quite work for me, so we went back to the crooners via some good old New Orleans jazz. And somehow the afternoon kept ticking by, and that niece left and another one came to say her goodbyes, and that was the only time I left the building all day.

To give her space, I went outside, into the street and walked the same flat path up the road to the village. I passed the library he used to frequent when he first moved here, and all the little restaurants and coffee shops, and then some houses. One house had giant lime green ribbons on its hedge, and thin strings of Christmas lights running from the front gate to the porch. I realised this was a thing, in this suburb - the application of the bows - making Christmas presents of fences and trees. Less tacky, perhaps, than the inflatable Santas and the Styrofoam deer? Who knows? I don’t much like Christmas. Never have.

On my way I bought chips and strawberries, the ones that smelled sweet before the room was overtaken by other odours that have yet to clear. For a minute there we thought we could open the window, but it’s locked. I walked back, and for a good stretch of the way there was a little Border Terrier trotting ahead of me on a lead and it could have been our Loretta and it made me smile. I sat under the plane trees and made a phone call, and sure enough I started to cough because of their pollen, so I headed back to the place.

Upstairs, my sister, my weeping niece, my snoring father. These girls have their Certificate Four in Dying Grandparents, we’d joked earlier. They’ve been here before, but even so, nothing quite prepares you for the shock of that gaunt face, those protruding cheek bones, the strange folds of the ears, that sharp nose, and that sound, the rattling gurgle in the throat, the straining for each hard-won breath.

We rinsed the strawberries, we opened the crisps, we poured the rosé, because it’s wine o’clock, somewhere, surely. We sat around to chat and then that niece left and somehow, in and around all of this, though I have not recorded it here, we made a plan for tomorrow, and we other plans for the aftercare, and the removal and the disposal, and in my newly found forthright manner I found myself having forceful words with a member of the staff about our demand for a late check out, should it come to that. I tapped into my death literate network, and before we knew it we had one of the carers filling ice trays and procuring zip-lock bags, to put ice in, and pillowcases to put the bags in, should we need to place icepacks behind our father’s neck and on his tummy, if he departed this life before the others got here in the morning. And we engaged a maverick funeral company to give us the support we will need to do things our way and as naturally as possible, and in ways that feel right for the man he was. Is.

He breathes on.

Night fell. I ate the rest of the pilaf and the fish. My sister went for more wine. We drank a little more and changed the music again, and talked to him from time to time, telling him what we were up to, who would be coming tomorrow – another daughter, a son – and that we didn’t expect him to hang around if he didn’t want to. If he’s ready. He still heard us, we knew. But he seemed comfortable, and calm, and if he was waiting for something, we’ll never know what it was.

My sister left, then came back, thinking she had left her spectacles behind. They were in her pocket. We were both getting a bit like that and it wasn’t just the wine, it was the accumulating fatigue after this big week. It’s all happened so fast. And on that day, December 21st, it accelerated again and we’ll be surprised if he lasts the night, which is why I put the crash mat on the floor, and borrowed a pillow, and after I’d cleaned my teeth, I lay down on the carpet in my father’s room, and try to sleep. And maybe I did, a little, as the night staff came and went, and my father lay still, breathing on, in the bed just there, with his feet sticking out of the sheet until the date changes and now it’s Sunday 22 December in Australia, and it will be his last Sunday, most likely his last day, by any name, and we will all gather in this room with cake and bubbly and maybe even a bottle of Grange, and we will call it Christmas.

Peta Murray is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, where she deploys theatre, installation and live art to make performable essays and bespoke w/rites as works of activism. She dabbles in a bit of nonfiction on the side. Peta’s best-known plays are Wallflowering, Salt, and The Keys to the Animal Room. Critical writing includes articles for TEXT,  New Writing, and a co-authored work for Fourth Genre.


THE SHORTEST DAYDecember 2019—Picton Ontario
I look out the window of our Toronto pied a terre and am cheered to find the sun shining and though there is a bit of snow on the ground, the streets seem to be clear. I step briefly on to the narrow balcony—yes, wintry but not horribly cold. A busy day lies ahead.

The first bit of unwelcome news is that my 81 year old husband John is not feeling at all well. He has had a bad autumn altogether with several ailments, some well known and some still a mystery not only to us, but to his myriad doctors. So, he reluctantly tells me, he won’t be accompanying me on the first rendez vous of the day: the annual lunch of what we have been calling the Three Amigos.

We are three old friends from high school—we graduated in 1959! After a long hiatus we met up again about 10 years ago and found we still had a great deal in common. Recently we expanded our group to include my University room-mate who taught with one of the others.  She has always been single, the other two married, one of them widowed last year. Husbands have always attended—very good sports all of them.

So I set out alone this year, waving my handy Presto card at the little machine on the brand new street car, the 504A which will take me painlessly right across town. We country bumpkins know a good thing when we see it. I am someone who actually enjoys public transit—such a wonderful mix of people, especially in a city like this. Now with my white hair, younger people actually get out of their seats for me, and I graciously accept.

I find the address of this year’s hostess, a friend from Eastern Canada who rents a place for the holidays each year. Her instructions are to go around to the back through a wooden gate. I go down a few steps to a door which looks just like any old cellar door but, that’s what she said so I knock briskly, once and then again. No response. I go around again to the front, and ring both doorbells. Nada! Back to the back and go through some large wooden gates to find myself in a back alley. No luck. Back to the front again and search the street, peer into passing cars hoping one of the other two guests will appear and put me straight. I traipse up and down the street wondering if I have got the number wrong. Half an hour passes. Maybe it’s the wrong day! I check my little green Moleskin—21st written firmly.

Now you are wondering. Why the hell didn’t she phone? Good question, because I actually own a fairly fancy cell phone, given to me (in desperation) by one of my sons. But here’s the thing: I hate cell phones. I hate the way they interrupt you and you have to stop what you are doing to attend to them. I hate the way old ladies, like me, forget to turn them off at the opera, the movies , the lectures. I hate the way my friends are peering away at theirs when we are at lunch. And frankly, I hate them because I have refused to learn how to use the darn thing. And then it dawns on me, not only do I not have a phone with me, I don’t know my friend’s cell number.

I walk the long walk out to the main street and look around for a phone booth. None to be found of course. I thought I might phone John to see if my girlfriends had phoned the loft to see where the heck I was.

I give up, feeling that this is a sad note on which to end this frustrating year.

The beautiful 504A going East comes my way, and glumly I get on.  Defeat does not become me. Until, passing through one of the scruffier neighbourhoods the street car stops in front of a budget supermarket and I spy a phone booth! I hop off, well not so much hopping any more, more like clambering.

A few phone calls, assurance that this is the right day and the right address and I am back on the next 504A, heading West again.  This time the door is opened, apologies all round, they didn’t hear me, why didn’t I call, they thought they saw me but because I was alone they didn’t think it was me, my hat confused them….

And then, the magic of talking to old friends, who have known you since the year dot, who laugh at all the old jokes, who sympathize, who have strong opinions, at least some of them coinciding with yours, who actually knew your mother and why you still have such ambivalent feelings about her.
My old room-mate rode back with me as far as the subway and thanked me for introducing her—a long time Torontonian-- to the joys of the 504—and I suspect we entertained the entire car with loud reminiscences (I am hard of hearing and she used to be an authoritative school principal).

The rest of the day unfolded—my middle son’s family birthday, my two young grand-daughters, 6 & 3 and their creative dance performance in their living room which combined, so far as I could see, elements of ballet, jazz , tap and wrestling all performed to music from the Nutcracker. I took home leftovers from the dinner to cheer up my poor spouse who was still lounging around in bed trying to get better for the holidays.

Like many days, this short one was a mixture of joys and sorrows. I slept on the sofa so as not to disturb my husband and when I opened my eyes from time to time in the night, I could see through the floor to ceiling windows the big city, lit up late with Christmas lights in the tall buildings.  Sometimes I heard a distant siren taking someone to hospital, chasing a stolen car, hastening to a fire. I imagined that rich life bubbling around us unknown, unknowable, mysterious and yet familiar. It was the shortest day, but a full one.

Jill Reville Hill, former owner of Travellers’ Tales Books, fine used and rare books, Bed & Breakfast operator, member of Writers Unblocked memoir group and nearly 30 year resident of Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

Monday, December 30, 2019

What Happened on 12/21/19: Sarah Ruth Bates, Nicole Walker, Hea-Ream Lee, Margarita Cruz, Rukmini Girish

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


I slept in until 9. I’ve been waking up at 7:30 (more like 8) every morning for the past week, but my brother and his girlfriend got into town last night at about 2:30 AM. Our parents had flown into Phoenix the night before, and they’d drive their rental to Tucson, and meet us at a house they’d rented for the family for the holiday week.

My brother and his girlfriend were still asleep, so I walked to Starbucks for my morning coffee. I sat down as if I’d have a regular writing morning—I’d just write until they woke up—but my brother had already texted.

I live alone, and I almost always come home to an empty apartment, unless the Rumba my brother got me for my birthday is making her rounds. Instead, I had a box full of two people. The small space filled up quick.

The day blurred from there: quick Walmart run (guest towel—my bad), back to the apartment, my brother changed my showerhead (the new one was a Christmas gift from him), calls to parents and grandparents to coordinate, packing quickly, filled the car, locked the apartment and checked the heat and stove and oven, met parents and grandparents, lunch, outdoor museum (Tohono Chul), moved into rental house, grocery shopping, grilling for dinner, lingering around the table to talk plans for the next day.

Tetris-like conversation: if we do this Tuesday, then when will we do that, but we’re supposed to hike that day, it’s going to rain, when, exactly? We decided we’d go rock climbing the next day. I’d forgotten my helmet at my apartment. Didn’t want to wake up an extra hour early to get it the next morning, so I’d go now. My brother came. Drove back into town.

I opened the door to the apartment and saw motion. Fur. The neighborhood cat.

I met her when I moved in. She used to patrol the sidewalk, and I always stopped to pet her. I invited her into my apartment one day, and from then on she’d come in fairly often, spend a few hours allowing me to pet her or rubbing her face on my cardboard boxes-to-be-recycled or, one time, napping in a little fur swirl on my kitchen table. I’d leave the door a little open, and kick her out when I had to go to bed or run an errand or go to class. In the past few months, she’d showed up much less often, but she looked better—sleeker and fluffier. She used to be thin and rangy.

She ran past me, out the door. I searched the apartment for evidence of her stay, but found nothing. Usually, letting her in, I shut the door to my bedroom. I limited her range so I could make sure she didn’t claw or bite or pee in anything.

She’d had dominion over my apartment for twelve hours. I couldn’t believe I’d almost waited to get the helmet in the morning. If I’d remembered to pack it, we could’ve been away for days.

How had she gotten in? I’d left the door open while packing the car, but it wasn’t like her to avoid people. She usually asked for head scratches.

She meowed outside my door, trying to get back in. I’d have thought she wouldn’t want to come into my apartment ever again. Hopefully that meant she hadn’t assimilated the day as traumatic. What kind of day did she think she’d had? Was it like she’d scored a hotel room? Was she waiting for me to come home? Who was I to her? (The comedian Sarah Silverman says you tell your pet the things you want to hear. She always said to her dog, “Everybody likes you.” What about the conclusions you rush to about a pet who’s not yours?)

We tried to give her a goodbye scratch, but she only likes to be petted on her own timing. It was getting late. We locked the apartment and drove back out to the house.

Sarah Ruth Bates is a first-year MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Globe Magazine, Off Assignment, Outside, WBUR Cognoscenti, and Appalachia Journal. Catch her at @sarahrbates and sarahruthbates.com.


Woke up. Got out of bed. Put my contacts in my head. Worked my way downstairs, drank a cup, looking up, I noticed it was 8. Grabbed my oats and grabbed my Mac. Turned on the news in seconds flat. Scrolled through the shares, ate my oats, Facebook spoke and I began to scream. 

Musical interlude with some yodeling.

I did read the news today, old friends. It was as bad as ever and yet nothing as specific someone from the House of Lords shooting himself in the head. More corruption from the white house. More news about Russia controlling the white house. White house white white. The news is general. It’s ubiquitous. White noise. Static. Unspecific and untouchable. The long road of news is interrupted by potholes of regular life. 

Hole #1

Erik made pumpkin cookies. He asks me, “Where is the cinnamon.” Where is the sugar?” “Why is the mixture so liquid?” 
     I held up a measuring cup. “Did you use this one?”
     “In a manner of speaking. I used the one that was half of that.”
     He added two more cups of flour. The next batch was better. 

Hole #2

“Hey, Max, turn off the TV! No more screens!”
     “But there’s only 2 minutes to go.”
     “I know how long 2 minutes is in football. What’s going to happen?”
     “They could get a first down!”
     This time of year, we like to predict the future. 

Hole #3

“Who wants to play Trivial Pursuit?”
     “I do,” Max says.
     “I definitely do not,” Zoe says. 
     “We’ll play the fast way, where you get a wedge in your pie for every correct answer.”
     “I’ll go first.” Max rolls. 
     “Who was the first Republican president?”
     “Abraham Lincoln.”
     “What desert has an area larger than the continental United States.”
     “The Sahara.”
     He missed the next one. Zoe’s turn. 
     “What leather-conditioning oil comes from the feet and shinbones of cattle?”
     “I’m out,” Zoe says. 
     Sometimes, short games are the best games. 

Hole #4

“The grill is on fire.”
     “I can’t make beurre blanc and grill the fish.”
     “But it’s on fire. Come help.”
     My friend who has joined us for dinner promises to stir the beurre blanc. 
     Erik and I stare at the fire. “Did you turn the grill off?”
     “Yes. Of course.” 
     “Then why are there flames?”
     “That’s what I’m saying.” 
     “Well, let’s move the fish to the side. Maybe I shouldn’t have oiled them.”
     “You really can’t turn on all three burners at once.”
     What’s the point of a grill with three burners.
     The fish. It turned out OK. So did the beurre blanc. But I burned the hell out of the potatoes. 

Hole #5

Our friends, the same ones over for dinner, are splitting up. 
     We played Cards Against Humanity
     “Blank gives me fiery gas,” my beurre-blanc stirring friend asks from her black card.
     I give the white card that reads “Former President George W. Bush.”
     Erik gives a card that reads, “Ten thousand flying monkeys.”
     Her husband gives a card that reads, “Breakfast burritos.”
     “You’re not supposed to tell the truth,” she teases. 
     Whether they go through with the break up or not, I hope they never lose that easy familiarity. 

Hole #6

“Fourteen years really is a long time,” I tell Zoe. “I’ve been thinking about you as a baby. You liked me to cut all your food into squares.”
     “I wish we’d move to Canada.”
     “Just you and me?”
     “Yeah. Just us.”
     “We could move to England. They’ve banned age 14 there.”
     “That sounds good.”
     “When I was 14. I was so different than you. I had boyfriends who drove me places. At 14.”
     “Yes. I was a mess. You’re so not a mess. You are a freshman on Varsity Cross-Country. You came into a new high school with only one friend. Now you have tons of friends. One of whom is named Unique. You have the highest grade in Physics. You’re a freshman. Taking physics!”
     “It’s not the highest grade.”
     “Well, it’s close. And you’re only 14. So impressive.”
     “I do not think 14 is impressive at all,” she says. 
     I do not tell her 15 is also hard. As were and will be “Five, six, seven, eight, nine
     Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen
     Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen
     Twenty” all the way to 72,

Hole #7

I do hear 73 is pretty easy. My mom is coming to town for Christmas. She has a new boyfriend but he’s not joining her. She’s pretty happy. She is 73. 

She still sings Beatles songs to me. 
     “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
     And though the holes were rather small
     They had to count them all
     Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

Holes fill up halls, if you’re talking about counting potholes. Holes may seem empty and dark but the minute you start counting them, they become the tiny things that make up your day. 4,000  pot holes is a lot of pot holes. I’m so grateful for the bumps.   

NICOLE WALKER is the author of the collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and Sustainability: A Love Story from Mad Creek Books. Her previous nonfiction work includes Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and a book of poems This Noisy Egg. She wishes she'd gone with the original title for her collection of poems, "Comeuppance," so she only had one book with Egg in the title, but like eggs or chickens, the poetry collection came first.


What Happened on December 21, 2019

12:00 am. I start the shortest day of the year in line to board a red-eye from Tucson to Baltimore, where my parents live. We’re moving fast. I board, stuff my carry-on duffel bag in the overhead compartment and shed a few layers before settling into my aisle seat. I pull out a dogeared New Yorker and start reading an essay by Peter Schjeldahl on his life, and think about failing upwards. There’s no tvs embedded in the seat backs, instead a pocket that holds the in-flight magazine, Hemispheres. The top quarter of the magazine is visible and a line of text that summarizes some of the content within reads: “Gift Guide | Ray Romano | Chinese Fairy Tale”. I spend a little time considering whether those three entities have ever before, in the history of humanity, collided.

Baltimore is not home to me, but the place where my parents moved as they grew more and more upwardly mobile. Home to me is still the little apartment in the grubby grad student housing complex in Princeton where my dad was doing a postdoc. It’s where we first landed when we moved to the States in 1997. I went back there several years ago while driving through New Jersey, followed the familiar tree-lined paths, hoping to walk around and see the cement hallways I’d played in, the hills we’d sledded down, the run down laundry room with the smell I can conjure even now. In my imagination, our old apartment stood empty and the door was miraculously unlocked. I’d spend hours running my fingers along the walls where I’d scrawled pictures with crayons, stand in the kitchen with the counter my mom leaned against countless times, look out the window to the old oaks, the lake beyond.

I pulled into the complex and realized that they’d torn down the entire thing and replaced it with shiny new townhouses. The landscape was unrecognizable, like they’d wiped it clean and started again anew. I drove around slowly and waited for something familiar to catch my eye, a semblance of the place I grew up. Instead: neat hedgerows, SUVs in the driveways, a young family walking a dog down a cul de sac. Later, online, I read: “the eight-story apartments were built in the 1960s and “were not meeting today’s goals,” said John Ziegler, the University’s Director of Real Estate Development, during a recent tour. “So it was not so difficult a decision to take the buildings down.”” Everything old destroyed and made new again. Not so difficult a decision. I’m in graduate school now, too. The little house I live in was also built on someone else’s home. Anyways.

I assess my seat neighbors for evidence of chattiness, and am happy to find that both seem to be solo travelers like me--a middle aged Latina woman and a young white dude, both of whom immediately take out and don headphones. I take notes in my notebook. I know it’s technically a new day but it very much feels like an extension of the prior one, the latter half of which I spent explaining who I am and what I do to two separate strangers. First to a man I was on a first date with, and second to my Uber driver to the airport. These experiences have sapped me of what little desire I carry to summarize myself, to ingratiate myself with people I don’t know. It feels like a small mercy to be here among strangers, silent and anonymous.

I’m so tired already. I want to sleep as much as possible on this flight, which will only carry me as far as Chicago. Then from O’Hare I’ll go to Baltimore. My friends are texting about crying. I write back “love you guys, stay teary” and put my phone away.

I feel like this mandate to observe is keeping me from doing the things I’d normally do, maybe. If I wasn’t trying to drink in everything around me I’d be trying to sleep right now. The yawns are coming fast, and the plane’s started to vibrate in that body hum way. I feel held. The cabin lights are down so I reach up to flip on my light to write this. It is a spotlight, and of course I feel like everyone is staring at me, like this is writing as performance, as stunt. Which maybe it is.

I recall a conversation I had with a man who told me loves flying. He said he loves the experience of it, of staring out the window, like it’s something that’s rare and amazing. I think that’s lovely. I often dread flying, instinctively girding myself for the awfulness and discomfort of air travel, but then there are small moments of wonder and beauty too, as long as I look hard enough.

Hm let’s see. There’s a strong peppermint smell in the air suddenly. I wonder what the source is--maybe someone put on some peppermint lotion. Or an exploded bottle of mouthwash at the bottom of someone’s bag. We’re accelerating. I almost wrote exhilarating there. It feels good, going fast. I love the moment when gravity pushes us down as we go up, when we leave the bounds of earth. I put my notebook away and sleep for a bit.

When I wake the plane is dark and quiet. My nose and mouth feel like they’ve been stuffed full of wadded up newspaper. I get up and walk to the bathroom, passing rows and rows of limp sleeping forms as I go. It’s remarkable, this big metal tube full of unconscious people in various forms of disarray. The closest thing I’ve experienced in my adult life to being in a nursery, or an incubator. In the bathroom, I look at my wan face in the mirror. Before I left my house for the airport I took off all my date makeup, did my usual nighttime skincare routine, brushed my teeth, and took out my contacts. I put on my comfiest sweats and softest sweater. And then I went out into the world and slept in a big metal plane alongside a hundred of my fellow human beings as we hurtled through the void. What a world.

I love waking up when everyone is still sleeping. Isn’t that such a lovely feeling? Like you’ve somehow gamed the system. It’s a feeling that takes me back to childhood, of waking before everyone in the house has. Or like being the first one up at a sleepover. As opposed to waking up and realizing everyone else has been awake for a while, which is a horrible feeling.

I put on my headphones and listen to Weyes Blood’s album Titanic Rising, one of the two I’ve downloaded onto my beleaguered iPhone 6 in advance of this flight (the other was Elliott Smith’s Either/Or). Her voice builds and builds in waves in my head as we deplane and I walk into O’Hare. I wind my way around and through throngs of people. I feel myself settling into the stride I take when I’m in cities--long, purposeful, almost irritated. There’s a bagel kiosk which makes me miss actual bagels. Goddamn I miss bagels.

I find my gate and sit and think about doing some reading. I’ve brought four books with me on this trip--three for pleasure and one for research/work. I briefly consider the research/work one. But instead I pull out A Little Life, which I have in paperback form and which I really like as an object, very chunky but with thin thin pages. The boys are young and poor in New York and trying to be artists. Being in an airport makes me seek long, complicated stories of worlds set slightly apart from mine. Pleasure, I think, because there’s so little of it here.

Lots of people around me sitting at the gate are eating. I realize it’s 5:30 am here, while for me it’s 3:30. The thought of eating sacks of greasy airport breakfast food makes me want to vom. I look around for a bit. There’s a guy sitting across from me, a youngish looking dude with dark hair and a hoodie. He inexplicably has a voluminous blonde mustache at odds with his dark hair and coloring. I wonder if he’s going to visit his family in Baltimore. I wonder if he’s working a dumb job he hates here in Chicago, or maybe he’s only connecting through, from a more distant place.

The shortest day of the year is made even shorter because I’m traveling East, losing three hours in the process. But also it seems neverending--pushed from my cozy bed and into the world, the hours of sleep interrupted by flurries of activity and attention. Traveling during the holidays makes me feel blue, even when I’m headed towards people I love.

Normally during the layover I’d go to the Hudson News or whatever and get myself a snack, something pseudo-healthy like nuts slathered in dark chocolate or deep fried vegetable chips, or something texturally pleasing like mentos (the crunch, then the chew) or tangy like citrus candy or both, like watermelon sour patch gummies. But it’s the middle of the goddamn night--sunrise be damned--and so I just drink water.

We board. The United worker who checks us onto the flight looks like Chris Morocco from the Bon Appetit test kitchen. The boarding process is a bit of a clusterfuck--lots of the overhead compartments are full by the time I get to my seat in the nosebleed section. I manage to squeeze my duffel into a spot between two suitcases, but many are not so lucky. One woman gets to her seat all the way in the back of the plane and realizes there’s no space for her bag so she makes everyone back up until she can make her way back to the front of the plane. I sense my neighbor in the middle seat perk up and start to offer advice to her, get herself involved. I’m the most antisocial and self-protective version of myself right now. I immediately slip on my headphones and settle back in my seat and close my eyes, signal to everyone around me that I am one hundred percent trying to stay out of everyone’s business but my very own. Somewhere in pretending grumpily to be asleep so as to opt out of social interactions I actually do fall asleep.

I land. It’s 9:30 here, but 6:30 in Tucson where my brain is still. 8:30 in Chicago. I’ve slept four hours total. Baltimore is cold and grey. I can see my breath in the jetbridge. My dad picks me up. I try very hard to be pleasant and solicitous, instead of grouchy and uncomfortable.

We pull up to the house and my mom opens the door and my little white dog Carly comes running up to me, and she’s jumping and so excited so can barely breathe. She wants me to scratch her stomach--no pet her head--no lick my face! All at the same time. I drop my bags on the sidewalk outside my parents’ house and let her jump all over me, her tiny little curly white body flying everywhere. Finally I scoop her up as best I can and we bring everything into the house, and I say hi to my mom as Carly continues to jump on me and hyperventilates with excitement and pure joy. This goes on for another 10 minutes as my mom fixes me breakfast and pours me coffee. My sister comes downstairs and we all eat.

Other things that happen between periods of napping and slipping fitfully in and out of consciousness on this day, the latter part of which I mostly spend in repose on the couch:

  • We passively watch a documentary about sea urchins in the Pacific Northwest
  • My mom and I have a frank, hilarious, sad chat about marriage. “So what, you want to marry another writer or something?” cue uproarious laughter. “I lost myself when I got married so young.”
  • My dad takes my sister to her flute lesson, then departs to play golf
  • We have 된장찌개 and 열무 김치 and 김 for lunch
  • My sister comes home and we watch an old Korean drama starring the beautiful Hyun Bin, resplendent in an early 2000s haircut
  • I read more of A Little Life
  • My dad gets home from playing golf and we talk about getting Shake Shack for dinner, since it’s one of the things I’ve missed eating since leaving the East Coast. He keeps calling it Shack Shack, to our amusement
  • Wait for this man to text me, whilst I resolutely refuse to text him first
  • Carly jumps up onto the couch with me and curls up next to me, something she almost never does. She’s doing it because she knows I’m back for the first time in half a year and so she’s making a special allowance for me
  • Dad watches 3 Days of the Condor while my sister teaches me Tik Tok dances, we talk about working out together tomorrow
  • Change Carly’s sweater from her pink one with the hearts to the jaunty Christmas number with bells and reindeer. She loves it, and prances around as we exclaim and give her lots of praise
  • Halfheartedly edit an essay, moving some paragraphs around, quit
  • K texts me, “Quick let’s have a deep conversation about love so I can write about it for my What Happened on the 21st Essay,” we lament the everydayness of our day, which is of course the point of this exercise. 
  • I get an alarming email, dissect it with friends. 

And then the long short day is over, it’s dark, I’m disoriented, and off to bed. I’ve written so much. The more I pay attention the more narratives present themselves to me. I could zoom in forever. I’m reminded of that article about people getting lost in Joshua Tree, how the park seems to be bound by geographical limits like every other park, but is so quickly changing, the landscape so varied, that there are literally countless places a lost person could be. When examined carefully, a small shadow in a rock reveals itself to be a huge cave which leads to a tunnel which leads to a different trail, etc. I could keep looking closer forever, clambering into countless caves, but I’ll stop here.

Hea-Ream Lee's writing has appeared in Popula, Hobart, the Hairpin, and others. She has received a fellowship from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference and is working towards an MFA at the University of Arizona, where she has edited fiction for Sonora Review.


Eye’m Alone Here

     Like most Saturdays since beginning my early twenties, I woke up slightly hungover. I rolled over, eyes closed, pajamas on and felt my  phone began to buzz for the alarm under my pillow. Without opening my eyes, I pressed the screen in the exact needed pattern. This is the shape of my phone. These are memorized hand movements. This is a normal Saturday morning.
     It was a normal Saturday morning until I was unable to open my eyes. At first I blamed exhaustion, knowing that my tired eyes refused to open even for the most urgent of moments. Sometimes this happens. But my right eye wouldn’t open. I pulled my eyelids apart and revealed fuzzy vision.
     I panicked, ran out of my bed and into the shower down the hall. I didn’t take off my clothes and instead ran the hot water over my face, soaking my shorts. I rubbed my eyes. Maybe I’d sealed the eye shut with last night’s mascara. Maybe this was the end and I’d become a cyclops. But also, maybe I was still drunk.
     Only a few minutes later in the shower did I realize that my eyelids were swollen and as some strange side effect, my vision blurry.  I wrapped myself in a towel, sat down on the toilet seat and did the only thing that seemed reasonable to people my age who have no one to turn to. I Googled it:
Shut eye. Swollen eye. Right eye pain. Will I lose my eye? Symptoms of eye cancer. Symptoms related to swollen eye. What is a stye? How do I know I have a stye? Very bad pain in eye. Can’t open eye. How do you lose an eye?
The internet told me I needed to see a doctor - it couldn’t cure me, however it did offer me the ability to book an appointment at the urgent care a few blocks away. Lucky me the only appointment was hours from now. I stood up from the toilet and vommited.
     In the urgent care, I felt very alone. I still wasn’t used to going to the doctor’s by myself and wished I’d had someone there with me. Even on the walk over, I’d felt as if a ghost walked with me and I yearned to have it there. The waiting room chair was broken, and next to me I placed my backpack to feel the weight of something.
     When I was really little, my mom was a nurse so she had great health insurance. My sister and I often joke that the best thing someone can do for their kids is get a job where you can get the best health service options. My body was always full of problems with it’s various allergies and easy inclinations for  getting sick. I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms with my mom next to me. Even if we sat in silence, a book in my hand, at least I wasn’t alone. In college when I lived away from home, my ex-boyfriends often accompanied me and then after them my best friend until she moved away.
     For how urgent and on time I was for my appointment, it took an hour of fiddling with my phone and watching Planet Earth playing on the corner television waiting to have some woman call my name out from a swing door that led to a hallway with another set of desks and a scale.
     We played out the usual game of taking my vitals, blood pressure is still a little too high just like all my doctor’s appointments, and then waiting on the exam table on a crinkly sheet of paper that made me just a little concious of my body’s movements.
     Another half hour, my eye now scrunched I resisted from pressing on it to feel better. The door opened with a creaking sound. In stepped a man who spoke so fast I almost missed it.
     The short doctor confirmed that I would be okay, and then proceeded to test my eye. He flashed a light in the eye, turned off the lights in the room and turned them back on, placed glowing dye in my eye and laid me under a UV light, conducted an eye exam and did everything but take my eye out and put it under a microscrope.
     The doctor prescribed me four different eye drops that I couldn’t pronounce. I had blepharitis - most likely a reaction to my sometimes three day mascara and eyeliner look. Just because makeup can last more than twenty-four hours doesn’t mean it should stay on for more than a day.
     Before the doctor let me go, he assured that I would get better and then began to pray. He gestured towards the big man in the sky, told me he’d pray for me, and left the room. Thrown off at the mix of medicine and religion, I slowly moved off of the table, the exam paper crinkling under me. As I walked back to the waiting room where no one was waiting for me, a few flyers taped to the door and asked that patients leave reviews online.

Margarita Cruz is currently pursuing her MFA at Northern Arizona University. Her works have appeared in Chapter House Journal, Miracle Monocle, and the Susquehanna Review. 


What Happened on December 21

I push the alarm I set for 7:45 to 8, then wake up with a jolt at 8:20. No alarm. I pushed it to 9 by mistake. The thought of many people paying attention to their Saturday leisure makes going to work feel deeply unappealing. I check in for tomorrow’s flight to San Francisco, make a cup of peppermint tea, read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and eat the last of the ginger cake for breakfast. I will shower tonight. But reading feels fraught in the wake of JK Rowling’s latest transphobic missives, and I close the book earlier than I might normally. At least this means I am on time.
     It is cold and sunny—a beautiful day, really—but I am still tired and still unenthusiastic. Most things that could go wrong at the box office did last night, and after finishing work close to 10, I will be working close to ten hours today. But paying attention has its uses. For the first time in months, I look up at the ARGMORE plaque above the defunct watch repair shop at the corner of Argyle and Kenmore. I’ve always wondered whether it exists to name the intersection, the building or both. Winthrop is the next street, and I wonder what portmanteau could go above the jewelry store on the corner; Argthrop sounds like something an orc would say, and Winyle reminds of mopping floors. I started making my own list of brilliant things after watching Every Brilliant Thing last week; maybe I should add ARGMORE to it. Or portmanteaus. As I reach the station, I am reminded of number 23: sunshine on red brick.
     A man on the train is wearing a Christmas suit—blue, patterned with white reindeer, snowflakes and Christmas trees, with red lines marching across it. He is drinking from a bright pink cup patterned with snowflakes. This amount of Christmas spirit is a little unsettling. Or perhaps I am simply unprepared for the fact that Christmas is four days away.
     I will have to count the cash and go to the bank for change as soon as I open up the box office. I’m actually looking forward to the task. C once told me it’s important to her to stay in touch with the patrons, because it reminds her that, meetings and numbers and technology aside, we are in the business of helping people to see plays. Touching the things we exchange reminds me that each interaction can be as simple as giving and receiving.

The woman at the bank inquires about my holiday plans. I am glad to be able to wish her a good holiday. And to see the sun for the last time on the walk back to work. My office has no windows.
     I split the change between the three cash envelopes and then check my email. The man who asked for a refund ten minutes into the show last night, but still wanted to watch the rest of it, has not sent a nasty email to the customer service inbox about the fact that I refused. This lifts my spirits further. When J comes in, he volunteers to try and fix the computer at the kiosk (yet another thing that malfunctioned last night), and I am grateful. Cables and networks are not my forte, and I’m happier prepping for the matinees. R wants to stay downstairs at the bigger box office, so I end up working the upstairs show. The first patron to pick up tickets says her parents can’t make it and wants a refund. She bought her tickets through a third-party vendor and, as I try to explain that she will have to contact them for a refund because she paid them, not us, she becomes indignant and tells me she’s been a subscriber for thirty years. This makes no difference to the fact that she did not pay us for the tickets she wants refunded, but I volunteer to call the third-party vendor for her because I don’t have the energy to argue. J makes the call so I can keep handing out tickets, and, ten minutes later, I go into the lobby to tell her she’ll get her refund. She reaches for my hand in gratitude.
     H leaves to catch an Amtrak home after the matinees have started. At four o’clock, I finally make myself the cup of tea I was going to five hours ago. I have done all the things on my list except the ones which require some focused time and space. Hard to come by that on a five-show day. But I can slowly start to wind down now, as J is managing the evening shows and refuses my offers of assistance in prep work. I work the upstairs show again, sell several tickets to excited young people and enjoy chatting with P and L. It feels like the old days, before I became responsible for things that go wrong.
     When I leave at 7:45, I can’t help but feel a school’s-out jolt of adrenalin. Vacation has begun. I start it by eating shawarma and watching the Try Guys make ice cream without a recipe. A gold star winks at me from the left of my laptop, a gift from the box office holiday party. It reminds me that, though I need this vacation, I will enjoy going back to work on the 26th.

Rukmini Girish is a writer and performer from Chennai, India. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and was named a Luminarts Creative Writing Fellow for 2018.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will

Sunday, December 29, 2019

What Happened on 12/21/19: Katerina Ivanov, Gina Arnold, Linda Sage, Nora Almeida, Anonymous

On 12/21/19, we invited writers and readers to write about "What Happened" that day, however they interpreted it, as an exercise in mass attention, and promised to publish as many of the resulting essays as possible. So here we go! For more details and a full list of the contributors, click the What Happened page.


I’m home—my parent’s house is Florida— and I’m reminded of this because I wake up to my mother cooing over my face. You’re so beautiful, she says. I am drooling and in an XXL t-shirt that reads “CACTI LOVER” (her purchase, a gift) and no pants. Would you like to go on a walk? 

It’s around nine. Before the heat and humidity settle, thick exhale of Florida winter.

No, I mumble. I was up until five.

Why so late?

Couldn’t sleep. Lemme have an hour more.

Maybe I could have slept, had I tried. But I spent the early morning, while night herons and fruit bats called at each other from distant swamp water, watching Jeopardy episodes from 2015. I’ve been watching a lot of Jeopardy, mostly because I haven’t been writing and I need to feel like I’m good at something. So, I’ve been swearing at Alex Trebek and muttering things like “what is pleasant pheasant” at categories like BLANK THE BIRD.

Sleep for another three hours, wake-up around noon to my phone seizing against my cheek. Stumble out to the kitchen and toast a bagel.  Scroll through TikTok, an app where teenagers post 10 seconds flashes of viral dances and wormholes of jokes. Coat it in butter, then cream cheese. Pour myself some frosted Cheerios on the side. I imagine what the other writer-participants who are completing this exercise must be breaking their fast with. Boiled eggs and sliced tomatoes. Grapefruit. Bran flakes.

I feel very young here, sleeping in my childhood bedroom with mattress, half-stiffened from age and disuse. I am young— twenty-four. My mother likes to say my spirit is older, because I feel too much. Because I am a heart with legs. Today, I feel like a child.

My sister, the scientist, is also home. She’s gotten Invisilign— those see-through braces—a few days ago, and keeps playing with the plastic coating around her molars, and complaining that she can’t eat as much.

Maybe you should get Invisalign, my mother tells me, looking pointedly at my bagel. There’s grease from the melted butter on my face.

Maybe I should just wire my jaw shut, I say.

My mother is more tired than usual: circles like she’s smeared night sky under her eyes with her thumbs. My mother works harder than anyone I know. My mother shells corn over the sink. My mother plays NPR as she works. I have, she keeps saying, so much to do. 

I offer to run some errands for her. We need sweet Vidalia onions, cooking oil, and I’m out of mascara so my eyelashes look faint, like whispers. I’ve inherited this from my mother. Sparse and light eyebrows, lashes, body hair. She likes to say, it’s the colonizers who are the hairy ones. 

I drive her car to the Walmart and connect my phone to the Bluetooth, where I play the audio of an old Jeopardy episode I’ve probably seen twice. This is probably illegal. This is the Walmart I used to go to in high school, where I sat in the parking lot and pounded nips of vanilla rum and 7-11 Slurpees. Somewhere on the outskirts of this lot, I buried the plastic evidence with my hands, shifting the wet earth, cicadas sleeping until spring

I am amongst my people, in the Walmart. I show up in CACTI LOVER and my sister's very short running shorts and a pair of fluffy purple slippers that show my toes. No one gives me a second look. I fill the list, watching Billie Eilish music videos on my phone as I shop. Her voice is like trying to catch your fingernails on smoke.

I pick up some flowers for 9.99. Pink carnations and a few scraggly roses and something purple I can’t place and some baby’s breath that, well, looks like it’s on its last inhale. Mama will like those. Or she’ll like that I thought to get them. Or she’ll say “don’t waste money on flowers!” but secretly be pleased, and set them in the center of the dining room.

Shortest day of the year, I word vomit to the cashier.
SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR, I say too loudly.
Oh. Ha ha. Longest lines of the year! 

I pray that my credit card stays undeclined. I pray for the Salvation Army guy ringing the bell like a hymn’s chorus. I pray for the woman giving hell to the teenager at customer service— the powers of women with chunky blond highlights and designer flip-flops are at their most potent during The Holiday Season. I pray for Alex Trebek, who has pancreatic cancer, but is fighting it, hard.

My card goes through. The cashier says, Merry Christmas. I wonder if they make them say that.

I send my friend, a law student, a short video mocking ambulance chasers that has me in hysterics. He says, you’re addicted to TikTok.

Double Jeopardy on the way home. It starts sprinkling, something I could taste on the walk to the car. Rain is different in Florida, more urgent. Makes itself known in your lungs and your tongue. I drive worse on wet roads, so I shut off Alex’s voice before the contestants make their wagers.

It’s quiet. My friend HR has been telling me I need this book called How to Do Nothing. I said I can’t fall asleep without blasting television into my eyeballs until I black out. That I have headphones on hand at all times. That I’m rarely not consuming something. She responded, that sounds like a bad time. 

I can’t stop eating or sleeping or watching television. I wish I could wire my jaw shut. Glue my eyelids together. Or tape them open. I want control. I want to write something good. I want to take care of myself. I want everyone to understand my consumption: the hunger, the desire for noise, why I get heart-stricken by silence. I want to evaporate like rain on hot pavement.

I track mud into the house. My mother looks damp as well. Because I had the car, she walked to her afternoon church service. Her eyes look a little lighter. The fall on your knees part of O Holy Night is playing on the living room speakers.

Look, I tell her. Flowers! For you!

Pink! She says. My favorite color!

If they were yellow, she would have said the same thing. She pulls me close and smells as she always smells: fabric softener and tea-tree shampoo and something warm and mulled that I’ve never been able to place.

Katerina Ivanov is a Mexican-American writer who is just trying to keep her houseplants alive. Her multi-genre work has been published or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The Nashville Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Pinch, Joyland, and others. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at University of Arizona.


Solstice story

On the morning of the winter solstice this year, I walked to the Italian café on the main street of my little town to get a cup of coffee. Now I’m pretty sure most people in this town wouldn’t consider leaving the house for something so trivial. Instead, they tell Alexa to make their coffee, using imported beans and a thousand-dollar espresso maker which is sitting atop a vast kitchen island with a specially-ordered countertop made of marble from Tunisia. Then they tell her to turn on the lights and toaster and some unobtrusive music: rather than read the news, they flick through something on their phone.
     That’s what’s going on in the houses that I walk by this morning. But there are still a few people like me who show up right when the café opens. Rain or shine we come, clutching our hand delivered newspapers, eschewing the $12 pastries, trying to hold on to a sense that the world still happens face to face. There’s a core of us regulars who do this, and we are all what I’d call old Palo Alto, that is people who inherited our homes here, rather than buying into what is now officially the most expensive zip code in the entire country. I have no choice but to live in Palo Alto right now, but it is not really where I would choose to be. The problem is that there are only two types of people here, and the division isn’t about race, or class, or religious or political affiliations, what separates us is sheer, rampant, wealth. There’s a social fissure here as big as the Gaza Strip, only it’s weirdly invisible unless you know where to look…like into the café, where if you looked really closely, you would observe the inheritors of an old-fashioned world view that doesn’t sit quite right in the heart of Silicon Valley.
     Take Gino, a middle school P.E. teacher who sits across from me every day amongst a cabal of other men about his own age and one dog named Buster. Gino was a few years below me in high school. The first time we talked, he asked me who the quarterback was the year I graduated there, and I was super surprised to realize that I knew the answer. Gino and his pals all live in the modest houses they grew up in which are now worth millions, and which now have so much equity in them that they all now own second homes in Tahoe. Their own kids are all grown up and have kids of their own, so on the morning of the Solstice, Gino brought his five-year-old granddaughter Tessa in to the café in her party dress so we could admire it. Tessa was going to see “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco, a Christmas ritual that, from my day to this one, is often the only time that people from Palo Alto venture up to “The City”, as we call it.
     The City is only 27 miles from here, but it might as well be Manhattan.
     When I was young, that was the thing that bothered me most about the inhabitants of my little town: they never went to San Francisco and when they did, they came back complaining bitterly about how hard it was to park there. In my youth, my great goal in life was to live in San Francisco, and I achieved that, residing there for many years before time and tide and the startup economy forced me back to my ancestral home, a one story, three-bedroom two-bath craftsman cottage built for servants that is currently sinking into the ground. My house is very down market, but some of my nearest neighbors are Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sergey Brin of Google, the Steven Jobs family and Marisa Mayer, the former head of Yahoo. On Halloween, Ms. Mayer presents a real haunted house on her property and gives out full size candy bars and there’s always a line around the block. So do the Jobs, only they add in an ipad for every thousandth person in line.
     Life amongst the billionaires is a little bit uncomfortable and depressing, akin to if you were an ordinary woman at a party full of supermodels, or a person who struggles with math in a calculus class, or maybe a dwarf on an NBA basketball court. In all those cases, there isn’t really anything wrong with you, it’s just that you’re surrounded by people who have become celebrated for a set of magical traits that society has decided to venerate. I often sit right here in this café and listen in on conversations between the start-up dudes and venture capitalists, who use this venue for meetings and interviews. I used to write down the weird things I heard here, but the only exchange I remember was when a tech guy was talking to a young woman about the series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and he said to her, condescendingly, “Haven’t you ever heard of Margaret Atwood?”
     “Are you kidding?” she responded. “I’m a Canadian!”
     Him, arrogantly: “So? What’s that supposed to mean?”
     This morning the tech bros are nowhere in evidence, though: Saturdays aren’t so good for them here because the cafe turns off the wifi on weekends. So after I had finished my coffee and had praised Tessa on her velvet dress, I got ready to go to diving practice. No, not scuba diving: springboard and platform, a pursuit I began forty years ago, at age eleven, and which I still do on a team made for “masters,” i.e. old people.
     I wouldn’t say that I have gotten that much better at it from when I dove for UC Berkeley, but I have definitely gotten…something. And I’ve met an enormous number of interesting people through it, too, in part because one way that intensely rich overachievers like to express that about themselves is by doing some weird and hard physical hobby, like marathons, or power yoga, or sailboarding, and apparently high diving fits into that paradigm, because no less than three of the people on my team are actual billionaires. They take private planes to our diving meets, buy season tickets to the Warriors, build pools in their back yard. But my diving team is like my town, in that there are also people who do none of those things and are really very ordinary. There’s a guy on it who’s a postman for instance. And a woman who works in the porn industry. My synchro partner, Peter, is a San Francisco cop.
     This year winter solstice was the last practice of the season before we take a two week break for the holidays. It was a cool day – about 50 degrees – and as I walked into the pool area, I was flooded with memories of other December practices like this one. That’s the thing about moving back to where you grew up: the smallest thing can set you off down memory lane, and the smells and sights and sounds of a Christmas practice is unavoidably nostalgic. December was the time when the team would pile on the yardage, 7,000 yards at least, both morning and evening. Every day of vacation, we’d arise at 6 AM, pull pajamas up over our bathing suit and arrive at the pool in the pitch dark. Steam would be rising so heavily from the water that you wouldn’t be able to see the sweep clock’s face, and you’d be able to skid across the frosty pool deck in your bare feet and plunge on in.  I used to recite poems by TS Eliot to myself as I swam, and I had T shirts that said, “Miles to go before I sleep” and, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ but I had no idea of the origin of those phrases, I just thought they described my life.
     I swam for eight years before changing to diving in college, which is a way more interesting and painful and hard sport, and which has its own version of bone chilling cold, though the state-of-the-art pool I practice at now has a giant hot tub we can sit in in between dives. It would have to be a lot colder than it was on Solstice for me to have got in it, though; I come from an era when we learned to dive outdoors in winter with no hot water and no sparger – that’s the underwater machine that turns the water to bubbles so kids won’t land so hard when they’re learning big dives from the tower. Today’s divers learn everything in conditions I’d call soft, and though it makes them into much better divers, I still value my own experience, shivering on the board with my teammates, gathering up my courage in a bundle as if it were a tangible form of warmth, lying awake stressing on how I’d learn a 2 1/2. There were no soft landings for us if we did dives wrong back then, and I feel like that’s a metaphor of some kind. Today’s young divers work really hard to perfect our antique and beautiful skill set, and like me, they do it for love. But being a ten-meter diver is also a sure way into the college of your choice. Bingo!
     Diving practice ended at 3:30 PM and by then the light was already waning, not so much because of the Solstice but because a winter storm was coming in. The kids had piled presents of chocolates and booze on the coach’s table, and my teammates and I desultorily pulled on our sweat pants and UGG boots and fleece lined parkas and said good bye to each other for now. “See you next year!” we joked, as we’ve joked at Last Practice for the past half century. I trudged into the parking lot, through Alumni Grove, where the Stanford Band practices and large groups of people get drunk on football Saturdays, and I started up my car. In the distance, I could hear the faint strains of one last carol: the sky was turning lighter in that way that it does just before it shuts itself off for the night. Christmas lights were winking out from the shopping mall across the street, and an enormous number of Teslas were pouring into it, so their owners could find ways to spend more of their hard-earned lucre. Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky…The words came unbidden to my mind, and for a moment time stood still.  It felt like not just the day, but the year itself had been a spinning top that had gradually slowed down and started to wobble, and it was now just about to fall over.
     Then the sun set, as if on cue, and the nights began to grow shorter. Years are funny things, you can never catch them in the act of changing. It always seems like everything stays the same, in my life, in the pool, and in the world all around us, and yet at the same time, every day is different. Tomorrow I’ll walk to the café, and anything could happen. The truth is, I can’t wait.

Gina Arnold is a former rock critic, an author, a teacher, a diver, and a mom. You can follow her on twitter and Instagram @ginanarchy, or check out her blog www.foolsrushinredux.com


Walking the Salt Line

Once the central heating kicks in I shower and dress. Sip steaming coffee in the kitchen as I watch blackbirds feed greedily on the lawn. Due to a rise in temperature and recent rainfall over the last couple of days earthworms have to come to the surface. Easy pickings. Bluetits perform acrobatics as they work the wire-caged birdfeeder for peanuts and sunflower hearts. Mature trees of oak, ash and horse chestnut in our garden attract a wide range of birds. Species that would normally search for food in natural woodland have ventured into our garden pushed out by new housing developments. Nuthatches are one such species. A striking looking bird with a black eyeliner stripe that extends as far as the shoulder, slate grey upper parts and peach coloured breast. And that all important dagger like bill. Pure delight to watch.
     I hear the click clack of toenails on the hallway’s wooden floor before the kitchen door bursts open. Enter my son’s one-year old Boston terrier, ‘Tommy’; the life and soul of any party.
After breakfasting on scrambled eggs, wholemeal toast, and more coffee, I walk Tommy along the Salt Line. A disused railway track turned country path; once the Sandbach to Wheelock branch of the North Staffordshire railway line; now frequented by dog walkers, joggers, families on bikes, horse riders, and others who just use it is a short cut from Wheelock to Elworth on the outskirts of Sandbach town.
     The line opened in 1852 to carry coal and limestone to the salt works. Cheshire is renowned for its salt. Laid down in the region 220 million years ago during the Triassic period.
     Tommy and I walk all the way to an old railway platform at Wheelock, where a map of the area replaces train timetables on the notice board. On route we bump into Popeye, a chestnut spaniel of some sort. His owner tells me what a wonderful companion Popeye had become over the years after he took him off his breeder. They had no use of a dog with only one eye.
     We pass a pony, dressed in full winter coat with a straggly mane and tail, feeding on scrubland, fenced in by wire. Tommy and I descend the bank to check him out and Tommy nearly pulls me over in the bracken. The pony’s hooves look in good condition from my side of the fence, so I don't think he’s neglected. I pat his neck and he nuzzles my hand. I feel sorry for him. He looks lonely. I make a mental note to bring him carrots the next time Tommy and I walk this way. Turning to climb back up the bank, a volery of Long tailed tits gathers in the oak tree above. These gregarious birds are like a fluffball on a stick and remind me of Peter Pan and the lost boys as they flit in and out of the branches, calling to one another “tsee, tsee, tsee,” and “tsirrup”. My friend likens them to flying teaspoons.
     The sun is out now. Tommy and I rest for a while on a bench, enjoying the moment, until I get to thinking about all the jobs I have waiting for me at home. This is such a busy time of year, with Christmas just around the corner and my son’s birthday on Christmas Eve. My dad was born on Christmas Day, too, so I’ve never known a household without a birthday and Christmas rolled into one.
     My son hates it. He blames me. I hate it. I blame him. As a family we try to separate the two anniversaries. Not easy. If we celebrate at a restaurant there’s always Christmas parties going on. February 17th should have been his true birthday. “We could celebrate your birthday then if you like?” I say to him, but he doesn't rise to the bait. He is lucky to have been born at all, so it is what it is.
     His younger sisters weren’t so lucky. Identical twins. Changed their minds at 19 weeks’ gestation. Twenty-five years ago, today, 21st December. Twin on twin transfusion syndrome. There. It’s out now. I’ve said it so it must have happened. I no longer torture myself by unwrapping the tissue paper that shrouds their tiny woolen hats, nor look at the only photographs of them; pieces of meat laid out on a butcher’s slab. Skinned rabbits come to mind. Was it too much to expect a photograph of them lying side by side snuggled beneath a blanket in a Moses basket? Together in death, as they were in life. The nurse brought them to me in a woven bread basket so I could say goodbye; her young face drawn in shock horror at what she had witnessed. The doctor saying how sorry he was over and over again, as if the outcome of my pregnancy was all his fault. That day certainly didn't feel like the shortest.
     Tommy and I continue our walk. He loves being outside and is great company. When my son declared he was buying a puppy I thought he had lost the plot. We are cat people and have been so for fifty years. I now understand the love of a dog.
     Tommy snuffles out a hairball from the path’s verge. It’s a mix of black, grey and white, with the texture of fine wire. Probably badger hair. They are resident along this stretch of the Salt Line. It rolls along the path like mini tumbleweed. The last time we walked this stretch, carved pumpkins left over from Halloween were all over the place, bobbing along in the water filled ditches that flank both sides of the trail and grinning in the long grass.
     I can see a man in the distance. He’s dressed all in black wearing a large brimmed hat. He appears strange and I wonder what he is up to. When we get closer I realise what he is doing – laying out bread crumbs on the back of a wooden bench for the birds. Task complete he shuffles on his way. It doesn’t take long before a robin takes up his offerings.
     The Salt Line is interrupted by a main road. From here the trail connects up to other pathways. One of which leads to Hassall Green nature reserve; a safe haven for wildlife with rich woodland and wildflower meadows. Five years ago, the space was a dump for demolition waste. During the summer I spent several mornings at the site identifying wildflowers in the meadow: spotted wild orchid, self-heal, mallow, yellow rattle, knapweed - all rich in nectar for feeding insects, and different species of butterfly and moth: peacock, meadow brown, painted lady, cinnabar moth and scarlet tiger moth. The reserve is closed for the winter, but once the evenings become lighter I can’t wait to see how the wildlife has fared.
     The road is too busy for us to cross today so we head for home; a cosy bed by the fire for Tommy and a nice cup of tea for me.

Linda Sage Lives in Cheshire, England, and is a keen gardener and nature lover. She writes features for countryside magazines, is interested in fiction, non-fiction and a mash-up of the two and loves projects like this.


7:54am. Up early. Coffee and some of the bitter herbal potion my acupuncturist gave me. They’re roots, I think, ground into powder. Traces of old snow on the balcony. Rotting dead succulent. Tree branches shivering out the window. I turn on a table lamp and plug in the lights on Judy Garland, our Christmas tree. My arm skims her side and a shower of needles upsets the cat. Today we will undress Judy Garland and put her out on the balcony because she is, like her namesake, long dead. The problem with New York Christmas trees is that they’re like the rest of us: from elsewhere. They’re shipped down from Vermont and the Hudson Valley and Ontario and by the time you get one home, it is brittle and has retained only a tiny hint of pine smell and dies rapidly and noisily. This is the first time our tree hasn’t actually made it until Christmas. I’ve been vacuuming nightly and after work, when I sit on the couch with the radio off, the sound of Judy’s needles falling is like regular rain. I know it’s only a tree but it feels like something else. An ending. J and I agreed today is the day but he said we can’t leave a tree out on the curb before Christmas or the neighbors will think we’re crazy.

Screw the neighbors, I said, picturing us untangling the tree lights, we don’t want to get a sanitation department ticket.

11:27am Near the end of yoga class, my teacher, E, tells us we have to embrace the darkness in order to grow, like a seed in soil becomes a tree. I cringe a little at the word tree. E tells us to make an intention for the new decade. Ten years seems like a long time to plan for anything but I put a word in my mind. Then, at the count of three, E has us yell our intention into the void. I just yell, “CALM,” which seems like the opposite of calm. The woman beside me yells, “Positivity?” with a question mark at the end.

12:16am Even though I almost never go into Manhattan on the weekend, today I take the 4 train to Union Square to attend the East River Park Tree Rebellion. We are gathering to protest a municipal “East River Coastal Resiliency Project,” which is, like most things in New York, a secret real estate development plan pretending to be something else. The project will result in the privatization of public park land and the loss of almost 1000 trees and will threaten some of the precarious wildlife that clings to the margins of New York City. There is another flood mitigation plan that doesn’t destroy the park but the city has abandoned it in favor of this plan for political and monetary reasons.

The train pulls into 14th street and I suddenly realize I’m starving and think about buying a banana but as soon as I get to the top of the stairs, I see them. They’re in a circle with Extinction Rebellion flags and Extinction Rebellion signs and Extinction Rebellion patches on their bags and jackets. I see B and C and G and M, and a few other people whose names I don’t know that I’ve seen at other protests or in photographs of other protests on the internet. They’ve set up a temporary booth made of PVC pipe and plywood, piled high with boxes of green fliers and clipboards. In the center of the circle a guy is holding tree-pose and everyone else is trying to do tree-pose too but we’re all wearing boots and heavy coats and losing our balance. G tapes some flyers, I mean “leaflets,” to the tree-pose man’s “branches.”

The rebels are joined by group long-time housing and environmental activists from the Lower East Side (LES) who tell us about all of the East River Coastal Resiliency Project protests leading up to this one. They have homemade signs and their own hashtag and are wearing neon. We split up into 3 groups, armed with leaflets and talking points, given a flag, and assigned a LES activist and a designated “de-escalator.” Some of us head north to the part of Union Square with the farmer’s market and others head west, into the narrow, claustrophobic, cinnamon-scented corridors of the holiday market. Save the trees! I say as people jostle past us. Protect our public parks! I meet a girl named N who tells me about a recent successful rezoning struggle that she was involved in. Up in Inwood? I ask her, because I read about it and she is delighted. We high five and she holds onto my hand for a minute. A few yards away, rebels from my group are doing tree-pose and taping leaflets to each other’s branches. My jeans are dusty with the imprint of my boot soles. N asks if I know Felicia. I don’t. Felicia is part of this, she says, waving the East River Park Tree Rebellion leaflet around. And costumes, she’s great at costumes. N pulls out her phone and shows me a photograph. It’s her but dressed up like a tree with face paint and an elaborate hat with branches. We should collaborate, N says, and gives me a laminated collage with her name and email address on it. B comes up and says that someone from the market is calling the cops on us.

Our group clusters together near the man from the market with walkie-talkie who has already called the cops because he says we’re impeding the flow of traffic. He scowls and folds his arms while we do tree-pose. When the cops show up and start to talk to us, more people get curious and want the leaflets. I say, save the trees! and add, protect our right to freely assemble.

Isn’t this a public space? We ask the cops. And it usually is except when the city rents it out. We’re just doing yoga, B says and the cops roll their eyes. My toes are numb and I don’t want to get arrested or harassed. I give G the rest of my flyers and disappear into the throngs of shoppers and commuters and realize that I’m shaking because I still haven’t eaten anything and I’m freezing.

3:12pm I meet J at a cocktail bar in our neighborhood. A bartender we know is working and we get whiskey cocktails and sandwiches. He’s a surfer and we ask him about the humpback whale that a bunch of surfers saw on Rockaway beach a few days ago. He pulls out his phone and shows us a video of a perfect wave breaking. We talk about Costa Rica and California and Puerto Rico. The radio is playing some gems from the 80s and 90s. Roxette comes on and we remember she just died. It must have been love, but it’s over now. We talk about how we all want to leave New York soon, probably next year. We have this conversation every time we see this bartender and increasingly when we see most of our friends, many of whom have plans to actually leave or have already decamped to suburbs.

What’s keeping us here? I say aloud. Inertia? J guesses, but really it’s more complex than that.

It’s still the best town in America, I say and then add, sometimes.

At least it’s cheap, says the bartender and we all laugh.

J and I stay at the bar until we are warm and the bartender gets too busy to talk and it starts to get dark out and the whole place fills up with the sound of other people’s voices. Outside it’s quieter than usual. On the walk home, I stop to buy a pineapple for us and a toy mouse for the cat.

What do you want to do tonight? I ask and J takes my hand: let’s go take Judy Garland down.

Nora Almeida is a writer and librarian. Her essays have appeared in Entropy, The Offing, Essay Daily, Ghost Proposal, The Normal School, and other places. She lives in Gowanus, Brooklyn.


What Happened on December 21, 2019

5:43 a.m.

The sound of my husband sleeping beside me blends with the sound of the Caribbean Sea. We’re on the island of Anguilla, visiting my in-laws for Christmas. There are fourteen of us spread out among three villas owned by my husband’s parents, who have lived here for forty-four years. I’ve been here once a year since I met my husband eight years ago, but I’ve never been here for Christmas.
     It’s still dark outside, but from our bed I can just make out the white outline of the villa in front of ours, and the shadows of palms swaying in what they call the Christmas winds. A bird right outside our window is waking up too, but it’s not the cock-a-doodle-doo I’m used to. My father-in-law has finally hired someone to trap the roosters and take them away. So now, for the first time, I wake up to the sound of crickets. And the song of this strange bird beckoning me with a trill that goes up, then down, then halfway up, and finishes with a warble-like flourish.
     The sky turns pink. Tall, puffy clouds float across the sea. Our view is a canvas. I lie there thinking about my seventy-nine-year-old mother alone in her cramped apartment in California, and about my brother who died on Christmas Eve more than forty years ago. I try not to feel guilty that I’m waking up in a paradise they will never see.

6:45 a.m.

I roll out of bed and make a bowl of muesli and a cup of coffee. We talk about my in-laws’ expectations about the villa we’re staying in, which now that his parents have moved to another villa in the compound, belongs to my husband and his siblings. Sort of. There are six villas in this compound, once a boutique resort, and the parents own three.  They live here half the year, but the kids live in the States and only visit for a week or two at a time each year. I stare out the window, spooning muesli into my mouth, wondering how this family timeshare arrangement is going to work. How will we communicate with each other our expectations, disappointments, and simmering resentments when lunch meat molds in the refrigerator for six months, or a chair has been broken but not repaired, or the water heater rusts out, leaks everywhere, and no one knows until one of us shows up for a long weekend? “This place is your responsibility now,” my father-in-law told us. “If something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it.” Fair enough. But none of us seems to be comfortable with direct communication. The unspoken rule is to avoid awkwardness at all costs. Even if it causes yet more awkwardness. So how will it work? What lessons in emotional IQ await us?

7:30 a.m.

I take two magnesium threonates, one folic acid, one Rhodiola rosea, and a microdose of psilocybin. I swallow the pills with a whole glass of water. In the flamboyant tree by the window a different bird goes tit, tit, tit.

7:40 a.m.

I check my email. Merriman Webster’s word of the day is “kowtow”:

     1: to show obsequious deference: fawn
     2: to kneel and touch the forehead to the ground in token of homage, worship, or deep respect

     When I first met my in-laws, I kowtowed to them. I was a puppy eager for the love and approval I didn’t get from my own parents growing up, but now I am learning how to see my own value, to speak up despite my fear of rejection or recrimination. When my husband and I came for a visit a few years ago, my father-in-law told me that he and his wife were still married after fifty-five years because they weren’t afraid of each other. I’m not sure whether this was meant as advice for me, or if it was entirely true. We’re all just a little afraid of my mother-in-law.
     The next email in my inbox is from Poets.org. The poem of the day is the prologue of “How I Became a Madman,” by Kahlil Gibran. He writes:
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, — the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, — I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”
I’m sure I’ve worn seven masks in this lifetime, and not one of them has looked right on me. Now that I’ve turned fifty, I’m ready to meet the woman behind them—which I suspect is no woman at all. Just the Universe. Just consciousness waiting for me to wake up. Is consciousness a thief?
     I Google the poem and read it in its entirety, feeling the urge to kowtow (definition 2) to Kahlil and his timeless wisdom. When I come to the section titled “The Seven Selves” I think: Is this where the psychology theory of Internal Family Systems comes from? Are the Seven Selves the voices in our head that we have to figure out how to make friends with so we can live with ourselves peaceably?

8:20 a.m.

Another bird in the tree. It’s the same one I heard when I woke up. Finally I see him: brown and white with a yellow bill. His chirrup is so distinctive: high, low, not-as-high, and then that crazy warble. What kind of bird is this? Something else to Google. But why do I need to label these things? This bird doesn’t know his “name.” Why should he? That’s not who or what he really is.

8:25 a.m.

I start to ponder who any of us really is, but then I stop myself. I’m procrastinating. I should be typing in the handwritten first draft of my memoir. That’s my goal for this two-week vacation, in between daily walks on one of the nearby beaches, lunches at Blanchard’s Beach Shack, and dinners that we take turns cooking here at the family compound. I feel guilty writing these words. How is this my life? How did I fall into this fantasy after decades of hand-to-mouth living and countless bad choices when it came to men? One of the seven voices in my head, a cheeky cheerleader, answers, “When you fixed your broken picker, you really fixed it!”

9:07 a.m.

The lawn maintenance crew is back. They ruined my writing time yesterday. Not even sound-canceling headphones could block the nonstop combustion of leaf blowers and weed eaters. This morning they’re across the road, where the real Anguillans live. This irritates me even more than having them right outside my window, and I realize that I sometimes romanticize Anguillans, wanting them to be more enlightened than the rest of us when it comes to neurotic lawncare. But why should our neighbors be different than any other Homo sapien on this planet hell-bent on dominating their immediate environment, choking off nature’s peace and harmony in a cloud of grass clippings and fumes?
     Another one of the seven voices in my head, the Whip Cracker, snaps his whip and says: “OK, Little Miss Know-It-All, your self-righteousness is just another mask. Get off your soap box and get to work.”

9:15 a.m.

I key in two pages of my memoir from my notebook, complete my writing workshop assignment of defining the argument of my inchoate memoir—Sometimes you have to lose your identity to find your yourself (which I now think is true for the book itself)—and email it to my writing coach. Done. It’s a Festivus miracle. Time to celebrate!

1:00 p.m.

Lunch with my husband at Roy’s Bayside Grill at Sandy Ground. It’s eighty-eight degrees with a light breeze, partly cloudy. When we left New York City yesterday morning the “RealFeel” was nine degrees below zero. Why don’t all humans migrate for the winter?
     We take our seats in the open-air restaurant on the beach. The Anguillans are first-rate boatbuilders, and their colorful boats bob before us in impossibly clear turquoise waters. Even though Sandy Ground is the calmest bay of the island, two wrecked ships sit like beached whales on the shore in the distance. They’ve been there for decades, slowly melting into the sea. This is a working port, so there’s a concrete pier leading out to two freighters. One is big and red and belongs to the Tropical Shipping company. The other one, Mr. Ray, is small with a teal hull and yellow roof. It takes on just one twenty-foot shipping container before pulling up anchor and setting sail. Where’s it going with one little container?
     Our waitress delivers our lobster salads and mojitos as a small yacht crests the horizon. Who’s on it? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? How is it that there are so many yachts coming to this little island? What are their owners searching for? Are they happy? Do they know who they really are? Have they ever run maskless through the crowded streets yelling “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves”?
     Bob Marley’s voice fills the air. A neon-green iguana, just a few feet from my feet, races to the water and sits under the waves. Does he think he’s hiding in that clear water? After a while, he comes out and eyes us all. He’s two and a half feet, if you include the tail.
     Nearby, a bikinied woman emerges from the waves like a Sports Illustrated model. On shore, she stands with her legs apart, head back, and smooths her long wet hair. Someone from Roy’s delivers a burger and fries to her there on the beach. With every bite, her English Mastiff pants and watches the burger move from mouth to plate. The men at Roy’s suck on their Coronas and watch her the way the dog watches the burger.

2:30 p.m.

We return to the villa to read our books and take a nap. Tonight it’s our turn to host the family dinner at the in-laws’ villa, which sits at the back of the compound, high on a cliff overlooking the sea. My husband decided months ago that we would take the easy way out and hire Geraud, a caterer on the island, to prepare puffed pastry, fish, duck, roasted root veggies, wild rice, and berry pie for fourteen people. I feel guilty we won’t be working as hard as the other siblings have to feed so many mouths.

7:00 p.m.

Next to a narrow rectangular pool, the family spreads out between two long folding tables set with linen tablecloths and small candles. I sit next to my father-in-law, and over the course of the evening we leave the comfort of small talk to discuss real life, which leads to the inevitable question.
     “How’s your writing going?”
     “I’m about halfway through my manuscript,” I tell him. “But I’ve hit the doldrums. The whole thing is way more complicated than I thought it would be.”
     “What’s it about,” he asks.
     I laugh nervously, not wanting to tell him what it’s really about, yet feeling compelled to do it anyway. “Well, it’s about the time Chris and I lived in the yurt in Montana. But I think what it’s really about is how I learned how to love…. not just him, but me, I guess …” I leave the sentence unfinished. Why am I trying to explain this at the dinner table with all these people having loud, frothy conversations? My cheeks start to burn. I try to read his face. Does he think I’m a woo-woo wacko?
     “Hm.” He narrows his eyes. I can tell he’s searching for the appropriate response to my inappropriate oversharing. I wait. Finally, he says, “That’s a tough one, I would think.”
     I nod and focus on my fork cutting through my slice of mixed-berry pie. I push the bite across the plate, watching it like it’s the most important thing in the world, wishing I could swallow my whole self along with the pie and turn into pure energy, a pinprick of light in the night sky.
     “Are you going to tell the truth?” he asks.
     I look up, wondering what he means. Does he think I mean to lie?
     “I’m just asking,” he says, “because I think very few people are capable of telling themselves, let alone others, the truth about themselves.”
     My shoulders relax and I lift my gaze to meet his. “I don’t know, but I’m going to try.” I want to talk to him about Kahlil Gibran’s thieves and the seven selves, about my guilt and shame and confusion, about how in the world I could possibly tell the truth when I don’t know if I can trust my own impressions. I want him to be a wise father figure and explain the world to me in simple terms. I want him to reassure me that everything is going to be OK, that I’m OK, that I can do this thing that is harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Instead, I excuse myself so I can go inside and readjust the mask that’s sliding off my face.

Anonymous is…anonymous.

Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will