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Thursday, March 23, 2017

This House Burns Blue

by Gabby Vachon

My mother wears so much blue, it’s fucking ridiculous.
Her whole house is decorated in blue, so much so that she has a room called “the red room” because it lacks the hegemony of blue of its neighboring kitchen and laundry room.
People—like her sisters, her personal trainer, and the cashiers at the local grocery store—often remark upon the blue, even poke fun at it. But their criticism never bothers her.
She just smiles her famous tight smile and lets out a light suburban-mom laugh.

I don’t know for sure why she’s so attached to the color blue, but I have a few theories:

1. Blue may remind her of her childhood, as her parents were ardent Quebec separatists. If you don’t know much about Quebec politics, here’s a very basic overview of the Sovereignty movement, or at least my version of it, keeping in mind I am a pure-bread French Canadian who grew up in Montreal: French Canadian people made up most of Quebec, a large Canadian province; English people made up most of the rest of Canada. The Quebec provincial government was pissed at Canada’s federal government for a multitude of reasons (some rational, some lunatic) and decided to make the Quebec people vote twice, in 1980 and 1995, about separating the province of Quebec from Canada, making Quebec its own country. The vote failed both times, but the periods between 1970 and 1995 were wrought with aggressive discourse, xenophobia, and even terrorism.

My mom was born into a house with a big blue Fleur de Lys flag (the official Quebec flag) planted on its lawn. She had been cradled in this flag; it was her first toy, her first friend, her first truth. My grandparents made phone calls for the Separation party, hosted events, and were even investigated in relation to terrorist acts on federal representatives. The big blue flag, separated into four corners, represented a people she could call her own, through childhood all the way through young adulthood. She was proud Separatist.

Then she moved to Toronto to study. She met my dad, an anti-Separatist to the core of his being. She learned English. She got a good job. She read more than what was available in her childhood home and French Catholic convent high school. And slowly but surely, she changed her mind.

This house that was once unified by Separatism had fragmented. She fought brutal political wars with her parents and siblings, with whom she remained, despite the political divide, very close. These fights hinged on identity, on the very idea of belonging, on the very notion that the family had come from the same blue roots and beliefs, yet couldn’t agree to the same nation state.

The Canadian political climate calmed after 1995, the year I was born, and my parents moved back to Quebec. They settled in a nice English neighborhood. They raised a nice bilingual family. They held nice Christmases with my mother’s family, tiptoeing around the glass shards of a once unified familial political belief.

I know she would deny it if confronted, but there is still a fragmentation inside my mother’s heart. There were nights of endless fights that don’t escape nightmares even for fifty-year-old women with blue yoga mats and blue Mercedes SUVs.

A river runs through my mother’s heart when politicians mention a third referendum, and that river, though thin and filled with old rotten sticks and stones, runs blue.

2. Blue may remind her of my teenage years. When I was sixteen-years-old, I was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital. I was bulimic, depressed, a nervous wreck, and saw myself at the edge of something. I wasn’t sure what that something was, but it felt violent. It’s as much as you’d expect from any sixteen- year-old, really, but I was empty, and lonely, and suicidal, so the hospital, after I’d called an emergency hotline and met with their team a few times, decided I should be admitted for a week’s worth of treatment. They called my mother into a small blue room filled with many chairs. She sat in the one furthest from me, closest to the doctor. The psychiatrist then explained how my mother, because I was a minor, would have to go downstairs, sign me over to the hospital’s custody, and pack a few of my things from home, like homework, pajamas, and toothbrush.

My mother paused for a short time, though it seemed like forever, until she said: “What if I don’t sign her over? What happens then?” I couldn’t believe her reaction at first, but with thought, I could. My mother came from a generation that found disgrace in therapy, shame in weakness, and secrecy in suicide. There was no “sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a nice house with a nice family who goes to a nice school with her nice friends and gets nice grades” who was also suicidal. Whatever the problem, it wasn’t something a little bit of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps couldn’t fix. She believed that these doctors, with their sharp teeth and parent-shaming, would seek to destroy her blue-blood beliefs.

I saw my mother not as angry, but as scared. Scared of the small blue room that separated us, mother and daughter, blood and flesh, alive and, well, less alive. There were too many chairs. I could see it her in her eyes, that she thought there were too many chairs. There were too many chairs for too many therapists and counselors and psychiatrists with their Pfizer checks and pernicious hands. She didn’t want to believe this team of strangers could do a better job repairing me than she could, the one who had birthed me in a room not unlike this one.

The doctor answered her, looking at me directly: “Well, we are keeping her, whether you sign her off or not. We will take custody, but it is up to you how peacefully it is done.” And that was that. I stayed a week. My mother came during visiting hours and brought me awkward hugs and bowls of fruit.

That wasn’t my last time in a mental hospital, not by a long shot, and my mom has gotten better at handling the devastation each time. But I know in retrospect that it was in that moment when my mother understood she couldn’t contain my sanity in a clean Tupperware container. There was always going to be too much blue inside my heart for her to warm with her burnt banana bread or long heat-curled eyelashes. I was born a red-blooded girl, but numbed to a pale blue shade as I grew older; and though my mother wears her blue proudly, she also knows the color to be bigger than what any mother can fix.

3. Blue may remind her of the eyes of those she loves.

We are truly the whitest family on the block. We have light blond hair and alabaster skin, and, yes, blue eyes (except my dad, but we really have a hard time believing he’s actually physically related to us).

All my cousins have eyes like sapphire engagement rings, so bright and faceted you could neglect the possibility of divorce with one hefty check at Kay jewelers.
My aunts have eyes like Pillsbury chocolate chip cookie dough packaging, warm and sweet and definitely in danger of sugar rush and/or salmonella, depending on their mood.

My brother has eyes like an airy blue sky, free of trouble.

My grandparents have eyes like the Caribbean Sea, clear and distinct and free of pollution.

I have eyes like an angry lake, dark and moody.

And my mother, my mother has eyes so vibrant blue you can see the embrace of her safety.

You can’t slip on the blue carpeting in my house.
You can’t spill juice on the blue tablecloth.
You can’t hurt your back sleeping on the expensive blue mattress in the guest room.
You can try to escape it, certainly, but my mother possesses blue so potent you can see yourself in its reflection. You see yourself, and your family, and the cracks in your skins, and your smile lines, and your stress wrinkles, and your veins.
Those blue veins that unite us all: separatist, mentally ill.
Those bulging lines in our arms that trace our heritage from France to this home in the suburbs where my mother paints the walls in our honor.

For our sake, she wears her blue parka when it’s cold and her blue Speedo one- piece when it’s hot.
For our sake, she is monochromatic.
And maybe also for her sake.
After all, a dark blue Mercedes SUV is so much easier to clean.

Gabby Vachon is a writer and artist from Montreal, Canada. She has been published or has work forthcoming in Tiny Tim, Ink in Thirds, and The Corvus Review, among other publications. She is an editor for Soliloquies Anthology. Her favorite food is the skin around her cuticles, and she is happily and forever married to her true love Justin. Follow her on twitter @gabbyvwrites.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

So Long, Promised Land

by Michael Engelhard

Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.
— Ortega y Gasset

As the old year fades from view, I am busy boxing up things for my move to Alaska. Sifting through detritus accumulated over the years, I try to decide what is essential, what is too heavy or bulky, what can be left behind. Stacks of discolored photos quickly distract me from my task. Lost in reveries I shuffle these mementos of a love affair with the Colorado Plateau, an affair that began more than two decades ago.

I was exploring the Southwest in 1982, as a tourist. Smitten with the sublime light, the uncluttered space, the convoluted canyons and silk-and-steel rivers, I decided to live there some day. Life had other plans, but I kept gravitating toward the red rock gardens, where Moab became a haven of sorts. Eventually, I moved there for good. Following my conviction that a perfectly sized town is one in which everything—including wilderness—lies within easy walking or biking distance, I settled in Moab on the tail end of the uranium-mining boom. I felt fortunate, as this muscular and reclusive landscape became not only my home but also my workplace. During summers, I spent more days on the Colorado and its tributaries than in town. My working outfit as a river guide consisted of sandals and shorts. Peoples’ faces often lit up with envy when I asked them to step into my “office,” the raft.
   Too soon, I became aware that the Promised Land—like many other places these days—suffered from industrial encroachment and greed. The West’s troubled legacy revealed itself in cattle grazing the canyons inside a National Monument—“Escowlante.” Thumper trucks explored for oil, destroying delicate soils and vegetation bordering Canyonlands National Park. Politicians supported proposals to extract and process oil shale along the Green River’s marvelous Desolation Canyon. Commerce and people in garish outfits discovered my hideout, pronouncing Moab the Mountain Biking Capital of the West. For the longest time I denied living in a resort town, even when the annual Jeep Safari forced me and many other residents to flee town for a week to avoid traffic and the attendant mayhem.
    In synch with rising visitor numbers, the wealthy started to buy second homes in town. Property prices and taxes rose accordingly, forever placing the dream of a little shack of my own beyond reach. The cost of some frou-frou coffee drinks soon began to equal half the hourly wage dirt bags and river rats like me made in service industry jobs—naturally without benefits. Moab lacked a shoe repair place, affordable health care and housing, a food co-op, noise control . . . Instead it sprouted real estate offices, T-shirt and “art” boutiques, motels and gas stations, jeep, bike, and boat rentals. Mountain and road bikers rubbed sweaty shoulders with hikers, climbers, jeepers, base jumpers, skydivers, kayakers, rafters, golfers, and vintage car lovers. They all rubbed my nerve endings raw. They drank dry the bars, clogged the river and canyons. The off season—welcomed by many locals as a change of pace and reminder of why they had chosen this town in the first place—shrank year by year, cropped at both ends by mountain unicycle festivals and other bogus events. It got harder and harder to escape unwanted company in the Best of Beyond. I often wished my domicile could be famous (if famous it must be) for record-breaking pumpkins or the nation’s oldest hay barn.
    Revisiting a favorite haunt in the Escalante watershed the first time in ten years, I was appalled by the changes. Foot trails cut through crypto-biotic soil carpets, betraying people’s laziness, their need to shortcut across canyon meanders. They had not simply trampled single tracks but whole networks into each knobby surface. Some morons had clearly misread the BLM’s plea to leave behind nothing but footprints. At popular campsites, which appeared strangely denuded even for this arid country, wooden signs directed visitors to pit toilets installed—and hopefully emptied—by monument staff. The voices of nearby campers echoed around slickrock bends, undermining the privacy for which I had hoped. Aluminum pull-tabs and charcoal from illegal campfires had replaced the arrowhead fragments, potsherds, and centuries-old corncobs once safe in alcove vaults. On Cedar Mesa, cameras now eyed ruins and rock art, trying to catch vandals in the act. Elsewhere, fences guarded petroglyph panels, and walkways channeled tour groups.
    Faced with these changes, I realized for the first time that too many hikers degrade a wild place as easily—and permanently—as do too many cows. While it seems obvious and convenient to point fingers at off-road vehicle drivers, any sentient biped will have to admit that he or she is part of the problem. Homo ambulans, too, leaves nothing but traces and often takes peace and quiet from the backcountry.
    Even the Four Corners’ Navajo reservation, which long had been spared the worst excess—perhaps due to its “Third World feel” and user-unfriendly permit system—now suffers tourism’s side effects. A few canyons became accessible with guides only after a flash flood killed eleven visitors, possibly to avoid costly search-and-rescue missions or even more expensive liability suits; about a dozen more canyons were recently closed to all outsiders. Sadly, non-Navajos hiking without permits, harassing livestock, littering, and disturbing archaeological ruins brought on these closures.
    For years, I was still content to take paying customers down rivers and canyons. But I slowly realized that many, if not most of them, were only after the glossy skin, not the meat and bones, or—heavens forbid—the soul of a place. They considered wilderness a sort of outdoor gym-cum-tanning salon, a thrill ride with a picnic on the side, pretty scenery to write home about, or perhaps worst of all, just another checkmark on their bucket list of “adventures.” I’ve since heard of people who try to visit all fifty-nine U.S. national parks in fifty-nine days. My suggestion to them: spend fifty-nine days in one park—Grand Canyon or Gates of the Arctic. You might truly learn something.
    One Moab river company did not hire me because I was too outspoken in my “environmental convictions.” Vacationers did not want to hear about mining or overgrazing or hydroelectric dams. They wanted rapids. They wanted fun. They wanted gourmet food, horseshoe games, solar showers, and, if possible, sleeping cots on the riverbank or a little “canyon magic”—to hook up with a blonde river guide. The manager told me I would set a bad example for the younger guides and that his company was “pro-growth.” Later I heard that a luxury tourism conglomerate had swallowed the outfit. The former Moabite and critic of industrial tourism, Edward Abbey, named the spiritual price paid by those who depend on it for their livelihood: “They must learn the automatic smile.” I had a hard time with that, though it cost me some tips and the goodwill of my boss.I reached the low point of my guiding life during a Marlboro Adventure Team trip, an event for winners of a contest to promote smoking and rugged individualism in countries in which advertising for tobacco products was still legal. I prepared myself for trouble when I saw the trip leader remove the motor rig’s spare outboard from its box, which he then filled with ciggies and booze. The organizers wanted us to flip boats in the whitewater to provide the cameramen on shore with footage for commercials aired in South America. Between rapids, they asked the paddle raft guides to tie on to a motor rig that dragged boatloads of macho, hung-over, helmeted conquistadors to the next “cool” spot.
    Worst of all, though, I sensed, no, I knew I was part of the problem. My writing about the Four Corners’ besieged landscapes seemed to make little positive difference; simply educating the public would never provide a cure. As my Coyote Gulch visit had shown, the lofty goal of educating backcountry users about wilderness ethics and etiquette is based upon optimism with regards to human nature. Defaced rock art, scorched campfire rings, torn-out Wilderness Study Area markers, and fouled waterholes in even the most remote quarter quickly put dampers on such enthusiasm. I could not rid myself of the feeling that, by publicizing this region, I ultimately contributed to its defilement and destruction.
    An argument can be made that public lands need to be used recreationally to ensure their continued protection and funding, to keep them from rapacious developers or corrupt politicos. On the other hand, more than three million visitors per year might easily enjoy the Grand Canyon to death. There are no easy solutions to this dilemma.
                    Vandalized rock art panel in southeastern Utah (photo by author)

Some of the boxes that will hold desert keepsakes still have old addresses on them; I think half of all my belongings must be in transit or storage at any given time. When I see the labels, more bittersweet memories come rushing in. I’m reliving the anticipation and reluctance I felt when shipping these boxes off. Disenchanted with academic life at the postgraduate level, unwilling to objectify cultures, and unable to secure grant money for my Ph.D. project, I’d dropped out of school. There were few guide openings at the time for someone with limited experience and a great deal of competition for them. Opportunity called elsewhere, seconded by the desert’s siren song—I’d been offered an outdoor instructor position in a youth program in Arizona. With my moorings already cut, I followed the current. The rest is river history.
    I am aware that moving to Alaska—the destination for these packed boxes—is not a solution. The political climate in the Last Frontier State closely resembles that of the Beehive State. As a latter-day itinerant, I will become part of the problem there—it can’t be avoided. But approaching middle age, I feel that time is running out. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, I simply don’t wish to grow old without wild country to be old in.
    While moving to Alaska in mid-winter seems unwise, I cannot think of a better place to start the New Year—or a new chapter in life. Let it be cold. Let it be dark. Let summers be buggy. And let us hope we can keep some places wild.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

(photo credit: Melissa Guy)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Wild Cherry Tree

by Gabriella Brand

Mother hated that tree. The messy wild cherries that fell over our bluestone patio, the undisciplined way that the thin branches spread out like unkempt hair, the crookedness of the limbs.

“We should just chop it down,” she’d say every spring when yellow-white tentacles of blossoms appeared, then gave way to small, pea-sized fruit.

“But it’s beautiful,” I’d say.

“We have other trees,” Mother would insist.

It was the 1950’s. We were living in a historic valley in New Jersey, settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, rapidly becoming suburban. Our yard was full of mature maples and oaks, a solid hickory, a couple of weeping willows down by the shallow drainage brook that bordered our property.

In August, when the small reddish-purple cherries ripened, Mother would repeat her threat.

“This year,” she’d say, “we’re going to get rid of that monstrosity.”

Mother liked order. Precision. Cleanliness. Everything that the Prunus Serotia was not.

As the wild cherries fell, the air around the tree would smell slightly sour and fermented, like a child’s lunch bag left behind in a school locker.

 “Couldn’t we eat the cherries?” I once asked.

“Of course not,” said Mother. “They’re barely fit for birds. It’s a totally useless tree.”

I found that hard to believe. The cherries looked perfectly delicious. Besides, wasn’t Mother always talking about how people back in Europe, starving during World War II, had eaten shoe leather and bread made from cellulose? Animal carcasses?  Cats, even?

It was odd that she considered wild cherries to have no value.

But Mother had her firm opinions. I knew better than to try to sway her mind. She could give the impression of being steely or cold, but underneath, she was sensitive and emotional, largely ruled by melancholy, not meanness.

Even as a child, I knew that she struggled with inner ghosts. She was estranged from her far-away family of origin, with its traditional codes of honor and shame. Clearly something had happened, maybe during her childhood. There was the uncle whose name she refused to say, the distant cousin whose letters she destroyed.

Nor did her marriage seem to bring her happiness. Although she tried hard to be a dutiful mid-20th century American homemaker, collecting recipes from Good Housekeeping, decorating the house for Christmas, her heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“I don’t belong here,” she’d say.

But where was here? In suburban America? In the comfortable house with the cherry tree? In the big double bed she shared with my father, although she never spoke of loving him.

“If it weren’t for you kids,” she would say, but she would never finish the sentence.

She had lost one of us. One of her children. A little boy, my baby brother. I vaguely remembered his tiny coffin, fitted with brass handles like two half moons and a smooth satin pillow. Perhaps, because of that loss, she held a personal grudge against the wild cherry tree, so prolific and careless with its bounty.

Fortunately, Mother would always forget about chopping down the tree by the time autumn came around and the leaves had turned a lovely, benign shade of yellow. With the arrival of cold weather and the diminishing light, she would no longer go outside. Like a bear, she would hibernate within the thick walls of the house.

I, on the other hand, loved the outdoors in all kinds of weather, even in the grayness of a late winter afternoon. Out in the fresh air, I could breathe freely and sing silly songs and make snow angels and lie on by back looking up at bare branches creaking in the wind.

In summertime, I remember climbing up that wild cherry tree with a cloth bag slung over my shoulder. The pink bag was supposed to hold ballet shoes, toes shoes actually, the kind with small tufts of rabbit fur inside. A delicate, girly-girly bag, it was. But I preferred using it as a mountaineer’s back pack. I’d twist the bag around, depending on how I needed to maneuver as I climbed. Inside the bag would be a few books, maybe some colored pencils, a sketchpad, and contraband candy such as Necco Wafers or a Bonomo Turkish Taffy. About half-way up the tree, maybe ten feet or so, after scraping my knee against the coarse bark a couple of times, I’d stop and settle into a sort of seat that my older brother had helped me fashion out of hemp lashed between two limbs.

All morning long, I’d keep my nose in the silence of The Betsy-Tacy Stories, but I’d be serenaded by chickadees and warblers. They’d grab the purplish fruit and fly off. Sunlight would dapple the oblong leaves. I’d run my fingers along their fine, serrated edges. The cherry tree was my own cathedral, my sanctuary. Solid, tall, sheltering. Like a protective parent.

Did Mother, burdened with grief and memories, really know where I was? I don’t think so. Back in those days, most kids in small towns were largely unsupervised. When I wasn’t with friends or at summer camp, I left the house after breakfast and showed up at lunch time. I’d take long bike rides by myself, sometimes stopping at the candy store for fresh supplies of forbidden sweets. Sometimes I’d walk along the brook that bordered our property. But I always made time to sit in the tree, invisible to the rest of the world.

Every day our town blew a whistle at the fire station at twelve noon sharp. The siren would crank up and the German Shepherd who belonged to the neighbors on the other side of the creek would start to howl. That’s how I knew to get down from the tree and show up at the lunch table, wiping the traces of Necco Wafers and wild cherries off my lips. By then I had discovered, through my own experimentation, that the fruit of the Prunus Serotia was perfectly edible.

One night, the year I was eleven, a particularly heavy summer storm blew through our valley. When I woke up in the morning, Mother began talking about storm damage. She had been worried about the brook overflowing and heading towards our house, but now the rain had stopped. I ran outside to explore.

Almost immediately, I saw what was left of my tree.

Lightning had sliced the graceful wild cherry down the middle, leaving a black slash in its wake, like the old movie character, Zorro. Higher limbs had fallen onto lower limbs. Branches had flown off, torpedo-like, across the lawn, and ripe cherries had bombed the patio, like small red grenades.

I came rushing back in, breathless.

“But you didn’t tell me about the tree!” I said. “The wild cherry tree!”

Mother shrugged. “Nature accomplished what I had meant to do years ago.”

I could feel myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want Mother to see me crying. I ran back outside and stared in shock at the destruction.

In those days our family had a book called Life’s Picture History of World War II. Black and white photographs of Normandy beaches. Dunkirk. The London Blitz. I sometimes would take down that book and leaf through it. Mother usually discouraged me from staring too long at the wreckage of war.

“It was a horrible time,” she’d say.

Now I knew, even as an eleven-year old, that a tree struck by lightning was not in the same league as the bombing of Dresden. I knew that I shouldn’t be crying over a tree. A wild cherry tree was not a human being. The loss of one tree was not the same as the loss of a baby or the devastation of an entire city. I wiped my tears and went down to the brook to calm myself down.

A couple of men with chainsaws arrived later that day. They clumped around in their heavy work boots and discussed the best way to clean up the heap of ripped greenery and split bark. Then they started cutting until only a stump remained.

Mother and I never talked about the tree. Eventually she planted herbs where the cherry tree had stood, and the smell of mint and tarragon and rosemary seemed to give her pleasure, but it was hard to tell for sure.

Gabriella Brand’s writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The First Line, Room Magazine, The Citron Review, and dozens of other publications. Her poetry has been featured in the series “District Lines” from the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. One of her short stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Gabriella divides her time between Connecticut, where she teaches foreign languages, and the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where she is learning to paddle board on Lac Massawippi.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Hide! You're a Woman

by Seetha Anagol

The Jeep tailgates us. I cower further down in the backseat of the taxi. We are in the Bandipur National Forest, bordering the State of Kerala, in South India, on our way to Calicut.
We race past the tall, dry sandalwood and teak trees, blurring browns, yellows and greens. The gray langur’s chatter is muffled and the occasional jungle fowl pierces the forest with its shrill ku kayak kyuk kyuk. The unexpected drop in temperature makes me shiver, and I cling to the warmth of the setting sun. Pulling the loose ends of my cotton saree over my head and shoulders, I bob up to check on Senthil, the taxi driver.
The headlights are on. Senthil glances in the rearview mirror, once, twice, and wipes his forehead with a brown hand-towel. With his free hand, he maneuvers the steering wheel deftly over the dirt road.
“Don’t look up, Madam. Please.” His thick, deep southern accent annoys me. I am already edgy with the tense situation in which we’ve found ourselves. I recoil from his warning and sink further into the seat.
The drunken yelling and singing from the jeep gets louder. I no longer hear the monkeys’ chatter.
This is the mid-90s. Non-profits working for the empowerment of women are preparing a policy document to present at the United Nations Conference in Beijing. A coordination unit has been set up in New Delhi and in Bangalore to execute the task, with support from several national and international donor agencies.
I have the exciting and critical task of coordinating the effort for non-profits in South India, with the assistance of an able, but small team. The time frame to complete the task is fast approaching. I’m scheduled to reach Calicut by dusk to meet with women’s non-profit organizations from neighboring areas, which work to improve the lives of indigenous tribal and rural women inhabiting the region.
Getting plane or train tickets to Calicut on short notice is impossible. The only option is a taxi. The shortest route cuts across the forest, where bandits and hoodlums haunt the road and rob tourists. I’ve been warned that to travel here  is unsafe for a woman.
The deadline to complete the assignment and my belief in the work we are doing propels me to make the trip despite the danger. Our office checks the taxi rental company’s credentials before hiring one. The rental company assures us that they will assign Senthil, a very reliable, safe driver. He often ferries passengers on this route to and from Bangalore to Calicut.
Shrinking down in the resin seat, I stare at the zig-zag patterns on the jute-mat at my feet and pray our tires will not blow out on the mud track.
Senthil hisses under his breath. “Oh, no … they’ll bang our car if they get any closer. I see their side flaps are folded all the way to the roof. The crazy men are waving toddy bottles in the air. Mam, hide! Please. At no cost should they see you.”
We are way past the police check post, where Senthil stopped briefly. Two guards snored on aluminum, green chairs, in their creased uniforms, basking in the late afternoon sun. One of the officers inspected the travel documents.
The Jeep was parked behind us at the check post. The men stepped out of the Jeep to smoke beedis. I got a quick peek through the side-view mirror and sighed. Five men in total. One had a baseball cap on, another wore khaki pants and a safari shirt. I assumed the man with the goatee was the driver, who had gone to pee behind the bushes.
“Bad men, bad business.” Senthil wrinkled his bulbous nose and turned on the ignition.
I shook my head. “Did you see how they tossed the cigarette butts and plastic bags out by the dirt road? Drinking in a moving vehicle? Tch.”
“Bad men, bad business.” After a pause he added, “Mam, these men can get nasty when they drink … um … toddy. Believe me, I’ve got into a fight or two with drunks on the road. I don’t want them to see you alone in this car … um … they even rape women in gangs, you know.” Senthil looked at me in the rearview mirror. His face was grim.
I nodded my head and closed my fists in frustration. Why do we women have to watch our backs always, the fear of assault, sexual or otherwise, restricting our movements at every step? Sighing, I distracted my mind by going over the approaching conference activities: need to get input from women’s groups in Hyderabad and Chennai, approve posters and local women’s stories to be published by our office, audit of budget for the first quarter, attend forthcoming regional preparatory conferences in Bangladesh and Malaysia ....
My distraction is interrupted. The Jeep is now next to us, side by side, sharing the narrow jungle path. Senthil is silent, almost in a trance. He maintains a steady pace with his foot on the accelerator. Why can’t he slow down and allow the Jeep to pass? Is he afraid that they will go ahead, block our way and force us to stop the vehicle? My heart is racing. My pale fingers clutch the folds of the crumpled saree. My tongue is as dry as sandpaper.
A moment later, our taxi jerks to the left of the road, as Senthil makes room for the Jeep to finally pass us on the right. The tires screech and groan. My elbow knocks hard against the side-door. A numbing tingle runs up my arm. I clench my teeth and choke on the dust in the air, kicked up by the vehicles.
The knots in my shoulders tighten and my legs are asleep. But my mind is hyper-alert. I thank my stars that the doors are locked. Huh, small comfort. Like it would prevent the bad guys from getting to me! I hold my breath. What’s next?
Piercing honks. Shrieks. “Woohoo, we did it! You slow idiot.” The Jeep zooms ahead. The sounds fade in the distance.
Stunned into silence, we don’t speak for the next half-hour. When at last I return to an upright position, I’m a tangled mass, emerging out of the rabbit hole—vertebrae by vertebrae. Stretching my aching limbs, I look out of the window the same time as Senthil does. The Jeep is nowhere in sight.
“Those drunken rascals just wanted to race us.” He wipes the sweat off his forehead again with his hand towel. “Whew.”
I attempt a weak smile. Both of us reach for our bottles, gulping water down parched throats like thirsty crows.
The women from the non-profit groups in Calicut include several demands in the draft policy document, mainly the immediate closure of toddy shops in Kerala and measures to stop violence against women. On the return journey, I’m in no hurry to take any short cuts, so I direct Senthil to drive the longer, but safer route.

Seetha Anagol lives in Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and daughter. Her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers in India and the U.S. She has just completed writing her first novel. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Living in the Nut House

by Richard Ault

For five weeks last winter, I walked a half mile each morning from the "nut house" to my cancer treatments.

Munson Manor sits at the border of the campus of the Munson Medical Center and the old Michigan State Mental Hospital campus in Traverse City. When the mental hospital officially closed down in 1989, after years of slow decline, it was designated an historic site and preservation efforts resulted in what is currently known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Munson Manor, now a gracious "guest house" for hospital outpatients and their families, was originally just plain "Building 27", built in 1903 for female mental patients.

Although we live only about an hour away, what with the vagaries of a Michigan winter and the potential for hazardous driving, my wife Pennie and I decided we would rather remain near the hospital for the five weeks of my chemo/radiation treatments and chose to stay at the Manor House.

Traverse City is the heart of one of the most beautiful regions on the planet, situated in northwest lower Michigan at the base of Grand Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan and surrounded by beautiful inland lakes and idyllic towns and villages—a tourist mecca and increasingly a magnet for retirees. Among these retirees, my wife Pennie and I live nearby on pristine Torch Lake. However, as a kid growing up in the 1940s about three hours south in Saginaw, I and most of my friends knew Traverse City simply as the "nut house." As the location of one of the three state "mental asylums," it was where they sent the crazy people. "You should be in Traverse," was an insult we used when one of us said or did something we thought a little wacky.
But that was just the beginning of my long experience with this place.

As an undergraduate at Central Michigan University in the late fifties, I was a double major in English and Psychology, taking a class in Abnormal Psych as a junior and Clinical Psych as a senior. Each year the combined classes took the two-hour bus trip from our Mt. Pleasant campus to the mental hospital in Traverse. We first met in a large conference room and were introduced to a few of the "milder" neurotic patients, who were interviewed by hospital staff and then took questions from our group—sometimes fascinating but fairly tame stuff for the most part. But then came the real horrors of the place. We toured some of the most disturbed wards and witnessed firsthand every form of psychoses imaginable—a scene reminiscent of the infamous Bedlam asylum in London. My gut churned. My mind swam. I concluded that I would rather be dead that suffer serious mental disease.

And then came my dad.

Several years after those field trips, my mother and father, both in their late sixties, were stricken with serious cases of the flu and had to be hospitalized in Saginaw. My mother emerged without further issues. But not my dad. Mentally he was completely fried and put in the Saginaw County Home. Soon I received a call in Kalamazoo, where I was living at the time, from my brother Chuck to come to the Saginaw facility for a "family meeting." We never had "family meetings", so I knew it was serious.

It was the first I had seen Dad since before his bout with the flu and it was awful. He was completely incontinent, wearing diapers, and hallucinating. We, his five sons, were told he was violent and uncontrollable and would not be allowed to stay there. He had never received a formal diagnosis to explain his condition.  The five of us discussed his options. My four older brothers carried most of the conversation, not a surprise as I look back now given that I was ten years younger than my next closest brother. Finally, we voted reluctantly but unanimously that the State Mental Hospital in Traverse City was our only option. Though my brain was flooded with the haunting scenes I had witnessed there as an undergraduate, I fully respected and agreed with my brothers' conclusions.

I only got up from Kalamazoo to visit Dad twice. The first time I rode from Saginaw to Traverse with my oldest brother Jack. We sat with Dad briefly in his ward, a scene much like I had seen in my previous student field trips—scary but perhaps not quite so extreme—or maybe I was just witnessing the place through less innocent eyes. Jack then arranged for us to take Dad out for a short car ride. Along the way, we stopped for ice cream cones and then parked to enjoy them near a beach with a nice view of East Grand Traverse Bay. Dad was in the passenger seat while I was in the back. Jack—who was so much better at this sort of thing than I was—tried to engage Dad in conversation about old times, old relatives, and other normally familiar themes. Dad seldom said anything, and when he did, his comments were not very responsive. Then suddenly he opened the car door and tried to take off. We got him back in the car but the ride was over. Back to the mental hospital.

The second and last time I saw my father, Pennie (my wife to be) and I drove up from
Kalamazoo for the weekend. On Saturday, I met my brother Jim and his wife Arlene at the hospital and the three of us sat with Dad on an enclosed porch adjacent to his ward. I remember little of what we talked about except that several times he complained that someone had been hurting him physically, maybe an orderly. Given his state of mind, we did not know whether to believe him or not. How could we know—he was crazy after all. At one point, out of the blue, he got up from his chair and stood over me. He stared down with a menacing glare as though ready to punch me. Did he take me for his tormentor? Although I had been on the receiving end of his anger more than once as I grew up and remained afraid of him at that moment, I didn't flinch. I stared back directly into his hate-filled eyes. Thankfully, he backed off and returned to his chair. We took no action on his complaints about physical

The weekend was salvaged when on Sunday I took Pennie for a drive around Torch Lake. She fell in love with the shades of turquoise on Torch that day, and though it would take years to make it happen, we had found our future home. Soon after our Traverse visit Pennie and I were married and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where about a year later we received the call that my dad had died.

My niece, Connie Ault Kinnaman, has become a passionate family historian, our own genealogist. She made the unfortunate discovery that it was not just my father who died from an extreme case of dementia, but so too did my great grandfather, my grandfather, and a grand uncle, all at the Traverse City State Mental Hospital. In those days, the disease was most often known as senility or hardening of the arteries. We can’t know  for sure if it was Alzheimer's. As knowledge about the disease has advanced in more recent history, however, we do now know that three of my four brothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, as well as three cousins from my dad's side of the family.

While only a small percentage of Alzheimer's cases are thought to be genetic, with my family history I am not comforted by those odds. Until my very recent journey with cancer, the Alzheimer's specter loomed as my only serious health concern as I have aged. I was known to boast that I was the youngest seventy-nine- year old on the planet—at least that I felt that way, leading an active life with no frequent aging issues such as heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure.

Despite my claims to good health and fitness, though, I have had a long, rather unfriendly, relationship with my gut, routinely suffering heartburn before new medications virtually eliminated that problem. However, I continued to have frequent night time bouts of acid reflux. That led me some years ago to get an endoscopy, which revealed that I had a condition known as "Barrett's esophagus," in which the lining of the esophagus changes to tissue which is more like the lining of the intestine. About ten percent of us with chronic GERD symptoms develop Barrrett's, and, while it does increase the chances of developing esophageal cancer, my doctors assured me that less than one percent of people with Barrett's esophagus develop esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Nevertheless, I continued to get regular routine endoscopies every three years with no signs of cancer. Until, that is, in November 2015, when my doctor found a tumor near the juncture of my esophagus and my stomach—esophageal adenocarcinoma. So much for those odds. As my doctor attempted to inform me what I now faced by way of a treatment plan, I could scarcely hear, let alone understand, what he was telling me. My brain and my stomach were swirling. The good news was that the cancer was diagnosed early, before I had experienced any of the usual symptoms such as difficulty in swallowing or unintended rapid weight loss.

The first thing I did when I got home was call Max. Dr. Max Wicha was the founding Director of the University of Michigan Cancer Center and is now Director Emeritus. He and his wife Sheila were once our summer neighbors on Torch Lake, owning the cottage next to ours. Max, a world-renowned authority on breast cancer, is also one of the nicest guys I know, and I have long said that, heaven forbid, if I or anyone close to me would ever develop cancer, Max would be the first person I would call. And I did. He told me that their center had one of the best esophageal cancer groups in the country, headed by Dr. Susan Urba. The next day, I received a call from Dr. Urba, a most informative but gently reassuring call. She arranged for me to meet the next week with her and a surgeon, Dr. Rishindra Reddy, to discuss my options.

On December 29, 2015, after a few weeks of tests and further consultations, I had all but the top inch or two of my esophagus removed by Dr. Reddy at the University of Michigan. The procedure also involved stretching and pulling my stomach up to my neck to be reattached to the little bit of remaining esophagus, permanently and radically changing the way I must eat. The surgery was a success and we "celebrated" by spending New Year’s recovering in the hospital. As is standard practice, seven days later I was given a barium swallow test to determine if there were any leaks in the new attachments. I passed with flying colors. No leaks. Normally that would mean hospital discharge and going home the next day; however, the surgical team that appeared at my bedside early each morning noticed that the dressing on my neck incision showed more dampness than they were happy with, a likely indication of some minor leakage. They tried to find a leak by observing me take a drink of grape juice or water each of the next three mornings. No leak. Then, on my soft food diet, one morning I had some yogurt and soft slices of mandarin oranges. When I followed that by drinking some water, my incision let loose and I began to spray through and around my cervical dressing. When I asked Dr. Reddy how it was that I developed a leak despite passing the barium swallow test, he told me it happened about five percent of the time. Those were the odds.

The good news was at least they had determined what the situation was. The bad news was that I had to go home with a feeding tube, able to take nothing in by mouth. Pennie was quickly trained on how to change the dressing twice per day and to provide my medications and nutrition through the tube. We went home the next day with an IV pole and pumps and boxes full of my "formula." In a few weeks, my untrained but loving nurse Pennie got me through. The incision leak healed, and we were ready to move on to the next stage: chemo/radiation at the new Cowell Family Cancer Center at Munson hospital in Traverse City. Just prior to starting chemo I was given a new CAT scan, which showed that I had no signs of cancer anywhere—no lymph nodes, and no other organs. We celebrated by going out for pancakes.

Soon I began five weeks of treatments—chemo each Monday and radiation Monday through Friday of each week. I feared the worst based on stories I had heard about the possible side effects of those treatments. Why, I asked my medical advisors, if my tests showed no cancer, should I go through such an onerous ordeal? Their answer? To increase the odds—the odds of being and remaining cancer free based on probabilities from statistical studies.

So, for five weeks, five days a week, through March and early April 2016, I walked the half mile from Munson Manor to the new Cancer Center across the street from the Munson Hospital: radiation at 8:30 Monday through Friday and a chemo infusion on Mondays.

Thus, I found myself back in the nut house. That is, each of five Sunday evenings we voluntarily checked-in to the old "Building 27", now rechristened Munson Manor, until the following Friday. We slept there and ate our daily breakfasts and other meals there. Beth and Char, the day and night managers respectively, and the rest of the staff could not have been more gracious, professional, and accommodating. The elegant furnishings and quiet halls created a restful atmosphere perfect for patients' families. Because we all fixed our meals in the same kitchen and ate in the same dining room, and because the only televisions were in the public lounge on each floor, we met and got to know other guests.

Richard, with colon cancer, and Bill, with rectal cancer, were there, like me, for chemo and radiation treatments. Women with husbands and men with wives who were in for back or colon surgery. Two new mom's whose premature babies were still in the hospital, breast pumps sitting in the hallway outside their rooms so that they could continue to nourish their little ones. Another mom whose full-term baby was still in the hospital because he was born with pneumonia. Then there was the family of a teenage girl, a high school senior, who was brain injured when, worn out from her day in school and her full-time job, she fell asleep at the wheel of her car and crashed into a tree. Part of her frontal lobe had been removed to relieve pressure and she was put into an induced coma. After a few days, she was taken out of the coma briefly each day and her mother told us how exciting it was the day her daughter first squeezed her hand. The family could not afford the thirty dollars per night to stay long term at Munson Manor, and we and other guests quietly helped them financially as much as we could. The girl's young sister proudly told us how she enlisted several churches in their small town in offering prayers for her big sister.

Each morning I walked from the Manor to the beautiful new cancer center, and, because it was still winter in March and early April, most days I took the short cut through the hospital. As I walked the long main hall, I always mindfully noted the painting at its end—a portrait of James Decker Munson, the first superintendent of the "Northern Michigan Asylum" from 1885 to 1924. He also donated, in 1915, a boarding house to be used as a community hospital, now grown into the regional Munson Medical Center. Every day but Monday, I showed up a few minutes before my 8:30 a.m. radiation appointment. I was in and out in five minutes or so, free for the rest of the day. On Mondays, I hung around for the next few hours for my weekly chemo infusion with Tina, my pretty, funny, and caring infusion nurse. I was usually finished by about noon when Pennie and I went out for lunch. No signs of nausea. No other side effects. Not so lucky to get cancer in the first place, I was, despite my worst fears, very lucky with my treatments.

Each afternoon I took a mile or two walk around the grounds of what once was the asylum, now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

My first time back at that place after my father's death was several years ago when Pennie and I tried out Trattoria Stella, then a relatively new upscale Italian restaurant in the old Building 50, which was the central building of the old mental hospital and, which is still called Building 50 in its current incarnation. The restaurant is in a lower level, almost like a rathskeller, in what was once the place where they did lobotomies. As we walked from the parking lot to the restaurant, I looked up at the tall windows of the old building, the one I visited in my undergrad psych class days and the one in which I'm quite sure my father died. My mind was haunted by the horrors I had seen there and what had happened there. My stomach churned all over again. I told Pennie I wasn't sure I could eat at all. But I did. And it was good. Since then, Stella has become one of our go-to spots for special occasion dinners such as birthdays and anniversaries.  

In 2008, I took Pennie to Building 50 for her foot doctor appointment and, as I sat in the waiting room, I tried to stream Tiger Woods in the Monday play-off for the US Open that he won playing on one leg. Building 50 these days also houses the Mercato shops, art galleries, and other offices. We have been to Traverse City Film Festival parties there, on the lawn, in the building, and under large party tents. There is also a yoga studio, a bakery, and other eateries. Nearby buildings have been renovated and made into upscale apartments and assisted living facilities. New buildings have sprung up.

Obviously, my feelings about the place have eased. As I went through those five weeks of treatments and daily walks around those grounds, I consciously tried to look at those buildings through a new lens. Epictetus may have said if first—"It is not what happens to you, but how your react to it that matters," but today that bit of wisdom is even shared by football coaches and golf pros. I decided I would try to put a new, less- haunted frame on my vision: this was no longer Bedlam but a setting for growth, for renewal, for living. Sad to say, I was only partially successful in my reframing.

For me, when I looked up at the Disney-like spires, I still often saw the past. Looking up at those tall windows in which the bars have been replaced by mullions, I still often saw the bars. Despite all the best efforts at transformation I frankly still found it a bit creepy. I will grant renewal—important enough in itself—but not transformation.

The same might be said of me, of course. My life has been changed by cancer, by the drastic reconfiguration of my digestive tract resulting in a radical change in my eating habits that will last the rest of my life. All observable evidence shows that I am now cancer free. For five weeks, we treated a disease we no longer knew I even had. I had now done everything that I could do, my doctors did everything they can do, and together we did everything that medical science says we should have done to ensure that I am and will remain cancer free for life. But there are no guarantees—despite the odds.

So, things are different for me. I must adjust, they say, to "a new normal." But am I, myself, different? I am grateful, of course, that I no longer have cancer, grateful that I am still alive. I am grateful for the doctors and nurses and technicians who provided such superb professional care. On the other hand, I was already mindfully grateful for my life before any of this happened—for my family and friends, for a creative and meaningful work life, for all the fun and satisfaction I have experienced along the way. It was not new for me that I am in love with life—not just my life but with life itself—with the very idea of life. I want stay around to continue to savor life in all of its manifestations as long as I can. I am grateful that my recent journey will enable me to do that for a while longer.

But am I transformed? Not really, I think. Will I, as I know I should, live each day to its fullest? Probably not. Will I spend more time than a sane man should practicing my golf game against all odds of improvement? Probably. Will I waste too much time on Facebook and watching television? Likely. As I try to savor the present moment, I drag all of my past along with me, for better and for worse. The same might be said of the The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Perhaps transformation is just the wrong metaphor. A better notion might be "transition" or "a work in progress." We, these old grounds and my old self, are not what we were and we are not what we are going to be. We don't even know what that is. Buddha taught that all is impermanence.

So, I find myself with a strange, almost ineffable connection with this old place. I also find it a hopeful one. We are both changing for the better, I hope. We are both, in a way, healing. Nearing the end of my chemo treatments, while sitting in my infusion chair, I read an old Time magazine cover story, "The Alzheimer's Pill: A Radical New Drug Could Change Old Age." Maybe Alzheimer's itself will not be with us permanently. This much I know: unlike some of those of my lineage, I was not "sent to Traverse" to die. I went there so that I could go on living

I lost track of Richard, the colon cancer patient I came to know at Munson Manor, but I have spoken by phone a few times with Bill: his rectal cancer is gone but he must wear both colostomy and urinary bags for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, he expressed happiness that he is cancer free. All the babies who were hospitalized came through healthy and well. The high school senior with the brain damage graduated with her class in June.

One May morning about a month after all my treatments were over and I was feeling fully recovered from my winter's troubled journey, I took my place in "easy seat" on my yoga mat to begin my regular class. Without a thought, without a moment's warning, I began to tear up. It snuck up on me from just below the surface. Pure emotion. Pure sensation. No words attached in that instant, but as the moment passed I realized it was some combination of joy and relief.

I was still alive, and what a wondrous thing that is.

Richard Ault has been a participant-observer in the practice of changing the culture of large organizational systems for most of his working life. Previously he was a teacher and principal at the secondary school level and taught both undergraduate and graduate level courses at the university level. He was principal author of a book on change management called What Works and has published articles, poetry, and short fiction. Consistent with his life's passion for change, he is currently working on a novel about reinventing our political and governance systems. He and his wife Pennie live on Torch Lake in northern lower Michigan. Dick is convinced that he is the youngest eighty-year old, minus an esophagus, on the planet.