Epiphany Magazine - epiphmag.com
Epiphany Magazine - epiphmag.com Issue 14
Where Art, Poetry and Prose come together
A Visually and Creatively Stimulating Experience
THE SLUSH PILE
When a writer gets into publishing, it's a lot like infiltrating the enemy. On one hand, you would think it's a partnership, the writer provides compelling and riveting reads for the publisher to produce and sell to the masses. This could be true for better-known authors, the ones who can sell a book by name alone. But for a new writer, the experience is more akin to an archer. Notching the arrow they call a submission in attempt to fire it past the nigh impenetrable wall of the publishing industry. So when I landed an internship at Knopf, I felt like the super suave spy James Bond wished he could be.
It was my first week at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a branch of RandomHouse, and all the other bright-eyed interns had convened in the high New York City building to see where the magic was made. The very first day there had me entranced, as I walked through the swirling doors no other job before could boast. The hall seemed to glow, books filled the glass cases on either side of me. I humbly walked past the hundreds, if not thousands of publications by RandomHouse towards the security desk, thinking, where else can I get inspiration and writing skill if not here amongst these golden halls? Where else could I find the magic key to getting my own work published if not from within this sanctuary?
Of course, no one told me once I was past the security gates the rest of the building was office grey, arranged in an assortment of rooms and cubicles with the sounds of copiers and printers filling the halls. As disappointing as it was to find the entire building wasn't built from books there was still excitement, I was on the inside and on a mission for secret ingredient to great writing. The other interns and I were herded into a secluded meeting room, the lot of us seated around a rectangular table like comic villains planning our next devilish crime. Little did I know then a horrific ritual to all writers would take place here, known in the publishing world as The Slush Pile.
"So, how many of you guys are writing majors?" I asked with a grin, and to my surprise I don't remember anyone claiming to share the major.
"Not me, I'm in business management,"
"English Lit for me seemed like a better choice than Philosophy,"
"English Communication, and what about you?"
"Er...Writing...and Lit." I added, as if adding the Lit part would make me acceptable to my peers.
I was expecting more writers to appear, other like-minded souls trying to breach the outer wall and discover the secret ingredient to getting ones work published. The talk ended when our supervisor came in with the last of the stragglers, gathering her flock to be distributed to the other parts of the company. From publicity, to advertising, cover art, all the while beating around the subject of the actual books. Was I a little bitter at being placed in copyrights as opposed to editorial where the manuscripts were read? Perhaps, after the time spent stamping worker's letters and submitting a random assortment of data into Excel spreadsheets. But hell, worse things had happened. And even there, I was exposed to various books to be published in the upcoming months; as far as jobs go it was the best one yet. I knew it was only a matter of time before I ran into a wise editor kind enough to reveal their secrets on a good manuscript.
That Wednesday, the intern supervisor gathered us all back into that same office room we all first met, and introduced us to The Slush Pile. You don't know horror until you've seen The Slush Pile. Thousands of manuscripts and letters took up the table, a bog more horrifying than even the Black Lagoon. Mailed out from the good citizens of America, writers starting out and lacking hotshot editors, their carefully worded letters condemned to the anonymity that was The Slush Pile. And it was the intern's job to trudge through it all. So with the bribe of NY pizza, we the interns sat at our respective seats and eyed the manuscripts, like tigers ready to pounce on unsuspecting prey.
"Now remember everyone, these are someone's work, something they put all their heart into, so treat it the way you would want your work treated," the supervisor said before taking a quick trip outside. The comparison seemed wasted on a bunch of people who didn't consider themselves writers.
"I got nothing against them, but the work needs to sell," the business management major said. In my naïveté I thought there was more than that, surely the very passion and care the writer put into their manuscript would prevail, otherwise my own work would be screwed. Taking a bite of pizza and a sip of my cola, I reached in and pulled out the first manuscript.
"It twas Thanksgiving eve, I raced and grabbed my coat quick!
For to my upmost surprise, we were out of merlot to drink!"
Who would think a big book with an orange cover and a turkey would be a two hundred-page Thanksgiving poem set in iambic pentameter? I put the obese manuscript down after three pages and stared, dazzled that someone had made a two hundred-page poem about one Thanksgiving eve.
"People might want to read a...giant Thanksgiving poem to their family after dinner... Right?" I thought to myself, trying to think of a way not to crush the hopes and dreams of the writer.
"Ha! Get a load of this garbage," one of the more insensitive critics proclaimed about their chosen piece, tomato sauce from the pizza covering his lip like a lion that has fed.
"Somebody's getting a rejection," he exclaimed, and interns joined in a chuckle. I looked down at my own piece, and the words of the business major rang in my head. Not thinking the piece would sell, I grabbed the rejection letter, a pre-typed piece of paper no more than a paragraph in response to two hundred pages of work. I could almost hear the death cries of my prey the writer as the letter was sealed.
"Eh, I don't know about this piece, Mike, what do you think?" the English communication major asked concerning one of her manuscripts.
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"It's a story based in ancient Rome, it's not bad, but the writer said "coins" as currency. I'm no expert but didn't they have another word for it?" she asked. I shrugged, not an expert myself on the subject, and suggested that small stuff like that could be fixed if the story was good.
"I don't know, if he makes more mistakes like that though they can add up and make for a bad story, I think I'll reject it," she stated, and to my horror got up to grab a rejection letter. I started feeling less like James Bond at the table, who probably would have been disgusted at the way I treated my fellow writers, that is if he ever cared about the literary business. Any hope for my own work getting published soon became fleeting.
That isn't to say however, that all the stories were gold. This was proven to me by one of the next stories I picked up.
"So, the Nazi's own Ohio," I said aloud, and everyone looked at me in astonishment.
"I'm sorry, say that again?" one of the interns said.
"This woman here is rambling about how German Nazis have taken over Ohio's police force, and the only safe place is the nursing home she's from! Hell I don't think I even see a story..." I went on, propelled by the laughs of my peers, until the supervisor came over and relinquished the stack from me.
"It's just some crazy old lady...you would't believe how many people send things if only for the sake of talking," she explained. It made me wonder how anything was able to get through the pile. Ignorant of the red sauce on my lip I lunged for the next story in the pile. The more stories I read, the more I unwittingly conformed to the ferocity of the crowd. These weren't fellow writers anymore, these were products to be analyzed and judged. The more I read, the more it felt like a game where these writers were players and I was the master in control of their fate.
"Ha! Anyone hungry? This guy is trying to bribe us with a TGIF gift card!" The management intern yelled, and rest followed in laughter. I didn't even ask what the story was about, only "who the hell does that?" before I went back to work.
"Daw, this guy's book was sent by his mother," the communications interns exclaimed, and again the room was filled with laughter.
"Hey guys! Check out this ridiculous portrait, he looks like Yosemite Sam!" Another intern said referring to one of many pictures the authors took of themselves. And it was by the end I realized what was going on, no longer distracted by the delicious pizza. Everyone laughing, red pizza sauce adorning all mouths after a feast, throwing submissions into the rejection pile like it was sport: How many rejections could you get in the hour? With our time done there was a mountain of rejections, and a small pile the crowd found acceptable. Even those were doomed, as a submission in the slush pile needs three people to agree it was a good piece before it's even considered by anyone above intern status. This meant those pieces would have to endure again, go through another slush pile and another mob of interns to judge their fate.
As I said goodbye to the fellow interns and went back to my desk, I felt nothing like James Bond. I was the Benedict Arnold of writers, destined to be a traitorous villain and the name of an egg dish. How could my work ever get published after that? Could I claim to have a special edge over the other works that would distract interns from my flaws?
As I plopped down at the desk, I woke the computer and disposed the screen saver to reveal what I was working on.
"You Wouldn't Expect A Wizard To Clean Windows," I wrote for a title. With no data crunching or letter heading at the time I was left to my own devices and my mind had mingled on a story involving an aeromancer (That's wind magic for you people with lives) cleaning skyscraper windows in the city. Did I think this would be published? How many of those interns would read it and consider this silly or pointless? Did it have the ability to sell the business major was looking for? Or perhaps the factual accuracy and wording the communications major desired? I didn't know, it was all for fun. Maybe I didn't learn the secret ingredient that day, that one spark the publishers would look for and impress the editors. At that point I wasn't sure if such a thing even existed. Yet I knew like a sap, even after seeing the horror of The Slush Pile, it wouldn't stop me from sending this story to the world. I continued to click at the keyboard, giving my all into the story before my superiors came up with more menial office work for me to do.
"You wouldn't expect a wizard like me cleaning windows in the big city. But hey, shit happens."
BIO: "I am a senior Writing and Literature major at Emmanuel College."
Painting by Katharine Scambler
1. Birth waits for its time,only death is punctual.
2. Melancholy doesn't even satisfy genius.
3. Anger renews old acquaintances we try
4. Every pose exposes a social poseur.
5. Our vices offer devices to fool ourselves,
tempations make us suffer implicity, and
our jealousy is the mistress
and distress of
own life and reputation.
6. Vice is a vapor and advice is a cloud.
7. Logic is always irresolvable.
8. Art, poetry, politics and religion live on
their own schedule and draw
on their own oral traditions.
9. Just as some people are always in
recovery, others called moralists
another's health and mortality.
10. Poets live in a miniature world with
a minimum of form and
usually a minimalist income.
11. Man refuses to live by definition.
12. False prophets have their special
schools of thought.
13. Au gratis is also a way to live
14. Suffering, of all human preoccupations
alone maintains itself.
15. For a few poets, a little craziness is better than too much laziness.
16. Some critics should be confined to their
17. If everyone is as cool as ice,why are some always in hot water.
18. We often venerate those who make
the most outrageous impressions on us.
19. Even saints are full of complaints.
20. Homer, Milton, Borges : the poets that
blind us with the beauty of language.
BIO: B.Z. NIDITCH is a poet, playwright, fiction writer and teacher.
His work is widely published in journals and magazines throughout the world, including: Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Art; The Literary Review; Denver Quarterly; Hawaii Review; Le Guepard (France); Kadmos (France); Prism International; Jejune (Czech Republic); Leopold Bloom (Budapest); Antioch Review; and Prairie Schooner, among others.
He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Painting by Katharine Scambler
A LITHUANIAN SUMMER
Leigh and I exhale trails of smoke from our respective Soviet-killer cigarettes. My cigarettes were an expensive brand, totaling 5,5 Lt, which converts to be about $2.50. My friend Mark had come up from Berlin to visit me and on a free day we decided to go visit a museum, but we weren't sure where it was. Mark and I stop at a street corner and shamed ourselves into pulling out our pocket-size, foldable map of Vilnius. It was a pop-up. A very helpful, busty prostitute struts by and offers her directional prowess when she noticed our look of desperation. The prostitute and I get to talking when she asks where I'm from. So there I am on a street corner of Vilnius drawing an air map of the United States to a giggly prostitute.
"I think it's over here," a familiar accent floats above the crowd to our waiting ears.
"Yeah...no...yeah...that makes sense," a pudgy American girl says. We could only assume that they were heading the same place we were. Leigh is brave.
"So, uh, I don't mean to barge in. I don't want to sound like a stalker, but..." The pudgy girl had started to look this way and that. The leader of the little group agreed to let us follow them. The pudgy girl waddles behind the two other slightly smaller girls and Leigh, Mark and I follow a few paces behind. A pretty formidable brood of Americans if you ask me. I notice that there is a music and art school next to the building we were destined for. More on that later.
I open the door to the bleak, oppressive structure mentally preparing myself for the self-inflicted painful tour on the other side. The door creaked. The door where many had entered, so many wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who never saw that door open again. I walk up the stairs, my two friends follow.
The entrance is dimly lit, with hallways leading off in several directions. A large map greets us:
1st Floor: Offices
Ground Floor: Exhibits
I stopped. The words choked in my mouth. My tongue pushed the words away. We slowly walk in the way of the exhibits.
"Tickets." A charming Lithuanian woman with intense eyes was standing behind us.
"You want tickets?" she commanded in her broken English.
"Uh, sure, how much?" I said.
Her eyes met mine as she pointed to a sign and tried to control her anger. I put down 50 Lt. in payment. She slid the tickets towards us and pointed off to the left.
"Aciu," I said trying to regain some respect for my bumbling-American-tourist routine. She nodded in a you-aren't-the-worst that has come through here. My two friends and I shuffle off towards the first exhibits.
Welcome to the Museum of Genocide Victims.
From the early 1940s to 1991 the KGB held political and ideological power over the people of Lithuania. Vilnius, Lithuania was the site of the Summer Literary Seminar last year hosted by Concordia University in Montreal. Vilnius is a city where cobblestone meets pavement, Roman Catholic meets pagan, and tragedy meets comfort.
Napoleon and Hitler found Vilnius a fortress and fallout point. Rumor has it that many of Napoleon's troops left camp for a stroll on the many zigzagged streets and never returned. Hitler attempted to etch out many of Vilnius' picturesque cathedrals and churches. Even though Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe the city currently holds the largest collection of Jewish writing, films and photography in the world - Hitler attempted to annihilate this library as well. It now sits in the Jewish ghetto, rakishly, on its old foundation, wounded from the Nazi explosives.
The antique eavesdropping equipment resides in the same coordinates as placed by the KGB. And nothing has moved since the KGB was forced out of Lithuania by the Singing Revolution in the early 90s. I could tell you about the eavesdropping and wiretapping, I could. However, the source and the summit of grief and despair and death for thousands of people was this place I was now methodically strolling through.
1st Floor: Offices
Ground Floor: Exhibits
Basement: Execution Chamber
The basement had stored 23 jail cells where thousands of people had spent days, weeks, and months uncertain what their future held. My two comrades and I walk down the narrow stairs to the beginning of the cells. The first room, a two foot by six foot rectangle, known as the "box" held prisoners-to-be while they were being processed. The next room, the KGB would strip the prisoners of their clothes, possessions, and dignity. The prisoners were then given a gray and black uniform and sent to a cell.
I walked ahead of Leigh and Mark to collect myself. This place wasn't about my relation to them. For me to truly be frightened, enraged, speechless, breathless, I needed to distance myself. I paused at an open cell. The unforgiving cement emanated coldness. I stepped into the room, it was dark; a calculated assault of the senses. No smell, no sound, no hope. I have no idea how much time had elapsed. The room began to shrink, the seconds elongate, the ceiling seemed to pulsate as my heart began to race. I left the room and saw Mark and Leigh several paces behind. I pressed on.
I came across another cell in the row.
This cell was used as a cell for the deranged and a torture chamber. A straight jacket hung from the ceiling, sleeves spread open, waiting for another victim.
An old man, with buzzed hair and a rotund midsection waddled down the corridor towards me. Lithuanians hardly smile. When they do, something must truly be funny. I smiled half-heartedly. The man looked at me, looked at his watch, looked back at me and in that moment I had already thought of what he must feel in this place. Did he at one time know someone who was a prisoner? His father? Or brother? Or maybe a son? Did his best friend get arrested and faced a trip to Siberia or death? Or had he, himself, been trapped with no hope, in one of these horrific cells?
"5 minute," he tapped his watch "5 minute, we close." His eyes were dead, his voice stern. I nodded. But he was already ten feet beyond where I stood. I continued on this monolith to the room which had forced words to stay as thoughts. A room in which I had no bearing for what to expect. Silence - Creak...Creak...
The floor is now a Plexiglas composite resting above the original floor. Beneath my feet are eyeglasses, engagement rings, shoe, and the placards on the walls describe the inhumane disposal of bodies after unbelievable ways of torture and homicide. I stood where nearly 25 people a night had entered the cell - young, old, men, women, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters - and were taken, robbed of their existence, a place where nearby, students at the music institute were encouraged to practice at night to cover up the screams from the execution chamber. And now I as an American tourist walk freely in this Hell, examining the walls which still contain intact bullet holes.
Creak...Screak...I bow my head...I didn't know what else to do. I was angry. I was depressed. A primal rage washed over me. I saw bullet holes from guns not heard and imagined people silenced forever. The ghostly, circular floor lamps shine light from the floor to the ceiling. The people walking in the cell appear sickly with blackened eyes and blank stares. Even when one person smiled, for whatever reason, their look seemed devilish. A couple in love smiled and talk with each other and I saw their lips moving but no sound was carried to my ears. Instead a horrific discharge rang in my ears; a sound of dead weight hits the floor.
I left the room and walked back down the corridor, past the torture chamber and cell I had dreamt in. I gave the processing room a nonchalant gesture of neither approval nor disapproval. Up the stairs past the young woman with intense eyes, and behind me I heard the clang clang clang of heavy doors being shut and locked, doors suppressing devils and angels alike, as my mind sails backwards to a time of the KGB.
I don't remember leaving the museum. A car horn shocked me from my daytime terror. Mark and Leigh were standing outside the building, each with a cigarette, each with a blank stare with no intent. Silence. We all walked down the street towards the Center of Old Town. We stopped at a kavine, ordered a pint, and all looked down at our napkins. The waitress shuffled to the bar, made nondescript chatter with the bartender, probably about the hopeless Americans at the table, and returned with the drinks. I felt the wind caress my face.
A well-dressed Gypsy, with make-up caked on floats to our table without saying a word, just extends her hand towards us. All three of us give a nonchalant shrug and shake our heads "no." She stands there for a minute longer, but none of us are able to help her. A man with coke bottle glasses and a pipe walks down the street shouting "America!" Later that night, we went to the Writer's Union and befriended a native Lithuanian who must have been in his 30s. He and I made idle chat, he using his broken English, me my non-existent Lithuanian.
"You live in Vilnius all your life?" He nodded.
"You remember KGB?" He stared at me. No signal of a yes or no.
"You remember the KGB? Uh ... SKGB." He took a sip of his beer, looked around, and shrugged. Tears formed in his eyes. "That's okay," I whispered.
I wanted to console him somehow. I will never see this man again, yet I feel a strong emotional bond with him. Neither of us said much after that. We stood in silent recognition of each other's curiosity and limitations. Perhaps he wanted to tell me. Maybe not. Perhaps it is none of my business. Perhaps the best you can do is walk through a Hell, curse God and the Devil, order a pint, and remember - and sometime a place will cross your path and it will make you weep; it will make you question. The place will make you angry and sad, make you want to scream but all you can do is whisper.
You should be so lucky.
Jonathon Josten resides in Sioux Falls, SD. He holds fancy degrees from Augustana College (SD) and is a graduate student at the University of Sioux Falls. He has a poetry book called Bipolar Musings of a Failed College Dropout and a couple of plays.
Find out more at
jonathonjosten.com . He is constantly supported and encouraged by his wife.
Painting by Katharine Scambler
THE EXTERNAL ME
I am not a hero nor am I someone who has the energy and drive to overcome any obstacle. I am neither beautiful nor athletic. I'm a decent cook and a terrible pianist. I don't cheat on my husband or my taxes. I love my children.
I write fiction and non-fiction and poetry. I've been published in "Newsweek". My novel can still be found on certain library shelves. I was writer-in-residence for Seattle University's Creative Writing program. I have taught workshops at national conventions and young author conferences.
That is the external me.
Then there is the internal me. She is a woman who sits at the computer trying to remember if she wrote the poem on the screen or if she found it in a literary journal and copied it because she liked it and wanted to study the internal rhythms and external alliteration. A metaphor, perhaps, of her own life.
I say the words of the poem aloud then analyze the choice of nouns and verbs. It seems like the kind of thing I would write. It seems to fit the world I inhabit. It seems this poem could be one I've written and even if it isn't, I'm usually scrupulous about giving credit to others where credit is due and there is no indication that this is someone else's poem.
I listen to the whir of the printer then take the single sheet from the tray and walk into the kitchen where my husband is buttering toast. I hand the paper to him.
"I'm putting together a file of old poems and I can't remember if I wrote this," I say. "Have I ever shown it to you?"
He brushes crumbs from his hands, reaches out a pale arm and scans the page. He frowns thoughtfully and hands it back.
"So," I ask, "did I write it?"
"I don't know who else could have."
He is careful of my feelings. He tries to be gentle and humorous and neutral. Neutral is important because I don't want to feel foolish or stupid. I reread the poem. I mentally delete a word that pops up twice in the second stanza. I move a phrase to a line further down. There is no feeling of familiarity but I can logically deduce these are the images I would choose. These are the rhythms I favor.
I return to my computer and tap the changes into the file that contains the poem and when I press "save" I close my eyes and give myself a pep talk. I am okay. My loss of memory is slight in the total context of life. I have made adjustments and I have compensated. So has my husband. So have my children. But tears sting my eyes. I liked the person I once was - before I lost my inner self to the haze of seizure medications - and I am sad to not have her with me.
A few years ago I sat in my parent's family room while my father told my mother about his golf game. My father tells a good tale and the story moved smoothly from golf with friends to golf with coworkers to one man in particular.
"We were on the way to the clubhouse and he had a seizure right there in the parking lot. It was because of his heart medicine and there he was, jerking around like a goddam puppet with all those people staring at him." Dad shifted uncomfortably in his recliner. "When he finally stopped you could tell from the smell that he'd not only pissed himself but he'd shit himself, too. I felt so sorry for the guy. I don't think any of us can know just what that moment meant to him."
"I can," I said.
"No, Susan. I don't think any of us can understand what he went through."
I tried to keep the edge out of my voice. "I'm epileptic, Dad."
My mother was on the couch, crocheting an afghan. Her voice was almost a whisper. "I read that calling someone epileptic is offensive, like calling them a homo or a retard."
I refused to be sidetracked and my own voice instantly filled the room with decades of anger. "I've told you both this before. I wasn't just a dreamy kid who didn't pay attention. I have temporal lobe epilepsy. The neurologist says I've probably had it my whole life. A few years ago it morphed into something worse. I've been on medication for grand mal seizures for ten years. I can understand."
There was confusion on my father's face, a long pause, then an abrupt nod. I was forty-three years old and my father finally got it. I, too, have lost control of my bowels and jerked around like a goddam puppet. I, too, have been the object of someone's pity.
I tuck that incident deep into my center. It joins the lost poem. It joins the images and sounds and confusion that, try as I might, I cannot seem to translate into coherent sentences. When I am being whimsical, I picture those lost bits and pieces holding hands and waiting, like frightened and dutiful servants, for the real me to come home.
As a child, I had many, many falls down stairwells, off cliffs and bicycles and tree branches and beds. Twice, I fell into rushing rivers. Once into a deep, green pond. Often, I crashed my bike. I fell on roller skates. It was attributed to day-dreaming and clumsiness and inattention and naughtiness. As an adult, I was considered funny by my friends, eccentric by my enemies and imaginative by my husband. Forty years of marriage have proved to me that being seen as imaginative is a gift.
This "imaginative behavior" became even more pronounced during my second pregnancy. The twitching and hallucinations intensified though the gestation, labor, delivery and increased again through two years' worth of nursing my daughter.
In the middle of all that, I was referred to a neurologist. He was small and quick and inherently skeptical. He read the referral and frowned over gold rimmed glasses. "Why are you here?"
"I keep having these visions, sort of dreamlike only during the day, where people no one else can see are talking to me."
"Talking to you?
"Yes. They yell at me or, sometimes, they ask me questions."
"And no one else can see these, um, people?"
"No. Just me."
"And do you answer these questions?"
"Of course not! They aren't real!"
At which point he scheduled an EEG and a series of head x-rays. A week later he called me. "Well, you don't have a brain tumor but you do have some hinky EEG patterns in the temporal lobe area pointing to a partial complex seizure disorder." He sounded excited. "You have no idea how many schizophrenics there are with the same presenting symptoms. I'll send my report to your personal physician but I think it's best if you don't take any heavy duty medications until your pregnancy is resolved."
By that I assumed he meant everything was to be put on hold until after the delivery. Then put on hold again since I decided to nurse and again when I stepped into my third pregnancy. It was years before my body was wholly my own again. I walked wherever I needed to go. I lost or misplaced a great deal of time, information and (sadly) money. I twitched and jittered. But I had healthy babies who became, eventually, healthy adults.
I worried about misplacing my children so I began a series of medication trials. It took a while since I was allergic to one and others made me sleep twenty hours a day. Finally, the right one came around. I tolerated it until, like many who suffer seizures, I grew lax and had the mother of all grand mals. It scared me into beginning yet another round of medication tryouts, with a variety of truly dangerous side effects, but I gritted my teeth and kept at it and, bottom line, I have been completely seizure free for over ten years.
I am not the person I was before that first grand mal but, in spite of the side effects of my medication, I have become a reasonable facsimile of my former self. I miss her, though. The brighter me. The quirky me who didn't have occasional short term memory problems or, at the very least, the one who remembered writing a poem about kites and the tug of dreams against a steady wind of the bland and familiar.
After my father's golf story, he rose from the recliner, kissed me on the forehead, patted my back in that one-armed fashion of those who are uncomfortable with the expression of emotions, and headed to the den. Driving home that night, I pulled into a Safeway parking lot and tried to sort out the evening. I thought my father was aware of what was happening to me. My mother had stayed with my children as I went through one after another allergic reactions to medications. During family gatherings (Thanksgiving, Easter, summer picnics) I had even shared a couple of poignant and, I hoped, lightly humorous stories about seizures at inconvenient times and places. My father was there, in his recliner, when those stories were told.
Given all that, how could he have insisted that I wouldn't be able to understand his coworker's experience?
I ask that even as I rush to my father's defense. He isn't stupid or uneducated. He did what many people do when faced with a painful reality. He denied its existence and, to be honest, my mother joined him there.
In fact, we all rode that horse for a while.
After that conversation with my father - a night I privately refer to as "the unveiling" - my parents reacted to the diagnosis of epilepsy as if it was a temporary condition like the measles or chicken pox - something unpleasant but quickly gotten over. Then they graduated to the idea that it was simply an inconvenient flaw - like left-handedness or color blindness. Something that was an occasional annoyance but certainly, with a little effort, a flaw that could be gotten around.
There are many reasons why it took so long, decades, to diagnose my temporal lobe seizures. I even went to counseling and talked about the rare but confusing hallucinations as if they were dreams. I should have been honest with my GP. I should have gone to a neurologist. But then, I am someone who always asks, "is this my fault?" first.
And, honestly, I was quite willing to live with confusion. It was comfortable and, sometimes, entertaining. In fact, my conceit was that these early flights of imagination proved how special I was. I had a family. I was published. People envied me.
And then things changed.
My daughter came home to find me on the floor with bruised legs and arms and a cut and bleeding mouth. I was in my bedroom office, tapping away at my typewriter (in the days before word processing or computing) and I remember feeling my internal world slip sideways. Then, apparently, I fell backward and proceeded to whack myself again and again against both bedstead and desk until, finally, the seizure subsided.
No other books have been published. I also quit writing plays. I kept writing short stories, though. And also poems, personal essays and shorter non-fiction pieces.
I do not tell people why I am concentrating on the shorter stuff. I don't want flip statements about being in good company because a lot of very talented people have had seizures. I don't want lectures on Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or even Susan Boyle. I want to concentrate on the over 70 pieces published in both literary and commercial venues. I want to feel good about my craft, not bad about it.
Over the years, I have not been particularly secretive with my diagnosis but neither have I taken out an ad in the newspaper announcing why there were years when I walked everywhere. Neither do I elaborate why sometimes I don't recognize people. Instead, I perfected the sentence, "Please tell me your name again, I must confess I am Proper Noun challenged." And, I have never put down the diagnosis on a job application.
The reason I am not terribly forthcoming with my history of seizures is threefold. First, I do not want the looks of pity, however brief. Secondly, I do not want the assurances of friends and family that I am exaggerating. Everyone has lapses, they assure me. I'm making something out of nothing. I should listen to their own stories of forgetfulness and silly mistakes. Why just the other day they forgot to pick up their daughter at soccer, where they parked their car, even the name of their sister-in-law.
Thirdly, there are the competitive types who want to assure me how truly awful-horrible-terrifying their own life, seizures, marriage, arthritis, parents, kids, exes, job, cancer, neighbors are. And in the world, heaven knows, there will always be someone worse off. At the very least, the message goes, I'm a lucky duck and I should be counting my blessings.
I do count my blessings. My children. My husband. My friends. My family. The fact that I live in this beautiful little corner of the world. I have food and clean clothes and I live in a small but quite serviceable condo. I have health insurance. +
I know I am a lucky duck. I count the good years. I count the good doctors. I count the effective medications. I appreciate having the ability to drive and swim and dance with abandon. I count the laughter and not the tears.
Over the year, I have read books, blogs, and magazine articles that are profoundly anti-medication. Be your true, artistic self, they urge. Don't let your mind and creativity become befuddled with the toxins used to control your seizures.
The thing these anti-medication folks don't understand is that after that first grand mal seizure I felt that some essential part of me was forever lost and I could not find my way to it or to home, either. I felt a hollow-woman, like a partially built house without furniture or electricity or plumbing. No laughter in that house. No love. No light. Just a roof and an ice cold floor. Just walls and echoes. The hollowness lasted for weeks.
This current medication gives me the illusion of belonging in my body. It gives the woman I used to call myself a place to enter, to sup on bread and good soup and to sleep without the panic that comes of perpetually falling down an elevator shaft.
A few weeks ago, I handed my now-grown daughter the poem that I hoped was mine, and told her I was thinking of writing a personal essay about being someone with epilepsy. "It would be a small essay," I said, "because I know, objectively speaking, I have it easy."
She tilts her head. "What do you mean by that?"
I tell her about my best friend in high school whose son went to college, got a good job doing something with computers, and died during a grand mal episode. He was inconsistent in keeping up his medication regime. A lot of people couldn't understand why it was so hard for him to simply take the prescribed number of pills.
I could understand, I told my daughter. I tried to let her know how I feared the "hollow women" but also how I hated not being who I used to be.
My daughter said she remembered clearly that grand mal. She confessed how frightening it was to come home to a mother who was bloodied and disoriented. She was fourteen and it was the first time she had thought about having a parent die. Her voice quavered a bit and she swallowed, hard, before finally saying, "You only talk about what you have lost and not what you have gained."
"What have I gained?" I asked. Not because I didn't already have an answer to that question but because I wanted to hear what she thought. I wanted to know what her words would be and how she would string them together.
She talked about growing up with parents who showed up for sports and plays and dance recitals. She talked about having a normal life. She talked about feeling safe, as a child, and not worrying whether one or the other parents would go away, perhaps permanently. She talked about having children of her own and wanting to feel okay when we took them to the playground or the store or hiking. She talked about not always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Back then, I didn't want to think about you having one of those seizures when you crossed the street or at my graduation or while you were in the bathtub. I didn't want to come home, ever again, to you all bloody and in a mess."
"Now," she continued, "I don't want my own children to see you that way, ever."
"Same here," I said.
What I didn't tell her was how hard it is to give up the wish of turning back the clock to the time when the external me and the internal me presented a united front. Logically, I accept that a united me is only a figment of my imagination. Emotionally, I am conflicted. I want to feel complete and confident but there are the missing words and the missing names and the missing money.
"The medication is here to stay," I tell my daughter. "Did I show you the new poem I am working on?"
"Yes." she smiles and hands me back the sheet of paper. "I read it twenty years ago. It's lovely."
"I have been published in a variety of venues including a couple of online journals. Most recently, my personal essays may be found in the March, 2012 edition of Writer's Workshop Review. The link is:
thewritersworkshopreview I have also had an online publication in the Summer, 2011, edition of Loch Raven Review. That link is: lochravenreview.net . It can be accessed through the archives.
My other - hard copy - publications include poetry, personal essay, and short fiction in a variety of literary journals including "Open To Interpretation" "Nimrod", "Prole", "Skive", "Other Voices", "Calxy" and more."
THE GOOD TIMES
"Remember the good times, the great times. Don't dwell on the bad." This is the common charge to those left in the wake of death. I've been casting about for the past two days, searching my memory for the good times with my mother. I realized before I started my internal voyage that these would be limited, but my wife insisted that I continue my search. One event does seem to loom above the rest. It seems innocuous enough at first, merely a night out for dinner with my mother, but in its mundane-ness it represents a high point in our relations.
I was sixteen and had worked all summer as an apprentice carpenter on a construction project, putting up four-plexes on the southwest edge of town. This was the beginning of the Yuppie suburbanization of Gilroy, but in 1962 knowledge of that issue was far in the future. I had been earning $1.75 per hour, far above the minimum wage of that time, and I was flush with money near the end of summer. Even after paying rent, required and insisted upon by my stepfather, I had accumulated a few hundred dollars. I had squandered a bit as any sixteen year old would and I had even purchased the luxury of an Italian racing bike, a touring ten-speed. But I still had money left over burning the proverbial hole in my pocket.
I think it was my own idea. At least no one has contradicted this element of the family myth. I decided to take my mother out to a fancy dinner. I decided to take her to The Cliff House, a restaurant south of Carmel, off of Highway 1, and overlooking the ocean and the rockbound Big Sur coast. I made the arrangements myself calling for reservations in my own name, and dressing up. I even drove, which was no mean feat for an un-trusted teenager. But of the details, I remember very little else. I don't remember what we ate or what she drank or even how long we stayed, although it was actually quite late.
I think we must have had a wonderful time, if memory and mythos serve me well. I recall no conflicts. She didn't get drunk that time, just tipsy. My stepfather didn't come with us, I never would have invited him and I doubt if he would have condescended to go anyway. Given these setups for success, I'm certain we had a great time. It's hard to be more specific, but I count the fact of no bad memories as a key to the night's success, at least compared to so many other memories, sadly of much greater specificity.
There are other positives as well I'm certain, other high points where our life voyages crossed. From her I received a strong work ethic. From her I had a model that the lack of a formal education did not preclude success. From her I acquired a caustic sense of humor in life's absurdity. From her I learned a love of the sea. These are valuable gifts, indeed! A single night's pleasure, an outing at a fancy restaurant, hardly seems sufficient compensation. And yet, it will have to do.
Perhaps I am still too close to her death. Perhaps with the further passage of time I will re-collect more positive memories. Perhaps that night will remain as the high-water mark of our relationship. If the other times, the bad times, can recede into obscurity, then that one successful evening, the one good time, will shine the brighter by comparison.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school English teacher living in Southern California with his wife of thirty-five years (poor soul; her, not him), their disabled daughter, one of their sons and his ex-wife and their two children, and eleven cats. Yes, eleven! He has previously been published in: The Cortland Review, Midwest Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, The Stray Branch, Flashquake, PigeonBike, Steam Ticket, Burnt Bridge, Indigo Rising, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thoughtsmith, The Rainbow Rose, Red Poppy Review, Catapult to Mars, The Camel Saloon, The Bactrian Room; Books on Blog; The Shine Journal, Joyful!, Candidum, and others, both print and e-zine. When not writing he wishes he were still pushing plywood in Coquille, Oregon.
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