Wednesday, July 11, 2018

July 11: Brian Michael Barbeito • Alison Stine • Katherine E. Standefer • Abby Dockter and Thomas Dai • Karen Schaffner • James Butler-Gruett • Rebecca Graves • Jennifer McGuiggan • Cassie Keller Cole • Margot Singer

Today we present ten more dispatches from June 21, 2018 to you. More details on the project here, but, in brief, we asked you to write about what happened on one day in June, and are publishing the results, largely unedited, for the next month and change, roughly ten a day. If you wrote something (it's not too late!), send us your work via this submission form by July 12 (it's okay if you didn't RSVP before: the more the merrier).

—The Editors

July 11: Brian Michael Barbeito • Alison Stine • Katherine E. Standefer • Abby Dockter and Thomas Dai • Karen Schaffner • James Butler-Gruett • Rebecca Graves • Jennifer McGuiggan • Cassie Keller Cole • Margot Singer


I drove my daughter to high school and took a winding way back and as I went through the streets there I saw old homes that had much character and I wondered what it would have been like to live a few decades previously when things were still modern but a bit slower. I noticed a lot of cars and thought that the physical and social infrastructure might not be able to handle the all the new housing developments, the sprawl as they call it. I cut the lawn in the back and realized if you make a brick border around a garden’s perimeter, as I had done the previous summer, that you have to account for a way to cut the grasses and weeds that will grow between the bricks. I surveyed the scene as it were and thought that the place still looked pretty well and reminded myself that everything is a process and this, that, and the other thing that need tending to, take time, and that there is a line between pacing oneself and actual procrastination that I had not crossed yet.
     I gathered the dogs, a husky cross and a shepherd cross, got in the jeep, and headed towards the roads that would take us to the forest. In the forest I crossed a small bridge, wandered along the ridge that lay atop a steep valley, searched for Chaga mushroom, and took a few pictures of feral flowers, other worldly-looking root systems, and one small garter snake that waited on a summit and did not like me there in near his domain and around his digs. I went to an open field at the end of the forest and the dogs joyfully played and sniffed by a sandpit and I just stood there and daydreamed and looked at the clouds. I thought about various things that were basically unrelated but seemed to pop in and out of my mind and these included but by no means were limited to, spaceships and Jim Sparks, Advaita and Alan Watts, the fact that though things were well enough that they would have been better had I remembered a thin winter hat I wear in the summer there that the flies and insects can’t get at me through, and whether I needed to get petrol in order to make it home or not.
     After leaving there I did in fact get petrol but I checked to see if the gas card I had been giving by someone worked or not. It did not and the attendant thought I must have used it and forgotten but it was not the case. The cards are often problematic for some other reason. But, there is nothing like someone judging or assuming they know something about you (and being wrong), to deepen your maturation process and your tolerance of humanity and their ways. So, instead of arguing I just pre-paid cash and let it be, choosing to stay in the light so to speak, or at least centred. I drove home not on the highway but along Woodbine Avenue because it burns less gas, is more scenic, and is relaxing in general. The whole road there is perfectly in fitting with a professional slacker like me because it’s simply slower and easier and somehow freer than the highways or other roads that are full of discordant energies, temperamental people, and many stop signs and lights (read simply: what is considered the ‘regular world,’ and its populace.
     I watered some plants when I got back. They were impatiens flowers, and also potted tomatoes and peppers. I listened to an Alan Watts video on YouTube, and I also looked up all the books written by William Golding. In high school they get you to read Lord of the Flies, or they used to, and since I always liked it, I learned he had written several other books, pretty well received, that had symbolism and literary devices and so forth. I decided I wanted to read them, or at least one or two, and made a kind of inner mental note that says something like, If I get a chance time-wise and money-wise and whatever else-wise, I am actually going to purchase at least one other book by him and sit and read it as opposed to just thinking about purchasing at least one other book by him and sitting and reading it.
     I made a sandwich and drank a diet soda and stared out the window for a bit. I went soon after to pick up my daughter from school. I made the same route, and the same slightly different route back, but that was okay because it was all a positive and predictable occurrence as opposed to something chaotic or stressful. I think at that point I made her some food and told her if she needed any help with some school work to ask. I then read some Rumi in a book put together by the American poet and translator of Rumi work named Coleman Barks. I remembered that he went to or taught at Baylor College if indeed it is the right term ‘college,’ as it could be possibly called simply ‘school,’ in Tennessee. I remembered that I once dated someone that went had just finished school there. I thought that strange connections and things like that were somewhat interesting but that not much ever came of them. I wrote some nature vignettes and edited my photography.
     When the dusk came I watched that day a movie called The Tribes of Palos Verdes, which I was so completely impressed with on various levels—all levels basically from mise-en-scene to script to spirit of the whole thing and so on so forth, that my idea and faith in film was restored. I thought though, that I was a bit dumb compared to how I wanted to be since I didn’t even know what Palos Verdes meant, and I did not speak Spanish. To further muddle my thought with needless judgments against myself I remembered that I had just learned that Cormac McCarthy, the world’s finest author, could speak and write fluently in Spanish. There would be no hope for me I thought, yet—I could still write my small vignettes and photograph the wildflowers of the forests, if even for my own inner joy and creative pace, process, and progress.
     After the movie I wrote a mini travel memoir called, simply, Playa Del Carmen, Mexico which I posted to Facebook with no accompanying photograph because no longer have any pics from there in my phone to upload. I then watered the flowers again because for the heat and humidity, the general dryness of the land as of late then—I worried.  Soon after I went to bed and began a succession of weird dreams that were not outright nightmares but could be termed uneasy and not benevolent. They were, from what I remembered the next morning and could remember now, about people I did not really trust and who disliked me. I was trying to get away, to get out from their environs and back to a more calm if not positive physical, emotional, and spiritual area though I do not know now, nor did I know then, just what or where that place was.

—Brian Michael Barbeito

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. Recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural. 


Many older women gave me dirty looks as I walked out of the art museum, into the rain. But only one man—older, white, and wealthy, based on his pinched leather loafers, his suit so slim and tailored it shone; even his umbrella looked expensive—concentrated, frowning so hard as he read the words of my T-shirt (MEN HAVE MADE A LOT OF BAD ART), he dropped his I-phone X. And with a smack—louder than the sound of the credit card denied at dinner, louder than my child waking me at 6am, but not as loud as I laughed in the car, not as loud as the plastic ball colliding in a spray paint  can, or my ancient computer wheezing on, or the moon beating high through my rented window, it cracked.

—Alison Stine

Alison Stine is the author of five books, most recently The Protectors (Little A, 2016).



I wake to mist, a green dawn full of birds, the promise of a storm. The paper on my parents’ driveway in Illinois is speckled with rain. The dog, for the first time since he joined our family 11 years ago, does not come to my room in the morning, does not even come bursting out of his downstairs bed when I turn the corner from the stairs. He is sleeping in the living room, the place that has become his refuge in these final months; we surmise the carpet must be thicker there. He lifts his head once he recognizes whose scent has entered.
     The three of us take him for what my dad calls a Stumble. It is certainly no longer a walk; old Jack Boy totters down the steps, my dad supporting him lightly at the hips, and then drags his back legs across the driveway. They dangle, rubbery, his paws clubbed and scabbed, useless unless he plants them just so behind him, a tripod he bounces off like a bunny rabbit. His front legs have become thick with muscle, and when he gets going he moves quickly down the block,  with momentum. But one misstep sends him twisted to the ground, pushing hard to get up. More and more often he is unable. He pushes so hard he pops boners, the wet red end of his penis waggling at us as he struggles to get purchase on his heavy hips.
     “Good boy, Jack,” we say, urging him on, as he looks frantically over at us, as we help to set him back upright. “You’ve got it. It’s okay, boy.”
     My gentle father, in his polished business shoes and blue plaid shirt, holds Jack’s hips while he poops, the dog unable to squat and so bounding between each turd, trying not to fall in his own shit. My mother, crying silently, in jeans and a raincoat, follows quickly with the poop bag, trying to keep up, to collect each piece as Jack litters them across the yard like eggs.
     “He is actually pretty efficient at not falling in,” I say into the green wet morning, and my dad nods.
     “He’s adjusting,” he says.
     We adjust to our broken parts until we can’t anymore, I think, and then we die.
     The whole Stumble back the dog looks up at my dad for reassurance each time he falls. The new intimacy visible in their relationship makes my chest hurt. At the house, I hold the hose nozzle for the dog, and he gratefully drinks the way he has always loved, biting and gulping at spray.
     I have been home two days, and the dog has sometimes seemed to be doing well, his floppy boxer ears jaunty as he hurtles down the block. My parents tell me I must have perked him up; he hadn’t made it to the end of the block in ages, and he did for me. But this morning, after the Stumble, he finds me panting, whimpering, and I feel his heart yammering inside him for no reason. “What is it, boy?” I ask. The dog can only stare at me and whine, leaned forward, his butt sagging towards earth. Jack Boy stands on one of the many carpet mats that now cover the slate hallway and the wood kitchen floor, so he will not slip on the slick surfaces as he lurches like a drunk around the house. My mom tells me she has stopped running all but the most basic errands. She feels he needs her to be home.
     When I see him panting like this, I understand. I feel the lumps in his neck. I wonder what his heart is doing in there, and what kind of pain he’s in. I touch his velvet coat, his graying muzzle. He stares at me, furiously, with his golden eyes.
     Ten years ago, whenever I came home to the Midwest from the mountains my parents would plead with me to take Jack for punishing runs. He was getting into trouble, they said, and they were too old, too busy, too tired to play with him as much as he needed. Jack and I ran fast loops around the neighborhood beneath the big maples of my childhood, until he would lie down on a random stretch of parkway and refuse to go any further. Those furious eyes. Back then, my father—the long-suffering lone male in a family of four women—would crow about the dog’s “high marks,” the way he impressively lifted his leg and splashed higher than the other dogs’ piss in a show of dominance. My dad joked that the dog was mad at them for months after they had his giant balls cleaved off. Jack was well-trained, but stubborn, and for years if I tried to run him off-leash like my parents did he’d dart away, challenging me with his gaze, staying just far off enough that I couldn’t grab him.
     But in the last five years, he’d started waking me when he needed something—using his paws, as boxers do, to hit me in bed. When we’d stayed overnight in a Wisconsin Motel 6 for my dad’s 60th birthday, the dog stood whining at my bedside, striking out with his paw until I came to sleep on the floor with him. He curled into the nest I built for myself out of blankets and pillow; I slept in the dog bed.
     “He picked you,” my sisters joked.
     Today, my mom stands in the kitchen and quietly says, “I know he loves your sisters too, but your relationship with Jack has always seemed deeper. I don’t know what it is.”
     Now, I place my suitcases by the garage door. My flight back to Tucson leaves at noon. There is nothing left to do but find the dog, curled up again in the dark living room, to say goodbye. After my younger sister visits home for the 4th of July, and has her goodbye, my parents will end his discomfort.
     I would have liked to midwife him, I think as I lie on the ground beside him. To hold onto his coat as he slipped out. Instead I have half an hour here on the rug, in a golden pool of lamplight, while a hard pour drops out of the sky. It’s predicted to loose 7 inches out in Aurora. “The last thing we need,” my mother said, watching the weather last night. “There’s nowhere left to put it.”
     I try to memorize the dog: the patch of bare fur on his back flank, his black skin rubbery and exposed. His extraordinary eye boogers and the inflammations on the edge of his floppy jowl. The cyclone whorl of fur on his butt, beside his cropped brown tail. The barrel chest I have thumped and thumped with the flat of my hand.
     My mother comes quietly into the room, still crying, and switches off the light. “It’s time to go,” she says.
     When I leave him for the last time, kissing his velvety, wrinkled head in the dark, I hope he will understand what is happening. I whisper the stupid prayer, “Please stay forever.” I desperately want him to follow me to the door, to bark angrily, indignantly, like he used to as the car pulls out. I want to see his small squidgy black face and the outline of those ears in the window, as we always did, but they do not appear. Jack stays on the floor of the living room as we pull out into the rain.
     Death begins long before it fully arrives, and maybe this is all that makes it bearable, in the end: that death feels like grace. That what could go on is worse than what must happen. It is not lost on me that we recognize this so much more clearly for our dogs than for our humans. Something in us hopes harder for each other. Something in us has heard the story that we are fixable.
     Eventually, of course, we are not.
     “Do you think we’re wrong?” my mom asks on the way to the airport, both of us red-eyed. “Do you think it’s time?”
     “Of course,” I say.
     At the airport I will inhale a jalapeno-cheddar bagel with jalapeno-cheddar cream cheese, having foregone packing a lunch in favor of crying with my dying dog. I will sit in the middle seat beside a greasy-haired veteran wearing some kind of brace, who tells me in abrupt, loud sentences that he returned from Desert Storm half paralyzed and with “PTSD on top of PTSD.” His bare knees will touch the seat in front of him. “I’ll live anywhere I can see a Wal-Mart one direction and a corn field the other,” he crows. He will tell me he’s coming to Arizona from Arkansas to see his girls, that after the war his wife told him she’d married him as a corporate climber but ended up with a cross between Forrest Gump and the Rain Man. He will talk through my headphones trying to get my attention. The flight attendant will give me a tiny bottle of Bombay Sapphire for my tonic water, waving off my credit card, glancing in the veteran’s direction as he continues to talk. He leapt out of planes! Has been to 16 countries and talked to twenty thousand people and still somehow his fifteen year old daughter knows more than him! I will give him the cold shoulder when he makes fun of the male flight attendant, the one with the pale pursed lips and blonde hair, calling him “Princess.”
     In Tucson my friend will pick me up in my red truck and we will leave it running while we buy burritos because it has recently stopped starting. I will take her back to work and we will eat our messy burritos in a conference room and we will go outside expecting to jump the truck, pleasantly surprised when it turns on itself, squinting in the heat. In my house two dead cockroaches will lie on their backs in plain sight, a sign of the month I’ve been in Europe. I will kill ten more before the day is out, hurtling my copy of the alpinist handbook Freedom of the Hills at their shit-filled bodies and peeling them smashed off the floor, gagging. I will send two scuttling back beneath the bathroom sink, where I desperately try to locate them lest they reproduce. I am about to be gone another two and a half weeks—teaching and attending a wedding in Seattle—and the house is feeling ghosty. Or maybe it is that it’s June 21. That even as I drop the car at a repair shop for battery testing, as I walk over to court to file a motion to change a parking ticket hearing that’s been scheduled for when I’m working out of town (the clerk dully looking at me through the window—“We’re done here”—when I don’t move on quickly enough), I am not fully present. I am with Jack-in-the-Box. As I get a row of curly hairs ripped off my chin at the eco-friendly spa down the street (“I don’t get anything else waxed,” I tell her, “but I’m drawing the line at a goatee at 33. I’m still on the dating market.”). As I wait on hold for 15 minutes to talk to the IRS, who’ve sent me a letter telling me I owe money I already paid. (“Frankly, ma’am, we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he says, wiping clean $2.50 I’ve been charged for paying the final chunk of tax—which oh yes, now they see, it’s fixed—a few weeks late.) As I put a new car battery on my credit card. As I go to a friend’s new magick shop, located in an old funeral home downtown, where women are wearing yellow and putting dried herbs and stones in pouches to celebrate the solstice, sending their intentions for their lives out into the world. As I am interviewed by a student reporter about the shop, as I drink cold white wine out of a red solo cup, as my friend sends me home with the leftover strawberries and a bag of popcorn that will be dinner, as I stay up until two a.m. scanning the openings of seven different memoirs about illness, printing neat stacks of copies for the intensives I will teach.
     Even when it is no longer June 21, it is June 21. I am on my belly in the dark living room. My lips against his velvet head.

Katherine E. Standefer

Katherine E. Standefer's debut book, Lightning Flowers, is forthcoming in late 2019 and was shortlisted for the J. Anthony Lukas Works-in-Progress Prize from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. Her work won the 2015 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction and appears in Best American Essays 2016. Jack Boy the Boxer is, as of this writing, still with us. @girlmakesfire


Once, Ridley Scott and Kevin McDonald and Youtube produced a 2011 documentary called Life in A Day. “We asked people around the world to film their lives and answer a few simple questions,” they explain in the opening black English text on white background. “We received 45,000 hours of video from 192 countries. All of it shot in a single day: 24th July, 2010.”
     In edited montage, people slip on shoes. There are the sounds of water running, of an early morning market, traffic, peeing, and some goofus howling convincingly at the moon and then cackling. Beneath it all runs a rich cello track, which lends sublimity to the glass-bound reflection of the man taking us up a parking garage elevator in Roanoke, Virginia. He holds the phone camera still as the city lights fall through him. Then comes surgery, breakfast, the releasing of goats, the lighting of candles, a newborn giraffe and the splash of its afterbirth. The effect of montage is pleasantly overwhelming. This global sense that the world is happening, right now and all around us, is not that common, but also not that difficult to achieve in the early twenty-first century. I often take note of the ceiling above the place where I wake up, thinking how strange it is that I and this view of this ceiling should intersect on this day, which I never could have predicted. The view and the thought don’t mean anything. Just a morning jolt to the heart.
     So the sun comes abruptly into the night train to Lanzhou, and I am bright, bleary, jet-lag awake on the top bunk. The train plays elevator music in Chinese. I get down to look at the crops flashing by—corn, barley, rapeseed in full gold, and flowering potato. Cigarette smoke floats in through the open door and burns the back of my throat, which tender lungs must get used to in China.


I have been reading lately of travel and its discontents. “At present, on this sleeper train, there’s no where to arrive.” the poet Jenny Xie writes, while the philosopher Paul Virilio notes that every departure is also a “rehearsal for mortality.” In travel, this week at least, you’re either waiting or dying, hopelessly bored or staging a morbidity. 
     The sleeper train stops: Lanzhou, Gansu Province, early morning, brief wind pushing an empty bottle across the plaza. We go to a noodle shop on a side street where the broth is excellent, life-giving. Then we take a taxi to the bus station and are deadened again, sent like packages to Liujiaxia, where a tout sells us passage to the Buddhist grottos at Binglingsi. I could negotiate, but the price is not bad and Binglingsi is where we are headed.
     Soon, we are aboard a black sedan racing into the mountains. Our driver makes small talk about the city and the weather. He buys a communal watermelon. The no-seatbelt warning ding sounds like it knows its own futility.
     Looking out the window, I see identically sized trees with pom-pom tops passing in a long file beside the road. “They look like Dr. Seuss trees,” my boyfriend Liam says, and I am dozing already. 

     When my friend Abby arrived in Chengdu to start this trip, we were still talking about and remembering Anthony Bourdain, a man who “traveled well” it has been said; who cared about the people and not just the places; who was punctual and timely and generous, a mensch among tourists. 
     I think Mr. Bourdain would have liked this drive, how the plants growing in the Chinese terraces we pass are potatoes instead of rice, how the reservoir on the Yellow River blinks in and out of view, how the driver can stop the car in any dusty hamlet along the way and yell out the window for hard bread and a pack of smokes. Where are you going? starts to lose its relevance out here. I stop worrying about the bags left to pack at home, the flights unbooked, the forms I will have to fill and scan and send. Everything slows or perhaps quickens into this presentness. The ding of the dashboard keeps insisting on our safety.


The driver unexpectedly makes a sharp right turn onto a dirt road and dives into switchbacks down the canyon. “The regular road is being repaired,” Thomas translates dubiously, and the driver puffs his cig and scrapes the undercarriage slightly on a rock.

And suddenly it’s like we’re in Utah, with rugged canyons dropping off from shrubby heights into feathery grasses. We get to the grottos by the back door. Tourist websites universally call them “difficult to access,” and Wikipedia claims they are only accessible by ferry across the lake, “as there are no roads in the area.” On a sign is a poem in Chinese and English, unattributed: “Between two cliffs, the sky becomes a string.”


One massive rock face looks like a honeycomb, another like a hand ready to high-five. Abby, Liam, and I all met when we were living in the American West, so this scene seems familiar to us. Familiar but also not, which I hear is the defining quality of the uncanny: this topographic deja vu, this feeling of normalcy and strangeness delivered in the same breath.


We sit in the shade and pass round loaves of dense bread while the driver begins to slice through the rind of the melon with his car key. When he is done scoring it, he gives it a pop with his palm and the slices fall apart. LIFE HACK. He passes me the largest piece, with the amorphous bulb of the interior melon flesh clinging to the neat slice. I make a puddle of juice on the ground.


Few other tourists walk the grottos with us today. Our faces pass the colors back and forth: sand and rose, lichen and rust. In the folds of the rock are twigs left by our recent predecessors, some bent in their pliancy, others standing straight and short in their groove.
     I have been reading about the angst and disillusionment of travel because I have lately been feeling quite angsty and disillusioned with travel. The reasons for this are nothing but mundane. I’m moving out of China soon and it’s a process full of anxiety (What am I forgetting?), confusion (Why am I going back?), and self-reproach (How the hell did I acquire so much crap?). All of these questions are rhetoricals, rites I will repeat at my next assumed departure. I need to ask them not so much to find their answers but to assure myself I’ve been at this point before and will undoubtedly be here again.   


In the canyon is a Buddhist temple, simultaneously a tourist trap and religious space and somebody’s house and garden. Cooking pots are lying around and clothes are drying on the line. The proprietor, an old man with stringy gray beard and sideburns, tells us the place is 1,600 years old, which may be true for the carved stone grotto if not for the buildings or decorations. When we come downstairs from the temple, he offers us a bag of loose tea leaves, which Liam sprinkles in red paper cups and the man inundates with boiling hot water from a thermos. His wife brings an enormous bowl of that same dense bread, shot through with sweet, bright yellow paste. We are full of melon and a little dismayed, but it seems rude not to stuff ourselves. We sit in their courtyard under the shade of an umbrella, smiling at each other although even Thomas can’t understand their dialect.
     Liam talks—half-joking or mostly joking or not joking at all—about the hostel he and Thomas are going to run someday. This is Liam’s way of thinking about hospitality and the kindness he has received here as a foreigner. He says the hostel will feature chocolate chip cookies and a full bar. “A gay bar, naturally,” Thomas says. Our conversation and our hosts’, forming separate streams of dialogue in the afternoon heat, must have diverged by more than language at this point.
     I spend a lot of time thinking about how people form ingroups and outgroups and how best to manage these tendencies. If I get lost, Thomas and Liam joke, they will just ask everyone where the blonde girl went. Early this morning, crossing the street in Lanzhou, an old man patted my backpack and gave me a thumbs up. I don’t feel much exotic distance between myself and the Buddhist monk, head shaved, eating a giant serving of fried potatoes alone in a restaurant. Or between myself and the woman on the street who is operating machinery—a very large drill or a very small jackhammer—and wearing a thick woolen skirt. We are all rattling around this day I came halfway across the world to share with them explicitly because they are different, or because they are the same, or because I can never decide which is more true. Tomorrow a taxi driver will take us to the bus station and refuse payment, using a Chinese word that roughly calls up notions of hospitality. Because we are different, and he is kind.


If I had to define travel I would call it motion turned into metaphor. The trip can be many things: a river flowing, a lesson learned, a balloon chasing clouds, a vehicle taking you far, far away. It can be these things literally and it can be these things figuratively. It can engulf, distract, or break down our concept of a self. What it can’t be, I’d bet, is stationary, sessile, set. 
     But here I am, fixed, looking at Buddhist statuary from the Tang dynasty, trying to take their measure. Many of the forms lack faces. The more important among them are sheltered in cubicles cut into the rock. When the scouring sand is lifted and blown, they hide behind barriers of wood and mesh. The doors to their quarters are open now. We visit with them in the daylight, squinting into the dark to see what has been quarried (quarantined?) from history in this place.


We eat noodles for dinner, bookending the day. We ask the Muslim proprietor if we can bring a beer into his restaurant and he says no, but serves us a tomato and egg dish that Thomas craves as comfort food. Outside, in a large public square, middle-aged women are dancing in sync, and we go in search of ice cream.
     I wish my mind did not keep carving out the same ancient channels of thought. Travel is supposed to help with that. But I’ve been reading Yiyun Li, who knows what travel can and cannot do for you: New scenery cannot make you a different person or give you a new mind, she writes. I cannot seem to break out of my usual modes of expression, the linear march of text and logic and narrative, even for a moment. I can’t seem to escape my own perspective. I can’t seem to stop using “I,” an English word Li claims to hate.
     But perspective also drifts, changes, looks out windows. Those adjustments are hard to monitor when you’re on the move. Li again: “The train, for reasons unknown to us, always stops between a past and a future, both making this now look as though it is nowhere. But it is this nowhereness that one has to make use of.”


When my mother left China for America she was twenty-six and starting a Ph.D program. As I write this, I have moved from the Binglingsi grottos to a bullet train bound for an airport where I will once again leave China for America. I am twenty-six. My Ph.D. program starts this fall. Nothing changes. Nothing stays. I watch my gene line chase its ragged tail across the map. 
     “I knelt to the passing time.” says the poet. “The internment of bodies is no longer in the cinematic cell of travel but in a cell outside of time…” says the philosopher.
     Still, I think maybe John Mayer (the crooner) says it best: Stop this train. I wanna get off and go home again. I can’t take the speed it’s movin in. I know I can’t, but honestly, won’t someone stop this train? 

—Abby Dockter & Thomas Dai

Thomas Dai is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brown University. His essays have appeared in Guernica and Entropy. He blogs occasionally at

Abby Dockter spent a few years following field and lab science jobs up and down the Rockies, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. She has written for the UA’s Institute of the Environment and edited Nonfiction for Sonora Review. Her work appears in The OWL literary journal, Essay Daily, and deep in the Mesa Verde National Park website. She enjoys long, dry archaeological reports, and usually hikes with poetry.


June 21st began not with a bang but a with a whimper, or rather a thud, when a bird killed itself and chose my picture window as its weapon. I don’t mind, really, because one day I had what might be referred to as a little vision after a roadrunner threw itself against my moving car. It was running around in the afterlife yelling, “I’m free! I’m free!” meaning, unironically, that he was now free from the fear of death. I felt bad all that day about the roadrunner but as to the mourning dove that banged into my house, a workman who had come to paint the living room buried him in the backyard. While he did that I cleaned up the cat poop left by Yo-Yo, our 20-pound, brown tabby cat, also in the backyard. Then I spent the rest of the day worrying that the bird was, in fact, not dead but only knocked out and was now buried alive. On the other hand, the yard didn’t smell anymore.
     Next, I got a text from my daughter, whose birthday is on June 22, remembering with some not unjustified anger that one year when she was a kid we ignored her birthday altogether because we had to go to a family wedding. Not for someone in my family but someone in her father’s family (I write this with perverse pleasure because I still hate them, although it’s really only the regular kind of in-law hate, nothing special. The odd thing is I like them individually. Still married to her dad, too). I apologized profusely because she was right to be hurt and angry and after all these years I can say with a fair amount of sorrow that I played my role in it. Dang.
     From there things improved because I went to the salon where, for a bit of money and pain, I got the Wolfman treatment, which means all the excess hair was removed from my face and neck. When I was young I used to look at my moustache and wonder what to do about it. My mother had her own moustache, plus she often railed against women who wear makeup so she was no help. When I got older I asked my stylist about it and she said, “I’ll just take care of that for you,” and after a burning application of hot wax and some ripping, presto!, no more hair on my upper lip. Hair doesn’t just grow there, though. Now it’s my sideburns (When did I get sideburns?), side of my neck, excess eyebrows which insist on growing all willy-nilly and sometimes even my forehead. I tell myself at least it’s not my nostrils or ears.
     When I got home I was still in poop-cleaning mode so I cleaned the bathroom, gave treats to the furry 20-pound pooper and made notes for this essay.
     Eventually it was lunch time so I dragged my son out of bed and we went to the Guadalajara Grill, a local establishment that serves up what we call White people Mexican food. Gabriel is an adventurous and snobby eater; even when he was a kid he would eat strange stuff. When we ordered burgers, he got jellyfish salad. When we got a sandwich he ordered lobster bisque and baked trout. At the Grill it was Lobster Thursday, so he decided on a steak chimichanga, no cheese, no guacamole, no sour cream. “No good stuff,” the server said.
     After lunch came the best time of day: nap time. Some things in life are meant to be copiously enjoyed. An innocent laugh, a hot shower, a cat’s purr and for me, a nap. Here’s the best part: It’s free and there’s plenty of nap to go around.
     As the day wore on, I paid the workman, guessed and got wrong most of the answers on Jeopardy and checked to see what homework I have due. Why, and I ask this a lot A LOT, why did I think earning six credits in five weeks was a good idea? There was a long list of writing and reading assignments due Friday so of course I closed my computer and ate supper, watched more television and felt guilty because I was not doing my homework. When I went to bed, I promised myself I would get up early the next morning and get started.
     As I reflected on the day’s big moments and little moments and medium-sized moments, it occurred to me you don’t know as you live them which moments are going to take up residence in your life forever. Who would think that ignoring my daughter’s birthday 30 years ago because I was mad at her dad for some long-forgotten reason would cause her so much pain today? The answer is anyone with half a brain, which evidently is not me, but lesson learned. I also promised myself to be more thoughtful about the moments of my life as I live them. I will begin tomorrow morning.
     But first I have some cleaning to do in the backyard.

—Karen Schaffner

Karen Schaffner learned a valuable lesson on June 21st this year and will try really hard to live fully in the moments of her life as she lives them. She is also trying to make a decision about which schools to apply to for a master's degree in writing, having decided that a career in writing is the road to fame and wealth. Or at least a small amount of creative satisfaction and a bit of inner peace.


On the morning of June 21st, I’m next to my dad in a McDonald’s booth, scheming. Yellow-wrappered breakfast sandwiches carried forth on plastic trays swirl around us, traffic streams by out the window, and my dad sits at the center of my line of vision, steepling his fingers and leaning forward. His bald head glistens.
     “When we get out there,” he says, looking at me and then at his hands in concentration, “be ready.”
     I give him an earnest nod and slip into Pensive Listening Face.
     “Don’t be distracted by whatever they dangle out in front of you,” my dad says.
     “The offers, the promises,” he says, and he karate-chops those two nouns out of the air, dismissing them. “No. We have two parameters, and we stick to those. We stick to the parameters. And don’t be afraid to get the guy back on track.”
     I nod, feeling freighted with responsibility. We are half an hour away from beginning the search for my first car, half an hour away from encountering and grappling with that dreaded guild, that profession so easily equated with sleaze that a comparison is an insult by proxy: “That shirt makes you look like a used-car salesman.” As we sit at this McDonald’s, itself a kind of diving chamber for entering or exiting still-deeper levels of sleaze, I am fortifying the mental battlements my dad’s advice suggests to me are necessary.

They do wear those shirts, too. The first used-car dealer we pull up to, a man in a black, logo-emblazoned polo shirt and dress shorts saunters up to us, hand out already for a shake. I’ll call him Romulus, for his enterprising spirit. He’s the first dealer my dad and I meet, and he’s ready to do his job. Our two parameters for my car (which I’m buying, by the by—my dad with me just for his know-how) are mileage and price, and immediately he’s testing my devotion to them, my ability to be distracted. Here’s a car $1 under my maximum price range to start with, there’s a car with 2,000 more miles on it, look at the sunroof, the gleam of the unblemished rims, here are some bottled waters for you fellas while I check on something, what do you think about putting a down payment on something before you walk out, the sunroof, O watch how it retracts!
     But I’m incredibly frustrating to him, I can tell. I’m the equivalent of the Boomer in the cell-phone store who just wants something with big buttons, ducking and dodging all the pricier offers. We leave without really saying whether I’m interested, saying we’ll come back a day earlier than we in fact do end up coming back, and I can see Romulus exasperated at my stubborn aversion to any baubles or ornaments. My dad, nods at me in approval as we leave, and I feel I have done my due buyer-bewaring, feel slightly triumphant, even.

Later that night, I don’t know, sitting at home and comparing prices and Carfaxes, that we will come back to Romulus, albeit a day after we’ve told him we will come back. I’m not thinking that after exploring almost every used-car lot in Tucson, we will end up being drawn back to Romulus to find a car he hasn’t shown us yet, which I’ll then buy.
     Instead, I’m at home, snapping at my dad, getting irritated over how irritated he is at the website of Romulus’s dealership. The website doesn’t reveal necessary details that buyers need, a ploy to get more people to see the cars in person, of course. My dad goes on a tirade against this website, sitting on the couch and scrolling through listings to try to see better deals. I get annoyed and frustrated with him, for his getting annoyed at the website.
     When we will go back to Romulus’s dealership two days later, I will pick a fight with Romulus over this website. I’ll ask him, virtually ignoring whatever he says, why he simply doesn’t update the website (as if this is Romulus’s job), pestering him with cutting remarks. Half of me will think that I am still putting up a front that’s necessary to not get schemed, and half of me will know I’m taking out my and my dad’s irritation, or so I’ll think.
     I won’t realize, haranguing Romulus that day on the hot, shimmering asphalt lot, that he’s showing me the car that I’ll buy two hours later. I’ll be caught viewing him an enemy, not realizing he’s doing his job, an often-maligned and probably underpaid employee who has no control over the stupid website and is merely trying to please people.
     That night, on June 21st, though, I don’t yet know any of that will happen. I put my phone in my face and sulk. I’m fed up with my dad’s persistence and finicky complaints about technology. I don’t think about what he’s using the technology for. I’m caught in the same loop I’ll be caught in days later with Romulus, one that’s difficult to see in the moment, which I don’t see at all that day, which I never see in the moment. It’s that the person I’m fighting is so often the one trying to help me.

—James Butler-Gruett

James Butler-Gruett is a writer and a 2018 graduate of the University of Arizona MFA program in fiction. His work has been published in Yes, Poetry magazine and the Sonora Review website. He lives in Tucson and can be found on Twitter @etinarcadia3go. 


I wake up in the woodshed. 8:15 a.m. The sun has been up for two hours and light filters green through the skylight. My husband is up already so I have the king bed to myself. I close my eyes and recall my dreams, tracing the feelings of them. My brother, an acquaintance, and I are looking at homes for my mother. The floor slopes horribly and no one seems to notice. No one in the dream listens as I point this out.
     Out of bed and into the shower. Through the glass, the copper soaking tub looks inviting and I wonder how long it would take to fill. The cabin is chilly and my husband and I make easy conversation as we dress for breakfast. The packet left on the door says that the temperature will reach a high of 73 degrees. Back home in Missouri it has been in the 90s.
     Breakfast in the dinning room is a buffet—granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, bacon, sausages, omelets and eggs made to order. I sit at the long table, next to nephews and first cousins once removed. We talk of summer and college starting in the fall, of music, violins, fiddles and Hamilton. My oldest stepdaughter, Zoe, stops by for a hello. The staff in tan khakis and burgundy shirts are quick, efficient and quiet. My brother sends a text of his daughters with a new puppy. They won, he says. I listen in on the conversations along the table. At the far end, Uncle Dan and Aunt Deener keep company with neighbors. Today is their last full day here at their inn and home that they built from scratch.
After breakfast, we gather in the gift shop picking out mementos—mugs, t-shirts, sweatshirts. How do you capture a moment such as this in fleece or ceramics?
     Lauren, my husband’s first cousin, announces a hike to the water fall. We meet up 45 minutes later, most of us grabbing our lunches already packed in backpacks by the staff. A few of us take our complementary walking sticks. The trails are well maintained but at 5000 feet the hills are felt in the knees. About twenty strong at the start, our group splinters in the wood, taking different paths, doubling back, stopping to photograph wildflowers and signposts. Cousin Sarah has been teaching me the wildflowers—squawroot, mountain laurel, galax, flame azalea. We walk through a grove of rhododendrons so large they block the light.
     We all find our way to the falls. The air is loamy, primeval. The water, mountain cold. I sit on the bank and eat my sandwich enjoying the spectacle of others playing in the waters. My brother-in-law wants to climb the waterfall like he did 45 years ago. The family talks him down. Some memories are best relived in our minds.
     After the falls, my husband and I join Lauren and her four children to hike over to the neighbors. We hike up to the ski slopes then follow the road. At the cluster of mailboxes, we to turn onto Double Gap and climb. We pass over two creeks, or the same one twice. I am grateful for the walking stick as Lauren’s children are in their twenties and quick. We see the balcony of the neighbor’s house but it doesn’t prepare me for what we will see once we pass through the wrought iron gate. Ron is home. Turns out he was the neighbor visiting over breakfast. At 76, he still hikes the four miles over to visit with Uncle Dan and then back. A war hero, he spent 20 years in service then turned his mind and hand to starting and running private companies. His house is a cathedral—vaulted ceilings of hand hewn wood beams, field stone fireplaces, stained glass lamps, floor to ceiling windows paying reverence to the view of the mountains and their clouds. He is proud to show us the place—I love this about my culture, this showing of one’s home. We admire his home the size, the detail, the layout. The counter of the bar is one continuous piece of stone a good two to three inches thick. Thirteen men were needed to carry it into the house. We eat our lunches on the porch. I am amazed that I am here in such physical beauty, in such luxury.
     The weather turns quickly and we head out into rain. Thunder rumbles a ways off.  We pass up the chance to hike to the top of the bald. The forest keeps the rain off of us and we stop to admire one of the old arrow trees—trees that were bent by the original habitants here to point the direction of the trail.
     Back at the inn, Laurin shows us a secret hiding space of hers and her brother’s when they were little. It is bittersweet to be here knowing the family won’t be back, that this will no longer be their home.
     The rain holds off, so several of us encourage Zoe to lead us in yoga on the croquet court. Even with gnats swarming us and rain starting up again, we laugh ourselves into and out of downward facing dog and other poses.
     Cleaned up for dinner, we meet up in the dogtrot for hors d'oeuvre. The new owners are here, circumspect and polite to the family. Uncle Dan leads us in sung grace. The food is indeed divine. I go back for seconds, then hurt myself over dessert. There are too many choices to be prudent. Tomorrow we leave and I do not cook like this at home.
     After dinner we gather in the living room to hear a musician who has written songs just for the family, just for us—three generations and two branches of a family. This day has been too short. We extend it with a game of wallyball, but eventually my husband and I head to back to the woodshed, to the king bed under the skylight, to our last night in the mountains.

—Rebecca Graves

Rebecca Graves has published several articles and book chapters in the world of academia where she works by day as a health sciences librarian. In her other life, she writes fiction and poetry which have been published in Interpretations IV, Interpretations V, as well as the anthology, Eternal as a Weed: Tales of Ozark Experience from Creative Writing of Columbia. Ms. Graves lives in Columbia, Missouri, with the inventor and jazz musician Pack Matthews.


I finally fell asleep around 5:30 this morning. I spend a lot of time awake during the dark hours these days. I've always skewed toward the night-owl end of the spectrum, but my schedule has been more topsy-turvy than usual for the past couple of years. It started a few winters ago when I had several nasty viruses—illnesses as vicious as the flu but not the actual flu—for nearly two months straight. My sinuses were so clogged that I could barely breathe when I lay down. Sometimes I'd start to drift off and jolt awake, feeling like I was suffocating. That's when the panic attacks started in earnest. I couldn't sleep because I couldn't breathe, and then I couldn't breathe because I couldn't sleep. Loop-de-loop.
     At one point that winter, I went three days in a row with essentially no sleep. I also didn't really eat for those three days. Did you know that sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, and panic attacks have a lot in common? A buzzy, shaky feeling in your limbs; cloudy, paranoid thoughts; fast heartbeat and nausea; sluggish yet jumpy reactions to everything and nothing. The not-a-flu virus was bad, but even worse was this self-fueled merry-go-round of sleeplessness, hypoglycemia, and panic. Round and round and round.
     My doctor diagnosed me with PTSD, which was both a relief and an embarrassment. I was grateful to have my anxiety validated, but I felt ludicrous claiming trauma from something so pedestrian as a stuffy nose and insomnia, no matter how intense they'd been. It's now more than two years later, and I still have nights when I struggle against irrational fear when the lights go off and my head hits the pillow. I no longer feel like I need to bolt out of bed as though I'm drowning in quicksand. But I still spend hours awake—under the covers, on top of the covers, on my side, on my belly, on my back—trying to breathe and trying not to fixate on breathing.
     What finally did the trick this morning was turning upside down so my head rested as the bottom of the bed. When I was really sick and scared that winter, this maneuver could sometimes calm me down. I still don't know why. I suspect it has something to do with interrupting an established pattern. It reminds me of how my college friends and I would stand on our dorm room chairs when we needed a new perspective. It was a move we got from "Dead Poets Society." We also used to stick strips of clear Scotch tape across the bridge of our noses, like some kind of homemade Breathe Right strips. We didn't do this to breathe better. At least, not in a literal, physical sense. I don't remember who came up with this quirk or why, but we often combined it with the poetic chair-standing. Something about the combo allowed us to be silly and playful—all of which helped us to relax in the midst of finals or whatever social drama was spilling around campus.
     Growing up, I used to sleep with my head at the foot of my bed during humid summer nights when the air felt almost too thick to breathe. We didn't have air conditioning, so I'd attach a small oscillating fan to my windowsill. The foot of the bed was marginally closer to the window, and I needed all the cool air I could get. Eventually, I'd pass out from the heat or the exhaustion.
Sleepless winter nights are the hardest to get through because they're so long. During those winter months of being sick and awake, my husband sat up with me for as long as he could, usually until well after midnight. I'd spend the next few hours trying to rest. If I was still awake at dawn, my anxiety turned into outright panic. All those hours of quiet darkness had made me feel cloistered and claustrophobic, trapped in my bedroom, in my house, in my own body.  I'd force myself to wait until 5:00 or 6:00, and then I'd stumble downstairs to call my mother, who'd generously said I could call her anytime day or night. I took her up on the offer. She'd recently gone through her own battle with extreme anxiety, and she knew firsthand the kind of havoc it plays on the mind and body. She would stay on the phone with me until I calmed down or until she had to get ready for work, whichever came first. Those nights—or rather, mornings—I usually fell asleep on the couch. That's where I felt safe when even the foot of the bed didn't work.
     I wouldn't have made it through those winter months without my husband or my mother. I also wouldn't have made it through without my cat Gatwick. In the hours between my husband going to sleep and me deciding whether or not to wake up my mother, Gatwick would join me at the bottom of the bed. He'd curl up beside my shoulder and let me drape my arm across his fluffy, 14-year-old, 14-pound body. I could feel him breathing, feel his heart beating—proof that something existed outside of my own fear and pain. He'd stay with me like that until I finally relaxed and drifted off. Sometimes I'd manage to sleep for hours at a time that way.
     I thought about him this morning as I tried to get comfortable at the wrong end of the bed. Gatwick died a few months ago from a tumor in his head that sometimes made him forget where he was and who I was. To be honest, it's this grief that keeps me up until dawn some nights now. Sometimes I place a pillow beside me and drape my arm across it, but it's never as firm or as soft as he was.
     I made it through one 90-minute sleep cycle this morning before waking up. I opened my eyes and could see the garland of paper stars strung across the wall at the head of the bed. I stared at those stars, half awake and completely disoriented about where my body was on the bed and where the bed was in the room. I knew something was topsy-turvy, but I couldn't tell what it was. I knew the stars should be a clue to what direction I was facing, but I was too tired to figure it out. I felt something soft against my back. I knew it was just a pillow, but I let it comfort me back to sleep.
     One year ago today, I was in Iceland with my husband. By the time I met up with James, I'd already spent more than two weeks traveling around Iceland and England without him. In the 48 hours leading up to this last leg of the trip, I'd taken a train from Cornwall to London, a plane from London to Reykjavik, and then a car from Reykjavik to Vik, a small village along the southern coast of Iceland. That night, I fell asleep almost instantly, a welcome miracle. But within an hour I woke with a gasp. I squinted in the midnight sun that filtered through the window shades of our AirBnB bedroom. I knew I was in a bed, right-side-up, but I couldn't locate my body in the space of the world. I literally didn't know what country I was in. James, still awake in the twin bed a few feet from mine, looked at me. "I don't know where I am," I said. He replied, "You're with me." He hadn't answered my actual question, but he'd told me all I needed to know. I fell back asleep, no problem.
     When my alarm went off this morning, I'd had about three hours of sleep. I took my cat (the one who is still alive) to the vet for a check-up. She needs to have a procedure that requires anesthesia next week, and I'm worried about it. I can't lose another one so soon. I came home and napped on the couch for much of the afternoon. The nap will probably make it harder to fall asleep tonight, but I'm learning to be okay with taking what I need when and where I can get it: on a couch, standing on a chair, at the foot of my bed, on the telephone at dawn, up against a pillow, in the light, or in the dark. 

—Jennifer McGuiggan

Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan's work has appeared online and print. Her essays have been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology and been named as finalists in contests from Orison Books, Prime Number Magazine, and Hunger Mountain. She lives, breathes, and naps in southwestern Pennsylvania with her husband, one live cat, and one ghost cat. Find her online in The Word Cellar ( 



On the day I deliberately focused on paying attention, the two minute moment that lingered with me most was the 20-something chick in a miniskirt, untangling her long hair as she berated me. The girl didn’t have the courage to look me in the face while she snarled twice, “You really should take better care of your kids. This is a Frisbee golf course! You need to watch your kids, lady.” Of course I need to take better care of them. Of course I need to watch them more closely. And I’m trying. At that moment, my seven-week-old was screaming and hungry, my almost two-year-old had dashed away with my husband chasing behind him, my oldest boys ages 9, 7, and 5 had spotted a set of boulders they knew they could conquer, and my daughter started spinning with her eyes closed, singing, feeling the swish of her skirt around her knees. I was watching them. I was trying to care for them all, individually. But I know, even more than that girl, that it is not enough. She’s right: that’s why it bothers me, even now. If, instead of six energetic children, I had charge for a single placid one—she would still be right.
     I wanted to punch her. Part of my brain started justifying my situation while the rest of me panicked to gather my innocent, life-enthusiasts (using a tone sparked by my frustrated feelings that no one ever deserves—particularly a child). While I corralled them to me, my thoughts flickered, smoldered: Perhaps I’m not caring for them at all. Perhaps the books, songs, laughter, the insistence on allowing them to make choices for themselves is not enough. Perhaps they will grow up unstable, irresponsible, and emotionally strung-out because I failed them. Or perhaps my frantic attempts to keep them physically safe are futile. Perhaps we shouldn’t have tried rock climbing with all of them—we should have split up, I should have stayed home. Perhaps I’ll never come out of postpartum depression and no one will actually know who I am; they will only know that my attempts never worked, that trying can only accomplish the first meager steps.
     Before I had finished my thought bonfire, all of my boys had returned and my daughter continued her nature dance at my side as we finally figured out where our friends were, waiting for us. No one heard the girl except me. It took me until that evening to remember that she’s dealing with “stuff” too. That she probably felt annoyed with our presence, or was pushed by the desire to act superior and impress others; she could be nervous socially, or needed a conversation starter. Yes, I groaned within, “Please just let me try.” I remembered that she’s trying too.
     I’m grateful that I didn’t have time to respond.
     When my husband and I finished coaching the kids through washing up, brushing teeth, changing clothes, it was 9:45—two hours after bedtime. We sang them their goodnight songs, chatted with each for a minute, and hoped they would rest rather than talk to each other. After all, we always unconsciously assume we’ll have another day.
     Why do I clutch that moment above the others? Why don’t I remember the heaving body of my five-year-old next to me at midnight who hobbled into our room with aching feet? Why don’t I hold to the eight hours breastfeeding our last baby, going hoarse as I read aloud to him, to his eager siblings? (“Mom, can’t you feed him more? We need to read the next chapter!”) Where are the images of my children’s determined, dirt smudged faces, their wet footprints on the sidewalk after our water fight, their surprise at the sprinkler spinning on top of the trampoline, the sunlight glinting on their already blushed skin, their voices singing in the van (everyone on a slightly different rhythm), the baby’s hand holding onto my cheek as he sighed contentedly, my little girl giggling as she snorted, “Mom, you said, stupid! Now I can!”? My running “toddler” pulling a rocking chair next to his crib to climb in by himself. The poplar leaves applauding in the wind. Five tiny mouths full of apricot muffins we invented together. The screeching shuffle of chairs and plates and cups and utensils and food and water and noise around every meal and snack. Piles of horsetail weed breezing away after we pulled them from the strawberry patch—all of us chasing them to prevent more from spreading. The gray-streaked cliffs we climbed together with tiny fingerledges and cracks. My boys’ bodies tense in the new harnesses, anxiety and thrill enticing them to climb even as their adult belaying audience hung onto them with our cheers. Telling each other stories as we drove over familiar, yet always shockingly beautiful, roads.
     Why would memory sear a stranger’s comment into my mind when everything else weighs against her? Why would I train my brain to feel defeat rather than grasping those tiny fingerprints of joy? How can I go to bed crying just as hard as my five-year-old when there were moments of powdery feet in my hands, the thunk of weeds dropping in the trash can, and a man in his 80s clutching his walker with hands swollen with tumors, telling my kids how nice they are to bring him jam? I don’t want my life to be a daymare. Even if my hours are dust now, why can’t I see the splinters of gold?
     What am I actually trying?

—Cassie Keller Cole

Cassie Keller Cole writes when she can. She mothers six brilliant children daily by ensuring that they all read, eat, and glory in the outdoors without too much of a sunburn. They all sing, romp, and scribble in Blackfoot, Idaho while they play in the mud, live loudly, and keep the neighbors entertained. 



June 21, the summer solstice. On this day, it’s said, the door that separates this world from whatever lies beyond swings open on its hinge. Shapes change. Spirits shift.
     At 6:45 am, the world outside my window is a leafy bowl of green. Oaks and maples, buckeyes and beeches interlace their leaves. The undergrowth is thick with striplings, brambles, ferns and grasses, thigh-high weeds. Overnight, the daylilies have opened up their yellow beaks. Cardinals are whistling in the upper branches. A cabbage moth flutters in the thyme.
     I am the first one up this morning. I tiptoe past my dozing husband, softly shut the bedroom door. Down the hall, my teenage son is still asleep. In the kitchen, I muffle the coffee grinder with dish towels. I fill the kettle, fold the filter. Cut a slice of bread for toast. Check my email on my phone. I am waiting for a call.
     This week, I am directing a creative writing summer camp for high school juniors and seniors, forty-eight of them from across the country, here on the college campus where I teach. Today is Thursday, day five of eight. The week is long, the days packed. I’m beat. But the kids are still excited, notebooks out and laptops ready, nametags swinging around their necks, far more engaged than you’d ever imagine a bunch of teenagers could be about school. We’re past the initial buzz of anticipation, the awkwardness of a new social circle, the anxiety many feel at being away from home. Like most adolescents, they avoid eye contact, or look straight through you, searching—for their people, their passion, themselves.
     I sip my coffee at the kitchen table, still bleary-eyed. My phone lights up. It is the father of one of the campers: this week’s problem child. She has been suffering from severe panic attacks, running out of class in tears. She cannot bring herself to face group meals in the dining hall. She clings to two of my staff members, confiding disturbing things. She has asked them to call her by a different name. We are okay with that. Then, two nights ago, they found her banging her palms against a concrete wall until they bled. This is not okay. I called her father, who came and picked her up. Now he wants to know if I will let her return to attend classes on a day student basis for the remainder of the week. “She really wants to participate,” he tells me. “This is so important to her.” I sigh, give in.
     I walk down the hill to work. At 8 am it is still cool and bright and the humidity has dropped for the first time in days. My neighbor’s yard is bright with impatiens and petunias. In the distance, the hills are a hazy, dappled green. There is beauty in the world, I remind myself. I remind myself to breathe.
     The campers arrive and set off to their morning classes. In my office with no windows, time slows down. I check my email, chat with my colleague across the hall (his back is in a spasm; he has caught a virus from his three young kids). The college student I am supervising on an independent summer creative writing project comes by to meet with me. Her project is on fairy tales. We have been reading about the transformations of werewolves and other shape-shifters. She has written a story about a fairy godmother’s apprentice who clashes with Rumplestiltskin in trying to rescue an abused girl. The apprentice promises to send the girl to the ball to meet the prince. Rumplestiltskin offers her a deal instead: he’ll make her queen in exchange for her firstborn child. All magic comes at a price, Rumplestiltskin says. Even the magic of a fairy godmother is not free. “She will twist something unknowable inside you,” he warns and smiles his evil smile. “It’s your choice.” The girl is dying to escape her mother. She is caught between them, her back pressed against the rough bark of a tree.
     My student sits across the table in my office, her notebook open, waiting for my feedback on her draft. But I am thinking of my problem child and her talk of an abusive mother, her pale face bent as if in prayer, her wish to morph into a boy. I am thinking of her bloody palms, scraped to stigmata. Her hunted, shifting gaze.


By midday, the air has changed. The blue sky has clouded over, the humidity returned. The clouds hang heavy, dishrag gray.
     After lunch and afternoon classes, we load onto a school bus for an outing to the Museum of Art. I walk up and down the aisle, counting. Forty-seven: the problem child’s father has taken her home. I perch up front behind the driver, call out directions. The bus has no air conditioning or seatbelts. The students must be used to it; no one complains.
     By the time we hit the highway, it has begun to rain. The rain mists in through the open windows. Two small fans blow ineffectually at the condensation on the windshield. The driver swerves out into the passing lane, muttering about how everyone creeps along in the rain, and I brace my arm against seatback. “We have plenty of time!” I say in what I hope is a cheerful tone. Why are there no seat belts on school busses? How easily our bodies would fly into the aisle and out that foggy windshield, if we stopped short or crashed. The wipers slap the rain away.
     At the museum, we send the students off with docents to write poems about the art. I wander through the galleries with my colleague, Peter. We are drawn to the wavy lines of Chaim Soutine, to a bizarre construction in which a creepy, loudly moaning Kewpie-eyed face is projected onto a fabric doll. In a small dark projection room, we watch part of a film showing a procession of people aged one to one hundred. We are horrified at how old the people look when they reach our age.
     On the way back to campus, the rush hour traffic crawls through the now heavy rain. The students are quiet, bent over their phones. On my phone, I toggle between the traffic and the radar maps. I am thinking about my sixteen-year-old son, just back from ten days in France on a high school trip, his days spent much like this. I am thinking about my twenty-year-old daughter, still away at college, who leaves tomorrow for five weeks in Chile. I click on a world map and scroll down, down, down. How far away Valparaíso seems.
     We are just a few miles from campus when there is a loud thwack and the bus driver lets out a yelp. I look up from my phone. The driver’s-side windshield wiper has sheared off and blown away. “Oh, my god!” the driver wails. We are driving at seventy miles per hour down the highway in the pouring rain. Everyone seems to be holding their breath. The driver is freaking out, but somehow, through the fog and rain-streaked windshield, the road is still visible, more or less. “Just keep going,” I say.
     Finally, we turn off the highway, creep up the hill to campus. We have made it back. I send the students off to the dining hall for dinner. “Thank you,” they say politely, as if nothing has happened, as they climb off the bus and step out into the rain.
     I sit on the bus for a while with the driver, who is trying to figure out how to get back to the other side of the city, over an hour away. It is nearly 7 pm now and the local Napa Auto Parts is closed, not that they would carry school bus wipers anyway. No one is picking up the phone back at the bus company’s office. Her boss is not responding to her texts. School busses, it seems, do not come with Roadside Assistance or AAA.
     I offer to get the driver dinner, to call a cab. Her hands are shaking as she pulls up the map on her phone. “I’m just going to go for it,” she says. “I’m just going to do it. I gotta get back.”
     “You’ll be okay,” I say, doubtfully. “Call me if you need anything. Let me know when you get home.” I realize I sound like I am talking to a child.
     I stand for a while in the rain and watch her drive away.


At home, my husband has dinner ready: farfalle with fresh pesto and pancetta. He pours a glass of wine. My son offers up details about his trip to France: the crowded Louvre, the disappointing Mona Lisa, the fancy chateaux, the beaches in Normandy and Aix, a dairy and its herd of goats. He has brought me chocolate, perfume, a bar of soap in the shape of a duck. I knew that he’d be fine, but I’m still relieved he’s back. (The duck soap has fared less well in transit—it has a broken neck.)
     I exchange a few texts with my stressed-out daughter, check my email, browse Facebook, scan the news. Another black boy has been murdered by police. Refugee children are being separated from their parents at the border, held like animals in a cage. The camera zooms in on a disconsolate five-year-old, cuts to Melania’s appalling jacket: I don’t really care, do u? The reporter’s voice breaks. I click away.
     It is not yet 9 pm on the longest day of the year, but out the window, there is only darkness and rain. What happened to that green and leafy morning? Was that door between the worlds still open? Fatigue tugs behind my eyes.
     I run a hot bath. In the tub, I read my colleague Peter’s latest memoir, which is about his return to competitive fencing in his fifties. In a chapter called “Humility,” he writes, “I would wake each morning and listen to my body. I would recognize the knot of anxiety in my stomach for what it is: the fear that I can’t control my life, that often things happen and we can’t do anything about them.” He quotes Rupert Graves: Not being anxious requires a level of humility, doesn’t it? It does, I think. It’s not all about you. 
     If anxiety is a form of self-centeredness, I must be a monster of egotism, I think.
     I toss the book aside and get out of the tub, itchy from the heat.
     My phone dings: it is the bus driver, texting to say she has made it safely home.
     It dings again: it is the father of our problem child. He writes that she is happier than he has seen her in weeks, that she hasn’t stopped smiling since he picked her up that afternoon, that he is so grateful we are letting her come back.
     There is hope yet in the world, I think.
     I forward the father’s message to my staff. Thank you for all you do, I tell them, and they send back happy emojis: smiles and hearts and stars.

—Margot Singer

Margot Singer's most recent book is the novel, Underground Fugue (Melville House, 2017), just out in paperback. She is the co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). She is a professor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

Check back for more dispatches from June 21, 2018 tomorrow. —Editors

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