Acacia Blackwell – Nailed Magazine https://nailedmagazine.com Wed, 01 Apr 2020 17:51:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.13 Autobiography in Eight Hairstyles by Susan Vespoli https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/autobiography-in-eight-hairstyles-by-susan-vespoli/ Mon, 15 Apr 2019 12:00:18 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17457 Personal Essay by Susan Vespoli + + + Baby Hair:           I came into the world as a blond. My few fine first hairs whorled my newborn skull like a thumbprint. Not just one, but two cowlicks spiraled my crown like googly eyes, a quirk that would drive more than one […]

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Personal Essay by Susan Vespoli

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Baby Hair:

          I came into the world as a blond. My few fine first hairs whorled my newborn skull like a thumbprint. Not just one, but two cowlicks spiraled my crown like googly eyes, a quirk that would drive more than one stylist nuts.

 

Kid Hair:

          By the time my hair was brushable, it was brown. My mom kept her four daughters’ locks clipped short—manageable styles like pixies or bobs with bangs. I didn’t care what my hair looked like as long as shampoo stayed out of my eyes. I was more interested in looking for four-leaf clovers in fields where I was sure at least one grew or standing on my head in the front yard, scalp poked by stickers.

          I had a sensitive scalp, I was told, prone to snarls and mats requiring the help of Johnson’s No More Tears to detangle. Barrettes and stretchy bands pulled stray pieces up and out of my eyes. Pink sponge rollers, bobby pins, and spoolies coaxed temporary curls.

          One day, I got psyched up to try a Lilt home perm. As my mom squeezed the smelly solution over hair-wrapped plastic curlers, I dreamed of glamour, but wound up with poodle hair: a Brillo pad positioned above my frowning face.

 

Teen Hair:

          I turned 13. The aunt who wore false eyelashes, a push-up bra, and leopard prints pulled me, my older sister, and her daughter aside. “To look good,” she instructed, “you need to figure out your best feature and play it up.”  She sized the three of us up, then said, “Well, you all have nice hair.”

          I wound my tresses around bristly rollers held by plastic stick pins, then covered them with a hairnet to sleep on the equivalent of a head of nails. I was a sloppy hair setter, dubbed the messiest hairdo roller at slumber parties. My girlfriends laughed; I laughed. I didn’t see how tidy rows of snuggly attached curlers made much difference once hair dried and was combed out.

          At one overnight party, I let my friends cut my hair into a Dutch boy. My mom was horrified when I came home, a big plus to a new adolescent mastering her art of rebellion. I loved my trendy hairdo along with my heavily applied black eyeliner and mascara. I sprayed Sun-In onto my dark hair aiming for beach girl, ended up with brassy orange.

          By age 14, we moved to Guam, and I began growing my hair with the rest of my generation. Long, straight sheets of hair parted down the middle—we all had it. Even the curly haired went straight by ironing theirs or rolling it on coffee cans.

          Hair was a Broadway musical. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang about “letting their freak flag fly” in “Almost Cut My Hair.”

          I watched my grandfather’s face twist into a grimace in the early 70s as he watched American Bandstand dancers on TV. He spat at the screen, “Why don’t they cut their hair?! They look like girls!”

          Such power! I grew mine longer and longer, occasionally looping it into a knot on top of my head with a chopstick or pencil.

 

Young Womanhood Hair:

          When I became a mother at barely 17 to my oldest son David, my hair still hung to my lower back. By the time I graduated from high school, dabbled with a short marriage to my baby’s father, and fled back to my parents’ house to assimilate an adult life, it was time to chop off several inches. While I supported myself and small son typing documents for an insurance company, I visualized myself with sophisticated waves.

          “How about a stack perm?” my stylist urged.  “It’s a whole new look.”

          I had no idea what a stack perm was, but thought of Vogue models, so agreed and found myself in a salon chair looking at my reflection: me with some sort of sticks holding curlers away from my head like a science experiment. Who knew the procedure would turn me into Rosanna Rosannadanna? I called in sick from work for two days. The frizz relaxed eventually, and then I cut it off into a Dorothy Hamill wedge ala the 1976 Olympics.

 

Married Mommy Hair

          After having two more kids, I saw my mom’s point in keeping hair short. Who had time to keep everyone alive and play beautician? While changing diapers, chasing toddlers, making beds, and whipping up casseroles, I mostly wore my hair short with a poof on top, created by – oh no! —another perm. Or by blow drying the top while holding my head upside down, or by applying shellac-like gel and shaping it into a dome.

          As my kids grew, so slightly did my hair. I turned 30, 35, and then 40 wearing a series of bobs. When gray strands appeared, I paid hairdressers to cover them with dye or blend them with highlights. I spent lots of money and hours in salons wearing perforated plastic caps or foil strips.

 

Cancer Hair

          When I was diagnosed with cancer of the perineum at age 44, I was shocked. Pissed at what I felt was a double-cross by my body. Furious with doctors who misdiagnosed, finally diagnosed, and then casually detailed my treatment options, I sat on the exam table in my paper gown watching this tall male doctor explain how my hair will fall out from the chemo.

          “In clumps,” he said.

          Oh yeah?  I thought. Nope! My hair won’t leave me, because I’ll get rid of it before it has the chance.

          I called my hairdresser du jour and she squeezed me onto her calendar and cut it off. Not Mr. Clean or Sinead O’Connor, but short.

          My sister Nancy flew in from out of town, drove me to a wig store and bought me the fake mane that most closely resembled my former hairstyle. I hated that thing. Hated the store and the person who sold it to us. Hated the chair I sat in to try it on. Hated my reflection in the mirror. Hated the way it smelled and felt when I got it home, kept it in a box in my closet.

          “Wait to see how you feel about it,” my sister said in a gentle voice, “when your hair falls out.”

Okay.

          Years later, I would still feel the pitbull of anger in my gut when I thought about that wig. I would still want to torch it and bury the remains. So, no, I never wore it. I mailed it in its box to an organization called Bosom Buddies that helps women with cancer. Maybe somebody got some use out of it. To each her own.

          And guess what? My hair never fell out. The doctors were surprised. The tall one who predicted my baldness eyed my stubbornly growing in pixie.

          “That drug makes everyone’s hair fall out,” he said. “Not sure why yours didn’t.”

          My pubic hair fell out, though. That was a surprise. Seeing that bald triangle instead of my former shag rug made me wonder how anyone would opt for a Brazilian. It looked lonely and kind of pathetic, like a putting green where the grass had died, a golf hole no longer played.

          But I lived. The hair on my head grew back and my pubic carpet returned, although sparsely.

 

Revolution Hair

          “A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” ~CoCo Chanel

 

          More lethal than bad food, bad drink, and bad exercise habits, more toxic than chemical exposure, is the act of not owning your thoughts or speaking your mind. I learned that denial and tamp-down are poison. By age 50, I began to speak up. I left my marriage, cut off my bob, sold my business, moved to a cabin in the forest, and ended up with an MFA.

          I was so angry at men for a couple years after my marriage that I looked at all of them with distaste. No interest! And then I met one I fell madly in love with and began to grow my hair long again. Something about reclaiming my femininity. Being an Eve to his Adam.

 

Now Hair

          Flash forward ten years. I’m back to a bob, tinted medium blond for a while now to blend in the ever-increasing swaths of gray. The grayer I get, though, the more noticeable my skunk stripe of roots. I dye it myself to save money, and because of botched dye jobs by professionals who had their own opinions about what shade my hair should be. I’m currently moving from medium gold to light ash to get closer to what is becoming my natural color – a grayish-white.

          Will I eventually stop dying it and let it all go? Will I go purple or turquoise like young and old women I see on the street? Will I go asymmetrical or mohawk or make some other radical statement? An anonymous quote I found while googling says: “It’s your hair. Do whatever YOU want.” And I think that about sums it up.

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Header image courtesy of Philip Munoz. To view his artist feature, go here.

Susan Vespoli splits her time between Arizona and Washington state. Her work has been published in spots such as Mom Egg Review, Emrys Journal, Writing Bloody, Role Reboot, New Verse News, Pact Press, Nasty Woman Poets Anthology, South 85 Review, and dancing girl press. She has an MFA in poetry and nonfiction from Antioch University L.A.
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Letter from Spain, July 2018 by Emily Rapp Black https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/letter-from-spain-july-2018-by-emily-rapp-black/ Mon, 01 Apr 2019 12:00:56 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17448 Personal Essay by Emily Rapp Black + + + Me falta tiempo para celebrar tus cabellos. I don’t have time enough to celebrate your hair. -Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XIV from 100 Love Sonnets Fundacion Valparaiso, Mojacar, Almeria, Spain June, 2011 Dear — I am at my great wooden slab of a writing desk in paradise, […]

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Personal Essay by Emily Rapp Black

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Me falta tiempo para celebrar tus cabellos.
I don’t have time enough to celebrate your hair.
-Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XIV from 100 Love Sonnets

Fundacion Valparaiso, Mojacar, Almeria, Spain
June, 2011

Dear —
I am at my great wooden slab of a writing desk in paradise, looking out over a hump of mountain crowned with lights, and I don’t know where to begin, so I don’t know where to end and I don’t want to end or begin or figure out which is which and why or how. Today, dropping through the thick layer of clouds, a hoop skirt of sunshine opened like the bones of a parasol but offered no shade. Tonight is summer solstice. A change in season. There will be a bonfire on the beach and free sardines (gran sardinada!), live music and booze and “treats for kids.” Noche de San Juan. Equinocio – the equinox. People will throw what they want to cast off into the fire, little sins or sadnesses scribbled onto slips of paper and scooped up in the blaze. I have nothing to burn and everything to lose. I am not in the mood for fiestas. I’d like to avoid all ritual. I don’t want to sip the ocean air or feel sand scratch between my toes. I want time to stop. Flames, stop. Water, stop. Sun and moon and stars, just quit it. Carefully crafted narrative finally fractures, which means that what is today is no longer tomorrow is yesterday and was never and is beyond and was before and is and is not. What is behind is already in front or perhaps to the side or underneath or nowhere at all. Dates blend. Nothing belongs to no place and lives inside no body.
*
Kafka said that “writing a letter is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters, where one letter corroborates another and can refer to it as witness.” This book is a love letter. It is very earnest in that way, very Alpha and Omega. But I am afraid to witness, afraid of dividing lines I am afraid of punctuation my baby is dying
*
Walking into Mojacar pueblo a dog trots past with a fly attached to his nose; he tries, in vain, to shake it off and eat it. It flies up and lands, flies up and lands. This requires his full attention and makes him too hot to bark. “Are you one of those dogs that barks all night?” I ask. He bites the air. If I could catch the fly I’d feed it to him. A thumbprint of gray is pressed to the end of his nose, like an accident of paint, a tiny flag of age waiting to flutter further and faster up his face. “Perro?” I ask the Spanish dog, trying to recall the lesson about animals from high school Spanish class. Yo me llamo Emilia is all I get. Hace much calor. Hola! Wind lifts dust from the road; it swirls in eddies behind me as if I’m being followed. Not by the dog, he’s disappeared behind the gate. The staccato chatter of crickets is interrupted by a little van moving down the road that’s cut into the soft mountain, a finger sliding carefully through a mound of frosting so nobody will know that the cake has been plundered before the party begins, before the candles are pushed in and lit. Babies with Tay-Sachs don’t live to be three, I hear the doctor say. The van is a child’s toy and it blurts a message from a single crackling loudspeaker: uno nino cinco anos. Two hours later, walking in the other direction, the same van going the other way, bearing the same message: uno nino cinco anos. I know the translation but what does it mean I am afraid to ask the question
*
Where I’m writing from there is only one phone box, in the hallway beneath the echoing rooms. If I call my child and he is eating lunch, I will cry and everyone will hear me and if he is not eating lunch I will also cry and Ronan, I have a song for you
*
Today, 5,000 miles away, Ronan is alive. My son, on this day, is alive. I am reading Kafka.
*
In April 1920, Kafka wrote to Milena Jesenska: It occurs to me that I really can’t remember your face in any precise detail. Only the way you walked away through the tables in the café, your figure, your dress, that I still see. This was a P.S. He loved her
*
The evil eye cannot find you during siesta. Your eyes are closed and it is forced to find someone who is awake, stupid nasty roving stinky old dripping eye I fear you. The wind relays softly through the trees like a skinny, fragrant monkey. The day dozes, drops its head. I need a witch to poke the eye out with a witch stick. People who run into fires are not brave; they have no other choice. Oh where are you
*
Milena’s letters to Kafka did not survive fire and censor so she walks through his but without a voice he answers still
*
The streets in Mojacar were built deliberately twisted; it helps the wind move more efficiently, cooling streets, tempers, dogs, and now tourists from Northern Europe. I hear the goats now (cabritas!) their tiny goat bells softly tinkling the way they’d talk if they had words instead of weary bleats. Every hour, on the hour, the bells ring out from some unseen cathedral. 10987654321 seconds later another cathedral telling a different time rings out the “new” new hour. Which one is the real one which time is the real time come quickly
*
It couldn’t look better, the doctor said after the final ultrasound, all those tests. Why
*
Fireworks explode over the hills outside my window, over the empty luxury hotel full of abandoned furniture and half built rooms. A limp and distant pop pop boom. People and lizards are living in the hills. A man runs into a shop to buy bread at the “Crises” price of 1 Euro; it’s a crisis, it says so on the bag. A dog stops barking. A baby sleeps. A door slams in the wind. An empty drawing table on a sun-drenched porch. Someone says, “I want to talk to you” in Spanish behind a screen door. “Urgent,” they say. The bells are ringing they are stuck
*
How long does your son have to live? I need a lantern or a candle something hurry
*
I forage for food at night in the kitchen when everyone is asleep. The only face I want to see is yours
*
Kafka was an insomniac. Writing to Max Brod: After a series of dreams, I had this one: A child wearing a little shirt was sitting to my left (I couldn’t remember whether it was my own child or not, but this did not bother me). Not a little child but a little shirt he couldn’t sleep heavy pains in my heart he said
*
In the darkness I am groping for your hand, your eyes, sweet belly, smooth flat back of the neck a thin stem
*
Far away my baby is still alive his life a swiftly departing dream. Rones Bones, little king of my own bones I love the handful of earth you are (Neruda). The bells ring out on the unseen hill. Cars curve around the mountains, another finger tracing the sweet road, another long, shallow dent. Mojacar dogs bark all night. Spanish poodles patrol the mountainside terraces teeth bared tails wagging
*
The world we live in is a world where you live also are you ready to begin your baby day are you ready now
*
Today I am going home. Tomorrow I am dreaming. Vice-versa and reverse
*
In Germany they said that in Almeria, Spain, where I’m writing from, the cucumbers are rotten with disease and not even good for goats but we ate them cucumber psychosis they said and the women kept coming, each day, to cook our meals in ceramic pots the color of earth and wash our clothes and scrub bright coins of blood from my underwear. All day long doors and windows slam shut beneath me. The house is full of empty rooms. Green bugs with intricate Elizabethan wings fight roughneck flies on the windowsill and win. A spider the size of my palm runs across the roof as if to say Good luck! The birds at night don’t sing, they ask questions the goats are okay
*
Wait I will not leave the edge of this day closing sleep sleep sleep
*
Dead flies drop into corners swept of dust oh Victor why didn’t you write a book why couldn’t you love him, your wretch, your it, your boy
*
Simone Weil was right: When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know it is really a door. What I write is a lie what I write is a door
*
This is not an argument with God or about God or for God
*
This is a love letter it is for you
*
It’s not a scary monster my dad explains when the book warns us about the one on the last page. I am five years old. Should we read about him? He has big eyes and soft fuzzy fur like a bear, a nice bear. He’s a sweet monster and he wants to be your friend. I nod okay and he continues. I like him I say at the end of the book
*
The bells bring in the animals but not all of them some were burned in the fire goats and also horses trapped in their barns. Thousands of almond trees and olives whole hillsides of nutty oil burning screams
*
This is the song: As I was walking down Twiddally dum street, I saw a monster with fifty-seven feet, he had big blue eyes and his ears were on his nose, he had eight big ears and fifty seven toes. He was weird. He had a purple beard. He had snakes. Wrapped up in cho-co-late cakes. He had hair. Worse than Tony Blair. He chewed gum. With his thumb.
*
Bliss, see also “euphoria, happiness, joy.” Summer has arrived. The trees wear soft lace undergarments of spider webs and I’m missing you. My room is a long corridor of wind. At night I leave the key inside the lock just in case
*
A one-word myth: Now. Another word: No. Up up up
*
A book from childhood: there is a monster at the end of this book so if it’s only a monster that would be good news that would be okay no ordinary creation you are my baby not enough time my beloved I won’t land your eyes your face my son your feet not yet your hair your fingers and toes mine and the wine glass is empty the wine is too and the bells are stuck ringing ringing ringing off the cord like dogs off the leash and gone gone gone Frankenstein go back to the beginning I run to you handful of earth which is the end and I’ll never touch ground fast as I can go you are mine there is not enough time for you and me even when I forget I promise not fast enough I will not take root I will be remembering believe it please wait see I am loose I am flying and the bells ring and ring and ring and they don’t stop ring-

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Header image courtesy of Haley Craw. To view her artist feature, go here.

A former Fulbright fellow and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir; The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller; Sanctuary, forthcoming from Random House; and Cartography for Cripples, forthcoming from Nottinghill Editions/New York Review of Books. She is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Winter Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence Award, in addition to other honors and awards. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, O, the Oprah Magazine, Redbook, the Wall Street Journal, The Sun, and many other publications, magazines, and anthologies. She has collaborated on several recent and award-winning books, including When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi; and I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Faith in Pakistan, by Khalida Brohi. In Summer 2019 she will be a fellow at the Kierkegaard Library at the University of Copenhagen. She is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside, where she also teaches in the School of Medicine.

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Earth is the Mother of Metal by Jane Gregorie https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/earth-is-the-mother-of-metal-by-jane-gregorie/ Mon, 18 Mar 2019 12:00:22 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17431 Personal Essay by Jane Gregorie + + + Earth moving into metal is the aspens going yellow, then orange, then brown, their summery whisper turning into a dried-up rattle of a sound. Earth moving into metal is the thin veil of frost glittering dry blond grass and pine needles and soggy leaves and mica-sparkled sand. […]

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Personal Essay by Jane Gregorie

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Earth moving into metal is the aspens going yellow, then orange, then brown, their summery whisper turning into a dried-up rattle of a sound. Earth moving into metal is the thin veil of frost glittering dry blond grass and pine needles and soggy leaves and mica-sparkled sand. It’s the Mosquito peaks dusted white again, reflective and dramatic: black against white against blue, in and out of shadow under every shape of cloud, changing.

 

Earth is late summer and squash blossoms and full bellies and the sound of singing and sweetness and sympathy and inertia and the mother of Metal. Metal is autumn and grief and weeping and the color white and the mother of Water.

 

The aspen leaves were yellow at the rim of the Black Canyon when I talked to Dicksie about the lump she found under her armpit. I was sitting under my silver shade tent, looking at the cliffs on the other side of the canyon. There were dirty breakfast dishes on the picnic table: remnants of sausage and maple syrup and gluten-free pancakes. My dogs were tangling their leashes up on the tent poles and chairs. Small deer wandered through the scrub oaks in front of our campsite.

 

          “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said. “You just finished all that chemo and your immune system is weak. You might have an ingrown hair that just got infected and made a lymph node swell.”

          “David said I shouldn’t be paranoid about everything I feel now.”

I could tell she felt shame and fear and powerlessness all mixed up together by the tightness in her voice.

          “Fuck that. You can be paranoid if you want,” I said. “It’s totally natural with what you’ve been through. That pisses me off. I’d be worried too. But still—I bet it’s nothing.”

 

Later, one of my doctor-sisters said the lump felt bigger on Monday compared to when she had first felt it on Friday.

 

Monday was Labor Day, September 5th, 2016.  I need the dates to be proof, to crystallize memory, to become ritual offerings to the spirits who spin time.

 

Earth moving into Metal is sweetness gone rotten. Earth moving into metal is pumpkins dissolving in compost, dead grass, leftover plant stalks drying out and breaking, littered bits of summer garden.

 

When I found out Dicksie’s cancer was back and spreading, I texted her husband panicked:

I’m coming out there right now.

He texted back to wait. They didn’t know what they were going to do.

 

I didn’t go right then.

 

There were specialists at UNC and Vanderbilt and radiation treatments and it was only 72 days from our conversation on Labor Day until November 16th and I still try to imagine having more days than just two.

 

Metal feels like longing and regret and mourning and remorse. Metal is the moment the last leaf lets go of the branch.

 

Before the 70 days, I missed the better part of six years with her because I was righteous and mean in response to a small thing she did.  We barely spoke for several years.

 

Metal is surrendering.

 

In 2014 we got close again. She filled her country house with groceries for my family when we stayed there at Thanksgiving: Trader Joe’s chia seed peanut butter, homemade granola, organic cow milk and almond milk and La Croix and hot chocolate and salad greens and gluten-free bread.

 

In 2015 we went out to a boozy dinner in Denver with our husbands.

 

In 2016 she was diagnosed. When she was going through treatment we talked all the time.

 

Metal feels like the sudden shock of loss.

 

It’s the breathlessness of remembering the day I debated going to see her one week or two weeks earlier than I actually did.  It’s the weight of those days that fills my lungs to the point of drowning.

 

Metal is the gut-clenching, chest-tightening feeling of wanting to call her about my son’s reading or paint colors or family drama and then realizing I can’t.

 

It’s the years and days and moments that choke me now: how she left for college when I was only eleven and as the last of my six siblings to leave, how I’d always missed her the most. It’s the nights I spent at her house instead of my parents’ in high school and college and for years after because her house felt like home and there was always food and kids and she lived at the beach and let me wear her clothes and tag along with her on boat rides and to dinners and to parties. It’s how she took me to Kerrison’s Department store on King Street to get my first bra: a double A padded Lilyette with a small pink rosette at the center. It’s the road trip she took to drive me to college in Vermont. It’s all the things I forgot.

 

It’s her body being gone.

 

It’s the also true that she was a spark. Dicksie was all Fire: laughter and connection and warmth and red and summer and joy and the mother to Earth.

 

When I picture the morning of November 16th  I see white: white cotton blankets over white sheets over her white from-home baby pillow. White plastic mini blinds and white morning sun above the sea-flooded streets and the white cot where I slept and the white ceiling tiles and her white hospital gown and her words gone and all the dryness on her tongue and spooning her one last time when her husband went to Starbucks for coffee and what I said with my skin touching her hot skin, her heart beating like a hummingbird heart, her breath faint, her body in the same position as it had been the night before.

 

She slipped out when we weren’t looking, when we were distracted and chatting, when things weren’t serious or heavy.

 

She made it easy for us, even then.

 

Fire melting Metal, laughter within grief, her particular eyeshine like flame, always rising: ringing bells, Christmas lights, flying fish, lightning bugs, all things magical and floating and bright.

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Header image courtesy of Jessica Dunegan. To view her artist feature, go here.

Jane Gregorie is a writer, acupuncturist, fertility expert, mother, spouse, and activist. She is inspired on a daily basis by the hundreds of women who have braved their family-building struggles with her over the past two decades. She is soon to be published in Entropy and is working on a memoir about her Southern childhood, adoption, and race.

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The Object of Heat by Jackie Shannon Hollis https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/the-object-of-heat-by-jackie-shannon-hollis/ Mon, 04 Mar 2019 13:00:14 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17386 Personal Essay by Jackie Shannon Hollis + + +           She tells me to twist the black knob so the white letters that say high are under the arrow. She tells me to use the can opener to open the can. Put the green beans (slimy, already cooked) into the pan, […]

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Personal Essay by Jackie Shannon Hollis

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          She tells me to twist the black knob so the white letters that say high are under the arrow. She tells me to use the can opener to open the can. Put the green beans (slimy, already cooked) into the pan, the liquid too.

          Chin barely to the top of the stove. Don’t ask too many questions. She’s busy. Doesn’t tell me how fast coils heat. Doesn’t tell me not to use my hand to see if the coils are hot enough.

          Heat travels faster than pain. Then I scream once, but don’t cry.

          Lesson learned: even if the burner is black it still cooks (canned green beans., fresh palm of a six-year-old).

          She wants me to know how to cook.

          We eat dinner at the yellow Formica table in the nook of the kitchen. The table edge is wrapped in a metal band with tiny screws like stars. My brothers and sister don’t ask about the burn. My sister forks green beans to the side of her plate, cuts pork chop into tiny squares. I press the tip of my finger into a star. It hurts, it feels good.

          Right hand wrapped in Neosporin and gauze, I don’t ask for help with the knife and pork chop. I have a good left hand. We always eat something like this: meat potatoes gravy vegetable (canned or frozen) salad (canned pear with a dollop of Miracle Whip and grated orange cheese, or canned pineapple ring with a scoop of cottage cheese and a dollop of Miracle Whip, fancier with a sprinkle of paprika).

          After dinner she puts his plate in the oven on Warm-Bake. I don’t have to do dishes. I carry them to the sink anyway. My sister puts in too much soap and the bubbles foam like a bathtub.

          He comes home during TV and homework. We’re on the floor, bellies down, knees bent, feet kicked up books and papers spread around.

          He sways at the door.

          What did you learn today?

          Nothing.

          I turn on my back, sit up. Hold my hand in my lap so he’ll see. He goes to the kitchen, takes out the plate (dried pork chop, gravy like wrinkles, green beans mush). He sits alone in the nook, eyelids half down, chin close to plate, looks past us to the TV.

          Back to my belly. Pencil in good left hand, pencil marks on paper. Homework is easy and done. I unwrap the gauze from my bad right hand. It hurts now.

          No one told me that burns match the object of heat, blisters in the shape of coils rise like pale worms. I press them. Pierce them with pencil lead. Liquid runs down my wrist.

          This is my first burn, this is the first time I won’t know when to pull back.

          Leave that alone, she says. Let it heal.

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Header image courtesy of Meagan Boyd. To view her Artist Feature, go here.

Jackie Shannon Hollis is the author of the forthcoming memoir, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story (Forest Avenue Press, Oct 1, 2019). Her short stories and essays have appeared in a variety of publications including: The Sun, Rosebud, Slice Literary, High Desert Journal, and VoiceCatcher. Jackie facilitates writing workshops, through her local library, for people experiencing houselessness. She lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon.

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Dear Gramps, You Short Angry Bastard by Tom Griffen https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/dear-gramps-you-short-angry-bastard-by-tom-griffen/ Mon, 18 Feb 2019 13:00:12 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17364 Personal Essay by Tom Griffen + + +             Been a while since I thought of you, old man. Proud of all your scars. Of your shoeless childhood and all those bread scraps tossed at you by that old German baker. Proud of your St. Louis heritage and how your unlikely ass linked up with […]

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Personal Essay by Tom Griffen

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            Been a while since I thought of you, old man. Proud of all your scars. Of your shoeless childhood and all those bread scraps tossed at you by that old German baker. Proud of your St. Louis heritage and how your unlikely ass linked up with the likes of my grandma. My gram. “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” you said. Until you no longer recognized her. Which is when she became another face in the crowd. You slipped into a childhood brogue and cried your little green eyes out like a baby. Gram didn’t mind, or didn’t seem to anyway. You were a fraction of the man she married. “He had a good life,” she said before you died. And she was right, you had had a good life. Even if you never saw it that way.

I knew the you you evolved into. Which was a less assholeish version of the you my mom knew. She loved you because she had to. I loved you because, to me, you were lovable. But make no mistake, I spent a lot of time covering for you, too. Because memories never stop bleeding. And gramps, the stuff you did before I knew you hurt a lot of people. Like, a lot.

Family lore is truth, right? Which means you were a verbally abusive narcissist. A misogynist. An alcoholic. A wino. Came home from the service after the war all rigid and heavy-handed. In uniform you found a place amongst similar rule-following men. You lived to obey, and be obeyed. You knew if you bucked the system it was back to the farm with you. Back to the sticks and your stoic family. Everyone a wall. A family who, decades later, came knocking because gram’s family had left her some money and, by god, they needed some of it. Asked you to make it happen. And if what you told me is true, you gave them sons-a-bitches a piece of your mind.

 

I knew a life-loving you. We found arrowheads together. You taught me about volcanoes and the Golden Gate Bridge and obsidian. You loved General Custer even though you called him an “Indian killer.” Your ability to create art was sort of a paradox. You painted with the tiniest of black dots and won heaps of blue ribbons at the California state fair. They filled your studio and over time got covered in dust. My favorite piece of yours was a breaching gray whale. The only place you added color was in the space between air and water. A few dashes of varying shades of blue. Indigo and sky. Your signature changed over the years, yet it always remained in the right corner. Early stuff was all flowy and pretentious. The final one, the one on your last painting—a portrait of the stray cat you took in—was simple. Small and unassuming. Just something to keep it from being mistaken for someone else’s.

You made friends wherever you went. And even though your ice-breakers were terribly embarrassing, often sounding like a bad pick-up line, I endured. Mostly because I loved watching strangers respond to your abrasive words. You craved this limelight. This performance. You were a natural entertainer, a real vaudevillian who missed the call. When you laughed, your wide-open mouth flashed gold and silver teeth, a treasure chest stained by years of unfiltered cigarettes and strong coffee. You’d throw your head back with abandon. Let it all out. Fill a room with your joyous noise. Someone inevitably would look at you funny and you’d be like, “What the fuck’s that guy’s problem?”

When you told me about the time you died, you had to pull over the truck to wipe your tears. Blamed it on something in your eye. A gnat, maybe. Your truck’s cab smelled like a dead fish. Rotten. When I think about the light you saw, the one that said it wasn’t ready for you yet, I think about that smell. I want to roll down the window and take a deep gulp of air.

When I asked you for some generic advice you told me not to waste any time. “If you’re waiting for the right time to do your thing, forget it. It’s already too late.” You insisted I do everything now. “If you ain’t happy, sonny, it’s your own goddamned problem,” you said. I do my best to take your advice, but wonder if you ever took it yourself. Because up until those last days when you still remembered who I was, you remained pissed at the world.

Somewhere along the way you decided it was OK to sprinkle F-bombs into our conversation. I never told you how much I hated that.

On the last day I saw you alive, you had your face in a plate of mashed potatoes. I called the nurse and gave her a piece of my mind. “What kind of place you running around here, huh?” I barked. Which is when you woke up and squinted through cataracts. “Who are you?” you asked me. I told you I was your grandson. “You Irish?” I told you I was. “Well good, then,” you said. “Because if you were English I’d punch you in the fucking face!”

I rolled your wheelchair back to your room. You thought Katie, my partner, was a boy. Kept asking who “that guy” was. I told you it was nap time and you agreed to get into bed. But first you wanted to show me the photos on the walls. I rolled you from image to image. You said one was your mom. “She’s beautiful, ain’t she?” you asked me. Another one showed your siblings. “We had some wild times, I tell ya.” And a few were your wife. My gram. “Best decision I ever made,” you said, “staying out west to marry her. I’m a lucky man.”

But gramps, none of these photos were actually of people. In fact, you were pointing to your own paintings as you rattled off the names of various relatives. And you know that one I liked so much, the one with the jumping whale and flares of blue? That was the one you thought was gram.

Here’s what you taught me by doing the opposite: make sure you tell everyone you love them.

Yep, that’s what you were saying, but in your own messed up way.

So farewell, old man. I fucking loved you.

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Header image courtesy of Joshua Zirschky. To view his Photographer Feature, go here.

Tom Griffen is a writer and artist. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. He’s now writing a book about it. Follow him at www.mywalkinglife.com.

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On the Creation of Family Lore by Christina Yoseph https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/on-the-creation-of-family-lore-by-christina-yoseph/ Tue, 05 Feb 2019 13:00:45 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17346 Personal Essay by Christina Yoseph + + + My girlfriend and I spend our evenings on the pullout sofa in our living room. We watch television or movies, our legs intertwined. Other nights, she draws on her iPad at the small table in our dining area. I sit slouched on the sofa with my head […]

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Personal Essay by Christina Yoseph

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My girlfriend and I spend our evenings on the pullout sofa in our living room. We watch television or movies, our legs intertwined. Other nights, she draws on her iPad at the small table in our dining area. I sit slouched on the sofa with my head sunk into the pillows from our bed, writing on my laptop. Along with a lamp, a pair of glasses, and a cupcake-shaped lip balm I’ve had since I was a child, a small stack of ever-changing books lives on the stand next to my side of the couch.

 

One in particular, a book of poetry, is a regular in the stack. When I pull it down from the shelf in our living room, I reread the same poems that I’ve read a dozen times before. One would find, upon cracking the book, that it opens with ease to a poem entitled “The Story Will Be Told.” The poem reads, in part:

 

The story

must be told.

 

 

No matter from whose

point of view, it will be told:

you, making up a story

full of gaps about me?

I, narrating your tragi-comical tale?

 Perhaps, He, the one

   ignorant of all our days?

 

It will be told.

 

 

My uncle Seggo died in October of 2007. Though he is enshrined in my memory as a kind person, I don’t remember him particularly well: he spent his last years in Berlin, and I didn’t grow up around him the way I did my other extended family members. In fact, to this day, I can’t discern a single memory of any particular moment I spent with him while he was alive. For all intents and purposes, at the time of his death, my uncle was, to me, a distant relative.

 

Seggo—a nickname for Sargon—was actually my father’s uncle and my great uncle. A collection of Seggo’s poetry, entitled The Knife Sharpener, which he’d begun assembling before his death, was published posthumously in his honor.

 

Prior to his funeral, my dad suggested I read one of Seggo’s poems at his service. He’d started writing at age twelve and went on to have a prolific career as an Assyrian poet in the Arab and European artworlds until the time of his death. As an impressively underachieving seventeen-year-old, reading his poetry at his funeral was just about as ludicrous an arrangement as I could imagine agreeing to.

 

Instead, I sat beside my grandmother in the front row of the church, silently rubbing her back throughout the service. But it was no good. She was beside herself with grief. As we listened to Seggo’s eulogy, she rocked back and forth, her cries howling toward her beloved younger brother’s casket.

 

 

Months after his funeral, my family received several cardboard boxes of my uncle’s personal belongings from Germany, which included numerous abstract paintings he’d made in his spare time. His artistic influences made themselves known in his art: some of the pieces resembled Lee Krasner’s best-known work; others, Georges Braque’s; and others still of Wassily Kandinsky’s color studies, but with a decidedly autumnal slant.

 

The shipment from Germany also contained novels, literary magazines, and books of poetry he’d collected. Perhaps the most personal of the belongings in the shipment from Germany were my uncle’s notebooks. Much of the writing in them was in Arabic, which I don’t know how to read. My parents declared that I was entitled to take my pick of anything but the paintings, which my father hinted a museum in Berlin might be interested in obtaining for its collection.

 

I sat on the floor of my parents’ guest bedroom, sorting through the objects of my late great uncle’s life. A strange sensation washed over me: sort of like regret, but not quite. Instead, I felt a little like I was in a moving car, but not behind the wheel. Too little, too late, I longed for the opportunity to get to know my uncle just a little better, though he’d lived halfway around the world in the years leading up to his death, and I’d been in high school at the time, making the feat next to impossible.

 

After Seggo passed, adult members of my family mused that his health had failed, in part, because he’d been a heavy smoker. In my teenage mind, the rumors of my uncle’s lifestyle were frightening, because it had allegedly helped usher in his untimely death, and at that point, I hadn’t yet picked up my decade-long habit of smoking cigarettes. But they also fueled my romantic notions of it as one driven by artistic decadence and spontaneity.

 

I became ardently curious about what my uncle was like when he was alive, and I delighted in falling down rabbit holes about his life as a poet. I consumed the results of my countless google searches with vigor, crafting in my mind scenes from the years he spent in Lebanon after he’d illegally crossed the border as a teenager. I imagined him lounging in smoky cafés in Beirut with his contemporaries. I relished the fact that, upon coming to the U.S., he was part of the Beat generation. By reading posthumous biographies and collecting mementos of his life and career, the mythos I invented around my great uncle grew exponentially throughout the decade following his death.

 

 

I’d long regarded my father as my most direct line to Seggo. They shared the commonalities of language and home—both things I felt could never truly belong to me. Unfortunately, my father and I had long had a tumultuous relationship, and when I was twenty-seven, we became estranged.

 

Before we stopped speaking, I often wondered about his relationship to my uncle; perhaps bitterly, I was baffled that they were blood-related. Like so many members of my father’s side of the family, my dad had not only never expressed an interest in art or writing, but had, on more than one occasion, indicated that he neither understood nor found much use for either. “I don’t understand why people have journals,” he once remarked to my mother, who, unbeknownst to him, had recently started keeping one.

 

But his affection, or lack thereof, for art and literature was neither here nor there as far as our Assyrian family was concerned. To them, my father was the pinnacle of success. At my age, he’d become an engineer, and after almost two decades of professional climbing, he’d situated our family firmly in the upper-middle class. When it came to maintaining ties to the Assyrian community in Iraq, he’d started in the nineties and eventually attained a leadership role in a prominent U.S.-based charitable organization. In short, my father, having become a noteworthy member of the Assyrian elite, was truly the paradigm of the Assyrian-American dream. His success was something to aspire to.

 

But I couldn’t relate to my father’s ambitiousness. I wasn’t a lost cause, or at least, I didn’t think I was, but I wasn’t exactly a prodigy, either. By the time I’d begun four-year college at twenty-two, most of my friends had already graduated from impressive universities, and I’d failed more community college courses than I cared to admit to. And even though there were a lot of things I loved to do and felt passionate about since I was a kid—writing, drawing, painting—I knew I wasn’t good enough at any of them to make a living.

 

 

As I moved into adulthood, I realized that I didn’t need to rely on my father to learn about my great uncle, and that, in fact, it would be misguided for me to attempt to do so. While I was interested in unearthing, in tucking away and keeping for myself, the stories of Seggo’s art and activism—the ones I believed made up the narrative of his life—my father wanted to highlight his role as a pillar of the Arab artworld. The differing interpretations my father and I had about my uncle’s life and legacy were simultaneously parallel and disparate, and at times, I was positive my father didn’t understand the significance of either.

 

My father’s family was baffled by my decision; they had no frame of reference for a daughter cutting off all contact with her father. Eventually, I resolved to steel myself to their incredulity, to their phone calls urging me to reconcile with him. Soon after I’d made my choice, I also decided it wasn’t important that I exhaust myself explaining it: to family, to friends, to readers. Instead, I immersed myself in writing.

 

Of writing, my uncle said, It just grabbed me, this magic of words, of music. I imagined his poetry career in its nascent stages; I closed my eyes and envisioned it in those early days as a train off the tracks.

 

Then, I assessed the liability associated with my estrangement from my father: he was my in. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain what paltry grasp I still have of the Assyrian language; he was the only one who spoke it to me with any regularity.

 

The Assyrian words I do remember occupy a modest word bank in my mind, but it is full of gaps. If I spend too much time trying to fill it up, the gaps, then the whole thing, flood with anxiety. Then, for a little while at least, I can’t remember any of them.

 

 

A couple of months into my estrangement from my father, I became acutely aware of a unique hollowness within me: I felt not quite Assyrian, but not plain American, either. It seemed that, suddenly, parts of me I once hadn’t even realized existed had disappeared, leaving nothing but potholes in their place. On numerous occasions, this sense of alienation became nearly unbearable, and I considered reaching out to him. Other times, I actually did, and each time, I regretted it.

 

I don’t know if I will ever attempt to reconnect to my Assyrian heritage through my father and our family. Most days I think I probably won’t, and others, I get carried away and romanticize the past. If I don’t, I’m not sure how I’ll adjust long-term.

 

Recently, I’ve been talking to my partner about learning Arabic, though I’d long considered the idea off-limits. I’d reasoned that learning Arabic while knowing very little Assyrian would be a slap in the face to the four-or-so million Assyrians left in the world, and an even bigger one to my grandparents, with whom I’ve never had a complete conversation in Assyrian. I still try to find ways to learn Assyrian through the few internet resources I have.

 

However, the more I read about my uncle, the less sacrilegious the idea of learning Arabic seems. Maybe it even makes sense, in a round-about sort of way, as far as connecting to homeland and language go.

 

 

Beyond his fruitful writing career, I don’t know much about my uncle’s life. I know he lived off the beaten path, at least by our family’s standards. Of course, I’m sure that while he was alive, he maintained closer ties with them than I have.

 

Several of the poetry books and literary magazines he collected are scattered throughout the apartment my girlfriend and I share. When I want to peek into my uncle’s, or my family’s, or Iraq’s modern history, these keepsakes from my uncle’s life serve as useful, if personal, clues. My uncle’s books and magazines are more than just the relics of his life; they are the artifacts of my cultural and familial history.

 

I am at a strange, and hopefully, liminal, stage in my life. Stories, then—about my great uncle, about my father, about me—and a little bit of make-believe are what connect me to my family’s heritage and homeland. And for now, that’s good enough for me. Gaps and all.

 

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Header image courtesy of Bo Bartlett. To view more of his work, visit his site here.

Christina Yoseph (she/her) is an emerging writer whose essays and poems have been featured or are forthcoming in The Brown Orient, EntropyRaceBaitR, and more. She and her illustrator-musician girlfriend share a nest in California. You can find her work at www.christinayoseph.com.

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Obsessed with Obsession by Vanessa Salemi https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/obsessed-with-obsession-by-vanessa-salemi/ Mon, 21 Jan 2019 13:00:00 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17314 Personal Essay by Vanessa Salemi + + + Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s a blooming curiosity, a deadly flower that plants itself in the back of your head, continuously flourishing and overfilling the room and as it grows bigger, the roots stem directly into your veins and you feel it raging through your body. It is […]

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Personal Essay by Vanessa Salemi

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s a blooming curiosity, a deadly flower that plants itself in the back of your head, continuously flourishing and overfilling the room and as it grows bigger, the roots stem directly into your veins and you feel it raging through your body. It is the puppeteer. Words often began to vomit out of your mouth because a voice—which sounds an awful lot like your own—tells you to say everything that is on your mind. No matter who you hurt. Because the consequences of ignoring your compulsions are worse than you blurting out that you hate your sister’s hair or your friend’s outfit is unpleasant to the eye. Nothing can truly be as hostile as living in your own head, with no control over the chorus of impulsivity that spews from your lips. And when the paranoia starts to set in and the edge of reality blurs, you have to make sure to ask your friend to repeat what she had just said…again and again…because you didn’t hear it the first time. Or the second time. Or the third. It has always been imperative that you can validate a conversation, word for word, because that means it actually happened. OCD is a gun and you are the loaded bullet. It is impossible to stray from the shot being taken and you land where it wants to you to land, the consequences-too often-be damned. Yet you still feel it’s unjust. The lack of recognition or understanding people give you, when you have been tasked with saving their lives every single day. But you are just Hancock when you strive to be Wonder Woman. You breathe into compulsions to save those you love, but end up hurting yourself with the strenuous actions of your flourishing civil war. The stove needs to be checked thirty more times, or your mother will artlessly burst into flames. Your hands need to be washed until they are covered in a glove of scabs and rashes, or your sister will catch the disease that is you. Flick your bedroom light on and off four more times or the light in your dad’s eye will be the last thing you see when he crashes his car coming home from work. Did you re-read that word over again? I think you should. At least until the word you’re reading blurs from behind your eyelids and you can no longer see or feel the true meaning behind it. Until your brain no longer believes that seeing the word “hell” or “death” will result in both hell and death. Make sure you count your footsteps around the house and if you stop on an odd number, back up. If you stop on the number six, back up. If you have any bad thoughts at all, back up, back up, BACK UP.

 

Your heart will begin to bounce along the edge of your ribs, like an animal wheezing and rattling in a cramped cage. Waiting for the inevitable slaughter. Panic has come to attack and it is a much bigger beast now that it’s got you surrounded. It is the feeling of a limb being ripped from your conscious body, yet nobody can see it happening. It is shredding through your body, internally, to hide from the rest of the world what catastrophe is concocting in your chest. Depersonalize your personality so that you are no longer one with yourself and remember that your brain is fighting a battle royal, while your body is the arena. The response is fight or flight but your boxing gloves don’t fit and you are deathly afraid of airplanes. And reassurance only works for so long. Your mom can tell you you’re fine, your dad can tell you he’s proud, but your brain knows which string to nip so you dance the same dance you’ve been doing since you were ten years old.

 

“Have you ever tried just not doing it?” Well, have you ever tried not breathing? To me, it is the exact same thing. My thoughts and my impulses are connected through one integral organ in my head and it cannot be removed with a scalpel. It cannot be shrunk like some cancers nor felt with my trembling hands. Hands that would like nothing more than to pop open the skull and rip out the growing disease by the roots—my veins be damned. The thoughts that shelve themselves in the shadowy parts of “normal” brains do not exist in my own. Mine await the spotlight, making themselves a known presence on the stage. They accept an award they have no right to win. Their speeches consist of nothing but lies, convincing their host that compulsions will relieve the concern and unease. I’m at the mercy of the larvae that induced in my head, giving me a constant, zapping reminder. A reminder that I am but a causality in this war.

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Header image courtesy of Erik Jones. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

Vanessa Salemi is a graduate of York University with a major in Professional Writing. She lives in Canada, where she enjoys reading and writing about various thing that interest her. She runs her own website called The Butterfly Bones (thebutterflybones.com) where she posts writing, blogs and ideas to share with the world. She loves true crime and romance, even though those two things rarely go together, and enjoys stuffing her face into books.

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Body Positivity (Ish): Thoughts on a Movement by Emily Rapp Black https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/body-positivity-ish-emily-rapp-black/ Mon, 07 Jan 2019 13:00:39 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17283 Personal Essay by Emily Rapp Black + + + In 1989 when I was fifteen years old, I bought a dress from the J.Crew magazine using the money I made working at the call-in catalogue order center for the Cabela’s. There I earned a handful of dollars during each shift placing orders for camouflage pants, […]

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Personal Essay by Emily Rapp Black

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In 1989 when I was fifteen years old, I bought a dress from the J.Crew magazine using the money I made working at the call-in catalogue order center for the Cabela’s. There I earned a handful of dollars during each shift placing orders for camouflage pants, canteens, parkas, tents, and the occasional “deer drag.” I was what my father described as a “violent vegetarian,” but I needed the money: for a car, for trips to the mall, for college.

My dress arrived in a plastic mailer, which felt fancy and special. Delivery for you! my dad shouted, and tossed the package up to the top landing where I had been dutifully waiting for weeks for the mail to be delivered. Inside, nestled in carefully folded tissue paper, was a cotton mock turtleneck dress that fell to mid-calf in a dark green color that matched my eyes. It cost $50; the most I’d ever spent on anything. At this time I still wore a wooden leg, having lost my left foot as a result of a birth defect when I was four. The leg was clunky, messy, and it routinely leaked motor oil that my father used to keep the hinges from sticking. I avoided miniskirts entirely.

When I slipped the dress over my head, I was surprised at how good it looked. For someone who never showed her body, or at least not the lower half (which I also deliberately avoided looking at in mirrors), I was excited about how I looked from the waist up. The dress hid everything I wanted to hide, and emphasized everything I wanted to show. At the time, this felt like winning.

The next morning, I wound Clairol Hot Stix into my hair to make tight ringlets, applied Jean Nate body splash to my neck, and powder puffed my face with Maybelline shimmer powder. I was feeling fine; I had noticed that boys – particularly one boy in my science class – had taken note of my new curves. Maybe the leg wouldn’t matter, I thought, although I didn’t linger too long here, because deep down, I knew it did, and that it would. And I was right.

As I walked down the stairs to grab my mobile breakfast of a Snickers bar and a Diet Pepsi and drive to school, my grandmother passed through the hallway. I braced for a compliment. She looked me up and down, made a dismissive phhht sound and said, “It sure is a good thing you’re smart.”

I skipped breakfast that day, and most meals for the next year.

My grandmother is dead now, and decades later I understand that she was a woman battling her own demons, and that she was the most unkind to those she wanted to love the most. I’m no longer anorexic, having moved past that stage in my 20s. But the impact her comment had on my self-esteem is a phenomenon I’m still working to unpack. I grew up in a loving, supportive family. My parents were happily married, both gainfully employed, and always careful to tell me that I was smart and beautiful. They supported my endeavors unconditionally. I always felt safe and loved. Yet I still loathed my body with a force that, at 44, still astounds me. As a disabled woman growing up in a tiny town with no role models, I came to believe that there were two options for me: object of pity, or a superstar in some capacity. I chose the latter, driving myself to achieve, to be the skinniest, the smartest, the best until those delineations no longer mattered to me, or didn’t matter to me as much.

For these reasons and many others, the “body positivity” movement deeply unsettles me, stirring up a potent mix of emotions: shock, shame, envy, guilt, in a variable order. I came of age before social media sharing and selfies and filters and internet celebrity. Recently I have begun to follow several social media feeds of amputee women who are at the beach without their legs; or showing off their fancy, flowered artificial limbs; or demonstrating an ease in their bodies that still feels unimaginable to me. Their message is timely, relevant, important and clear: this is my body, and I love it. I recognize that this is, in many ways, the bedrock of self-esteem, especially in a culture that continues to judge women first and foremost on appearance alone. Yet I find myself feeling uncomfortable, because I know I could not be like them. People applaud them for being brave, although I’m not sure it’s the right word. Perhaps it’s more of a radical acceptance of oneself, an authentic claiming of beauty despite society’s rigid and truly impossible airbrushed standards. I know this, I applaud this, and I also wonder, is it true? Is it possible these women are never bothered by stares or weird and inappropriate comments?  Is it true that they’ve never felt anxiety in intimate situations?

In my mid 40s, I’m right at the edge of what many women call the moment of “invisibility,” at least in terms of a culture that, despite many people’s best efforts, defines beauty as young, scar and stretch mark and wrinkle free. And definitely not disabled. And yet I scold myself for holding onto this body shame at my age. Why can’t I just move past all of this? I know that cultural standards of what makes a beautiful woman are false and arbitrary and accessible to very few. I know that a woman’s worth is not rooted in her appearance. I also know that I am and have felt desirable; and I do know that feeling beautiful is an inside job, buffered only for brief moments by external praise.  I know this, and yet…I don’t love my body, and this makes me feel like I’m failing at the body positivity game. I feel like a fraud, or that I’m letting other women with disabilities down by refusing to be seen without my artificial limb in public. Yet part of me also wonders: is this public body positive rhetoric masking something else? Are people truly that comfortable with themselves? Possibly, but I also think that like so much that appears in social media and that we notice in “movements,” the narrative is oversimplified.

I want to be the woman who throws her leg off at the beach and goes confidently sprint-hopping into the surf. I want to be the woman who wakes up and loves her body regardless of what she reads or sees about disabled bodies and women’s bodies in the media. I want comments like “what happened to you?” or “So, we’re just gimping around today?,” or “Wow, you get around well for your situation,” to roll off my back as I imagine it does for the women who post photos of their non-normative bodies with pride and confidence. I so admire that they do this, but I also know I cannot do it. Can’t there be a middle ground?

The reality is this: I am never going to frequent a public pool, or frolic in the surf of any beach anywhere without my water leg. I’m never going to know exactly how to respond when someone responds to my body as if it’s an object of interest, and not a body that has been through more than its fair share of trauma as well as joy; plenty of sex and meaningful relationships, and the birth of two children. I’m never going to quite believe my husband when he tells me I’m the most beautiful woman he’s ever known. And frankly, I’m never going to stop wishing that I had two legs, but that doesn’t mean that I hate my body, or don’t accept it or sometimes even love what it can do or how it looks, or haven’t come to terms with the fact that I cannot change it. I want to stop beating myself up about treading this middle ground, about not being able to love my body, unconditionally and without apology, all the time.

When I was four years old, about six months after my leg was amputated, my family drove to central Illinois, where my parents grew up and where my uncle and aunt and three cousins still lived. During those hot and humid summers, everyone went to the water park, but I had not yet been fitted with an artificial limb, was still on crutches, and could not climb the stairs to any slides. My cousin Kate, then ten years old, was mortified that I would be left out, so she offered to carry me. And she did. She carried me on her back up the stairs to the water slide, hour after day, for three days straight, in the hot Midwestern summer. I still remember how her back felt as she carried me, and the strain she was willing to endure to gift me with an experience I would never have had otherwise: an act of kindness and effort that has stayed with me all my life.

I’ve come to this conclusion: we carry one another in whatever ways we can. I won’t be joining those proud and beautiful women on Instagram and other social media outlets who show their bodies without shame or sadness, but I will always be rooting for them – enthusiastically – from the sidelines.

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Header image courtesy of Bill Dunlap. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

 Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. She has two books forthcoming in 2020: Cartography for Cripples (New York Review of Books); and Sanctuary (Random House). Her work has appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Redbook, O, the Oprah Magazine, Slate, Salon, the Wall Street Journal, the Rumpus, and in many other magazines and anthologies. A former Fulbright scholar, she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writers Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California-Riverside, and lives in Southern California with her family. Visit her at www.emilyrappblack.com

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Larf by Hobie Anthony https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/larf-by-hobie-anthony/ Mon, 24 Dec 2018 13:00:26 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17233 Personal Essay by Hobie Anthony + + + It so happened that in November, 2017 I was gifted an eighth of an ounce of cannabis. It was an early Solstice gift from a random visitor to my life, an itinerant stripper who’d given Portland a try for a few weeks. Her father grows for medical […]

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Personal Essay by Hobie Anthony

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It so happened that in November, 2017 I was gifted an eighth of an ounce of cannabis. It was an early Solstice gift from a random visitor to my life, an itinerant stripper who’d given Portland a try for a few weeks. Her father grows for medical patients in Rhode Island and she had loads to share. It was a kind gesture and well-appreciated. In fact, it knocked me on my ass. It smelled of fruit, like a grape cream-cheese danish, and the smoke was smooth, thick, and potent. As I smoked more, I discovered a bonus gift. This bag of cannabis had both stems and seeds.

It’s hard to find seeds these days. In this era of legalization, professional growers cultivate their female plants separate from the males, which are little more than fodder for the mulch pile. As I understand it, when growers need seeds, they pollinate their female plants in a tightly controlled environment. The seeds are only used in-house. If seeds are released to the public, they are sold for a premium, priced according to the value of the particular strain.

Under prohibition, growers knew that their customers were unlikely to attempt a home-grow. The risk was too high and it’s not exactly easy to grow high quality, psychoactive cannabis. Further, since everything was underground, it was nearly impossible to form communities around this particular form of agriculture.

Yet, due to some trick in the cosmic algorithm, I had seeds. I took one and placed it in a wet paper towel and waited. In a day or two, a small white root split the brown husk. I was giddy with excitement. Nature actually worked. I planted it in soil. In a day or three, a little green shoot sprang from the dirt. I couldn’t believe my luck. I scoured the internet for instructions. I was like a new parent who suddenly had a child but no diapers, crib, or bottles.

I studied lights, soil, strains, and watering protocols. I learned to sex my plant. I discovered how light cycles impacted plant development. There’s a lot to learn. My plant grew like a weed. I closed my eyes, held on loosely, and hoped to not kill it.

 

One year before I was born, one of the oddest rock and roll bands formed in Fremont, New Hampshire. Their music is objectively bad. The players don’t know their instruments and the songs were naive and lack cohesion. The melodies were warbly, the harmonics atonal. However, the songs were consistent in their inept aesthetic and speak to a band of artists who seemingly had a singular, if warped, vision. They created, knowingly or not, one of the finest pieces of outsider art I know.

The band was comprised of the Wiggin sisters, four young women who had no idea how to play musical instruments. Nor did they have any interest in playing in a band. Their father, however, had received a prophecy from his mother who foresaw that he would marry a woman with strawberry-blonde hair and that their progeny would form a rock band that would be as successful as The Beatles. Indeed, he found a strawberry-blonde woman, married her, and had many children, including four girls.

Austin Wiggin, by all accounts, was not a nice person. He was a tyrant, an asshole. He took his daughters out of school and forced them to play music. The girls were obedient and tried to please their father. They practiced their imposed craft in a pressure-cooker environment that was unrelenting, an ad-hoc conservatory led by a dictator who had no clear musical ideas, but loads of willpower. Though it’s fair to say that the sisters had no musical talent, it’s impossible to know for sure, since their father was so thoroughly inept. Even the greatest talent can be quashed when handled by an incompetent fool.

 

My plant continued to grow in a terra cotta flower pot. When it grew to a suitable height, I transplanted it to a larger pot. I followed instructions I found on the internet. I was obsessed: When should I water it? How much was enough? Should I use a store-bought fertilizer or was compost suitable?

That winter I lost a dear friend and client to the flu, then my cousin committed suicide a few days later. In my grief, the plant received all of my attention and care. I lived in a basement so my world was in near-perpetual dark. After all, a dead client doesn’t offer any more work, so my weeks were more idle than normal.

I purchased a small LED lighting system and gave my precious plant the light it needed. There was scant light available in my basement apartment, and I wanted the very best for my vegetating companion.

Austin Wiggin did the best for his daughters, too. He wanted them to be successful. He wanted them to have skills and talent. His mania forced them into phases of growth and development that were not natural for them. His lack of musical knowledge did not nourish classical abilities. Yet they did produce music, they cut an album. They made history.

When the time seemed right, I forced my plant into flowering. This is done by restricting the light cycle. Since I didn’t have a professional indoor grow operation, I jury-rigged a system with a small table and a Mexican blanket. I attached my LED system to one off the legs, placed the plant on the floor, and covered it all with the blanket. I plugged the lights into a timer and commenced to synthesize optimal flowering conditions for cannabis plants. During its man-made daylight hours, I tried to open it to the air, let it feast on needed CO2. I even played music for my beloved plant.

To manage the plant’s size, I’d trimmed the top to restrict its growth. The root system was limited by its small planter. I trimmed it from time to time, but I never used any fertilizers. One day, I read that I was not supposed to prune branches and leaves during the flowering cycle. I wasn’t sure if I was even in the flowering cycle. I had no solid answers, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Somehow the plant survived, green, and alive.

The plant did flower. It created buds that were light and fluffy. The stuff I purchase in stores is tight, solid. My dispensary buds can be torn into healthy chunks. My plant’s buds would be laughed as as larf – immature, unformed, amateur. It’s impossible to tell where the buds begin and the leaves end.

It was hard to be disappointed when I finally harvested my plant. My plant was the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of cannabis. Its beauty was mostly contrived in imagination, its nobility spited lackluster effort. Spindly and stunted, barely offering flowers, the produce it yielded would not be worth the effort of harvesting for resale. However, when I put a dried bud in a pipe smoke it, its value is clear. The smoke is thick, velvety and it gets me stoned.

 

The Shaggs’ record is a larf. It was a forced, unnatural creation that is barely recognizable as music. When the guitarist hits a chord, you hear her pluck each string. The drummer’s rhythm is unsure and halting and the vocals almost sound as though they were warbled in reverse by a tone-deaf chorus.

Nevertheless, their album Philosophy of the World is a classic. Though they never achieved the commercial success of The Beatles, Frank Zappa said the band was “better than The Beatles.” Kurt Cobain declared the record an all-time favorite and the band Deerhoof cites it as an influence. Thanks to these tributes, and obsessive music geeks like myself, I can only assume that the Wiggin sisters have enjoyed a healthy, if inconsistent, source of passive income. They didn’t find the enormous financial yields their father and grandmother foretold, but they have enough. They were forced to produce in conditions hostile to musical creation, but they survived and did it.

To most ears, their incredibly odd, idiosyncratic album is a musical failure. Until, that is, you find yourself humming My Pal Foot-Foot at the bus stop or when a house-less person reminds you of the title track’s naive lyrics. It does what music is supposed to do: it carries you away from the mundane into a place of imagination, where ordinary cares melt away and for a moment you are one with music and musician. In the case of The Shaggs, you can feel how their coerced existence reflects much of modern life: people sacrificing themselves to an asinine set of expectations in the hope of attaining wealth, love, or maybe enough to eat for a day.

The end results of human endeavors don’t often live up to expectations, but more often than not they are enough, they are satisfactory. Occasionally, despite the worst ineptitude and tone-deaf efforts, the outcome of blind human willpower in the absence of talent, proper training, or adequate knowledge creates something wonderful.

 

And it gets you high.

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Header image courtesy of Mirko Isaia. To view his Photographer Feature, go here.

Hobie Anthony is a writer in Portland, Or. His first novel, Silverfish, is available to order wherever fine books are sold. His second book, Liminal, is forthcoming from WhiskeyTit Books. Its sequel and another book are currently in production. In the meantime, there is rain and there is tea. #Resist

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The Twenty-Year Lie by Heather L. Levy https://nailedmagazine.com/editors-choice/the-twenty-year-lie-by-heather-l-levy/ Mon, 10 Dec 2018 13:00:02 +0000 https://nailedmagazine.com/?post_type=ec&p=17212 Personal Essay by Heather L. Levy + + + It was perfect. It was everything I hoped it would be. It wasn’t like her story, one knee wedged in the backseat of a musty car, the other leg flopping against the passenger’s seat like a dead frog with some boy grunting on top. My first […]

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Personal Essay by Heather L. Levy

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It was perfect. It was everything I hoped it would be. It wasn’t like her story, one knee wedged in the backseat of a musty car, the other leg flopping against the passenger’s seat like a dead frog with some boy grunting on top.

My first time was special, and not just in the usual sense that it was the first time. My first time had meaning within the deeper realms of sexual encounters and comparisons. My first time was a well-executed plan down to every detail.

I was never one to give a play-by-play of my so-called deflowering, although I always enjoyed hearing other women’s horror stories. Their accounts were usually entertaining, but I couldn’t relate to their tales of popping cherries after prom or banging in their parents’ basement. For one, I never had a basement. For two, I secretly enjoyed keeping my first time to myself. I didn’t know it then, but there was a third reason why I kept quiet about my own story.

Fast forward and I’m a mother of two impossibly beautiful and bright kids. Whenever the oldest, our twelve-year-old daughter, asks those sticky questions so many parents fear, I channel my mom, a woman who might’ve been a closet nudist for all I knew. It always surprised me how I could never surprise her in our conversations.

When I told my mom about my first time, she made me hot chocolate and cheese toast as she talked about condoms, STDs, and how it was lucky I was already on birth control for my heavy periods. She never told me about her first time, but I know she was a virgin when she married fresh out of high school. I imagined her first time as two slices of white bread, no condiments, gently rubbing together.

I wasn’t surprised when my daughter broached the topic one evening. Like me, she finds shelter in humor, so she approached the subject like a standup comic testing out new material. I almost didn’t catch what she was asking through her nervous giggles. I had prepared for this inevitable talk, the story I withheld from others but knew it would be impossible to withhold from my own daughter. So, I started the story the same way I told it to myself.

 

Once upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl who worked at a restaurant. There, she met the wittiest person she had ever known up to that point in her life. He wasn’t like boys at her school. He made her laugh and told her she was beautiful and intelligent. She thought she was in love and wanted to tell the world, but the man told her everything had to stay quiet at work because some people wouldn’t understand their age difference.

 

Here, my astute daughter stops me. “Wait, mom,” she says. “How old was this guy?” I pause, knowing there was no way around it. Twenty-six, I tell her. Her expression changes the tiniest bit, the wheels turning in her ever-curious mind.

 

So, the girl told only a handful of friends from school about the man. No one at work knew, or that’s what the girl thought. A few weeks went by of making out in secret spots and eating at various restaurants after shifts, all paid for by the man. One day, the man told the girl he had a surprise for her birthday. He suggested she tell her parents she was staying the night with a friend, and the girl thought he was maybe planning a surprise birthday party. She thought of when he took her to one of his friend’s parties that lasted half the night, the one where she tried mushrooms for the first time. She remembered spinning, arms out, laughing at how everything sparkled.

 

“He gave you drugs?” my daughter says, her eyes wide. No, I tell her, the drugs were at the party he took me to, and I made a poor choice. She doesn’t look convinced, and I decide not to tell her she’s partially right. Yes, he did give me drugs at the party, but I’m the one who took them, and I mostly danced around in the front yard with another girl my age. This is another partial truth. The other part is fuzzier, but I recall hands between my legs, in my underwear, and a tickle wanting to explode but never fully igniting.

 

After work on the girl’s seventeenth birthday, the man takes her to dinner, just the two of them. They eat, and when they leave, he points to the hotel across the street and says that’s where they’re going, to the top-floor suite. The girl imagines her friends in the hotel room, waiting to jump out and shout “Happy birthday!”

 

There was no one waiting in the hotel suite.

 

There was a bucket of ice with champagne and two glasses next to chocolate-covered strawberries. There was a towel on the bed. He gave her a velvet box containing a matching necklace and earrings—silver butterflies—and she didn’t tell him she could only wear gold-plated posts because anything else made her earlobes itch. There was a towel on the bed. He told her he wanted to surprise her, to be alone with her without his friends around. He wanted her birthday to be memorable. There was a towel.

 

My daughter says nothing at first. Her face tells me everything, and I don’t want to look at her. Finally, she says, “Wasn’t that kinda, I don’t know…wrong?”

I want to scream at her and say no, my first time was special, and not just in the usual sense that it was the first time. My first time had meaning. It was a surprise. It was a well-executed plan down to every detail.

I imagined my mom’s first time again, the time she never told me about, the two slices of white bread pressing and pressing, crumbling onto bedsheets. Was sex ever a choice for her? Was it simply expected?

When my mom made me hot chocolate and cheese toast, slightly burned on the edges the way I like it, she didn’t ask me what I had wanted in that room with champagne and strawberries. She listened to my story and said the thing I would tell myself for the next twenty years: your first time was magical compared to most.

Yes, I tell my daughter, it was wrong. My first time was wrong. It was not magical. It was my choice, my story, but it wasn’t my script. I thought the two options were rape and consent, but there is a third sinister option: quid pro quo. Nothing is free, least of all female sexuality.

I want to tell my daughter so much more about those gray areas our mamas’ moms never told them about. Where is the line between informing and terrifying? I think it’s in the slight crease between my baby girl’s eyes. So, I stop and hold her against me. If I squeeze her enough, she’ll be safe. I tell myself the lie every day. If I don’t, I might break and she will see.

Still, I whisper to her, to myself: it’s your story, yours and nobody else’s. Learn how to write your own script. If you don’t, someone else will write it for you.

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Header image courtesy of Erik Jones. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

A born and bred Oklahoman, Heather L. Levy is a graduate of Oklahoma City University’s Red Earth MFA program for creative writing. Readers can find her most recent and forthcoming work in numerous journals, including Crab Fat MagazinePrick of the Spindle, and Dragon Poet Review. She also authored a nonfiction series on human sexuality, including “Welcome to the Dungeon: BDSM in the Bible Belt,” for Literati Press.

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