Interview with Patrick Madden

by Thomas Jenson

Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections, Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (2015). He curates www.quotidiana.org, co-edits the journal Fourth Genre with Joey Franklin, and, with David Lazar, co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. He has taught English at BYU since 2004.

Inscape: In your essay “Happiness,” your collaborator, Amy Leach, writes, “to have lived in such proximity to nothing, yet to have written a something, even a mini-something…maybe that is what it means, other disappointments notwithstanding, to enter into joy.” What are the disappointments of writing, and how have you personally overcome them to enter into joy?

Patrick Madden: Disappointment in writing can come if one is aspirational (and probably everyone is to some degree). Most people do not achieve the type of success they hope for. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where universities support artists—not just linguistic artists but visual and musical artists. Not too many of them though. There’s a lot more supply of willing and capable professors than there is demand for them. So ultimately I’ve been very lucky. And my books find a good but not a very large audience. It might be nice if more people knew about the books.

It’s beneficial for writers to be somewhat melancholic, empathetic. When you’re attuned to the way the world works or fails to work, then even if everything in your personal life is smooth sailing, you’ll still feel something–not to the same acute extent as a person suffering–when you witness suffering from others. That is also a kind of disappointment, the large-scale disappointments that everybody experiences. It doesn’t have to be unique to writers—I don’t think any of those things really are. But they do come up as part of the writer’s life.

I find that writing itself is a joy. This is not just me. I think most writers feel this. It often feels like an essay exists outside of me and I’m discovering it. I know this isn’t quite true, but it can just feel that way sometimes. The art of creation, plus the sense of discovery, is exhilarating. I tend to write outside myself, so I don’t just transfer what I already know or what has happened to me. I do a lot of research, and I love that kind of learning, too. And there’s some joy in sharing writing. One benefit of not having a broad audience in my writing is that people who read it tend to like it or at least be courteous enough to say they like it. So I don’t get any real negative feedback. It’s all good reviews.

Inscape: Do you feel like there’s less pressure because you have a smaller readership? 

PM: Probably. I have published my books with the University of Nebraska Press. They’re academic and nonprofit. As long as they don’t lose money, they are happy to publish the next book. So it’s fairly low stakes for me. They have published three books of mine now, and I love working with them. I have friends who have published with big New York houses. They don’t quite own their work the way I do. The publisher owns it and needs to make money from it, so there’s a lot more interference. And if the book didn’t sell, the publisher cut their losses and took the book out of print. I never felt that kind of pressure. There’s a tiny bit of pressure because I want the book to sell well enough so they’ll let me do the next book. But it’s worked out so far. It’s more of a carrot than a stick.

Inscape: In the preface of Disparates you write, “what follows herein is unavoidably disparate, whether by design or failure or authorial inability to meet the market’s demands.” How does the commercial success of your work influence it?

PM: Almost not at all. I get paid to teach, not to write. Any money I make from writing is used to take the family out to dinner. It’s so pitifully small that it cannot be a goal. But that’s freeing too. It means I can write about anything I want, not necessarily something timely or topical or newsworthy. I don’t think I find readers on the level of my topics. I find readers because of the writing itself. And most readers I suspect know me personally or know somebody who knows me. There’s a little bit of word-of-mouth. My graduate-school mentor, David Lazar, has written a number of esoteric essay collections. His latest book is about supporting actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age. So it’s a topical book. I mean it may not have a huge audience, but at least there is a subject audience for the book: people who are interested in that time and in that place. So he can find an audience that doesn’t know David Lazar, that doesn’t know literary nonfiction, that just knows that they’re interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood. My books so far have had no subject audience available to them. Even the title of this latest book suggests that it’s about a whole lot of stuff. There’s nobody out there looking for a book about a whole lot of stuff.

Inscape: I thought it was cool how you had a lot of different subjects. I noticed that there was a scientific lens sometimes. Is that something you intend with your writing?

PM: Yes. Over almost half a century I’ve developed my interests, and science has been a longtime pursuit of mine. I think my writing style comes from an alchemy of something inherent in me and the intersection of the right thing at the right time or influences from peers, parents, and teachers. All these things have added up to me. I think the book is a pretty organic emanation from the person I have become over several decades of life. I will say, though, that I began graduate school with a more narrative-driven style. Through training with this professor I mentioned, David Lazar, I was convinced to love the more researched and idea-driven essay. Which I really took to, but I wasn’t aware of that interest before I confronted it in graduate school.

Inscape: The book almost reads like raw thinking, as if I were sitting next to you while you are discovering these essays. If that was the process, what did editing look like later? Does editing your work go against the philosophy of it?

PM: Not really. On the one hand, I’m a slow, methodical writer. I really try to work the sentences and get them into an artful shape as I go. I know writers who are very quick and who have to revise more heavily later on.

But the result wants to appear effortless. I don’t know any writer who can really put the recorder to their mind and let it run. An essay is an artful representation of the mind thinking, but it’s not a transcript of the mind thinking. I don’t know about your thoughts, but mine are far too scattered. Montaigne, who invented the essay, basically says that he was so easily distracted that he began writing to tame his mind. He was naturally curious and divagating, and maybe had a bit of attention deficit. But when he wrote, he focused his attention. Not in a systemic way, but in a way that still allowed for the play of the mind but kept it on some train. Not a linear argument type of train—never that—but a kind of meandering argument in a rhetorical sense. Revision is always a kind of tightening and threading. The essay wants to get to something interesting, resonant, emotionally charged. But usually I’ll write toward that and then realize, “OK, I got here to a good place. Now I need to make the ending inevitable.” Long ago I thought of this, but I later discovered that Aristotle had thought of it, too. The idea is that endings should be both surprising and inevitable. Maybe the first response is, “Wow, that’s new and interesting. I hadn’t considered that.” The second is a recognition that, “I see how we’ve been getting here all along.” But the composition of the prose typically, in my case at least, isn’t enough to generate that feeling of inevitability. So I’ll run back and use metaphorical language that relates to the final image or something, so that when you get there, you say, “Oh, penguins! I remember he was talking about the Arctic before.” That’s not a real example, but it could be.

Inscape: You talked a little earlier about the melancholic attitude that writers should have. I feel like that tone came through with your essay “Repast” because the form is creative and playful even though it’s dealing with a heavy subject. How do you see those two things working together, the form and the content?

PM: Sometimes we categorize emotions in too opposed or simplistic ways. We think happy or sad, good or bad. We think of them as opposites. If you were to think of play or humor, you’d associate that with some kind of positive emotion or experience. That’s fine. I think it does often work that way. But I don’t think that’s a requirement. I’m interested in the ways form and content fit together in an inherent way. And maybe inherent just means in a way that we’re used to. But I’m also interested in creating new connections. As if that’s the whole game of the essay: to create new connections that have never been made before and will be interesting to readers. In this case, with that particular essay, the process is a little bit backwards. I had read an essay in the form of a crossword puzzle. It was a piece called “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter (she’s a friend of mine). I decided I wanted to write a crossword puzzle essay, so I found an online tool to make crossword puzzles. I didn’t really have a subject to write about. I started plugging things in. But I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t come up with anything that I thought worked well. But the same website could create a word search puzzle, too. That seemed easier because it’s filling in the gaps with garbled, nonsensical letters. And it hit me that I do have a subject for this in my mother’s funeral. So it was the failure of the crossword puzzle and the serendipity that the same programmers put together the crossword puzzle and the word search functions that got me to remember that my mom used to do these word search puzzles. In the master bedroom there were some of these leftover books that she had been doing, one of them a word search puzzle book. I started thinking about the metaphor of finding words and that scene at the repast where I had not prepared any sort of speech. The opportunity arose, it was kind of unexpected, and I just stumbled through it inadequately.

And then the connections started flowing quite easily. But easily because I steep myself in a lot of literature. One early association was the Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” and the situation he posits of an infinite library that contains every possible book, how in that library you would find the story of your whole life, even what you haven’t lived yet. There’s a lot of afterlife imagery in the story, and in other places Borges has compared the afterlife to library, so that seemed to work really well. I did not revise that essay much once I hit on the idea. It would’ve been tricky to revise anyway because these paragraphs had to be roughly the same length and I felt like the five paragraphs balanced nicely. They arched pretty well.

I also had fun hiding other words in the puzzles that don’t appear in the text. For example, one Easter egg is one of the phrases the librarian mentions that they found in a book: “oh time, thy pyramids.” That was a great discovery for them because most of the books were gibberish. And at the very end, my essay’s last sentence is also from Borges. It is the very last line of “The Library of Babel”: “My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.” 

Inscape: I think it’s a beautiful essay. And in my mind, it exemplifies the purpose of making unexpected connections. The book as a whole treats the essay—how to write it, what it can do, its historical champions. What is your philosophy of the essay? How is that understanding different from how you have seen it in the past, and what influences brought you to where you are now?

PM: It’s hard to be terse about it, but I’ll try: When you are younger, essays are punishments your teacher gives you that force you to prove that you did the homework. Your own perspective is not valued. All that’s valued is argument and proof. You are expected to have concluded before you begin and to use the writing as ballast to support an argument. You might involve expert opinion. This is antithetical in spirit to what essays are or have been or should be. What Montaigne intended is an attempt without reaching after conclusions. When I first started studying creative writing, I thought an essay was a short story that was true. I didn’t perceive the need for any kind of generic distinctions between short story and essay, other than this extratextual bit that in the essay the author certifies that this really happened whereas in the short story the author holds open space to invent some things. That’s also a pretty unsophisticated view. We’ve already talked about some of my basic hopes for the essay, which is that it’s an artistic record of a mind thinking about a subject of general interest, often intersecting with the writer’s personal life, but not always. Samuel Johnson defined the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” I think that’s an appropriate definition. I don’t think it limits things, at least. The essay generally balks at limits or pushes against them or subverts them.

Inscape: You write, “All essays…should be gnomic…without persnickety certainties.” But don’t some of your essays conclude on some certainties? Not that they are didactic, but parts don’t feel gnomic, per se. Was your goal with Disparates to leave the reader to deal with ambiguity, but did you also want to clarify certain things, like what makes a good essay?

PM: Scott Russell Sanders, an essayist I admire, effectively said that while the essay might reach some clear understanding about its particular subject, it always recognizes the vast uncertainty that remains. I think that’s a pretty good way to think about what essays do. I’m fond of setting the reader up by saying, “This is what I’m trying to say here”–that type of direct engagement. I’ll use the phrase “which is to say” pretty frequently. It’s a tick of mine. Because I want the essay to represent what it’s like in another mind – I want the reader to understand what’s happening in my mind – I want to both show and tell. But the telling can’t be banal, directly correspondent, saying this equals that. That’s unsatisfying for me. Instead, I want it to hold up a subject and point out our default response and offer a varied perspective, see the thing’s contextuality. Our understanding is a negotiation between the thing, the mind perceiving the thing, and the myriad influences that have shaped the mind perceiving the thing. Generally that’s a bit uncomfortable. It’s much easier to fall in line with the cultural defaults and interpret from within that space without questioning. If you perpetuate the system you will probably succeed in the system. I say this not as some grand rebel. My life has largely been fitting myself into systems comfortably, so that the system will benefit me. Here and now it’s possible for a person like me with this kind of creative interest to be sheltered by academia, to earn a paycheck sufficient to pay the mortgage on a home, to feed some children, and so forth. That’s nice. But ultimately the dominant value systems don’t really value the type of work I do as much as other types of entertainment. They more tolerate it.

Inscape: Is that frustrating to you?

PM: Sometimes. But I don’t really need more than I have. I have more than most people in the world. Maybe the mind is naturally inclined to see the things one lacks more prevalently than the things one has. You can always find people with nicer cars, nicer homes, living more ostentatiously. It is somewhat frustrating that teachers are undervalued, but less personally frustrating than culturally frustrating. I wish our culture valued these things more, the things that don’t translate so directly into economic value.

Inscape: What influence do you feel like Spanish culture and language had on your writing?

PM: I’ve been to some literary events in Uruguay that were just packed. The crowds were not as big as a soccer game, but they acted like they were at a soccer game. Once I went to see Mario Benedetti, one of Uruguay’s greatest poets, in a concert with a folklorist named Danielle Viglietti. The line to get into the theater went around the whole block. They would play and recite poems to music. It was just wonderful. After every single poem or song the crowd erupted into exuberant cheers. When you go to a poetry reading here in the US, everybody remains politely silent between poems. Another time I went to see José Saramago, the Nobel Prize winner from Portugal, when he visited Montevideo. When I got there an hour early, again the line wrapped around the block. When I finally made it inside, the whole auditorium was jam packed. I had to stand in a crowd outside the doorway just trying to hear what was going on. Obviously they could have held the event in a place with bigger seating capacity, but the way people respected literature was inspiring to me. There are people in the US who feel that way about literature, but maybe we’re too dispersed. We have different cultural habits here. And we only elect lawyers to public positions, whereas in Latin America sometimes they’ll elect the poet. They’ll send poets as ambassadors.

As for language, even though Spanish and English are both Romance languages – at least later English is heavily influenced by the French – they are different enough. I have a good friend in Uruguay who says that if you have only one watch you’ll always know exactly what time it is, but if you have two watches you’ll never be quite sure. I think that’s great. Knowing a second language has had a tremendous effect on breaking my correspondent/convergent understanding of language (and things beyond language). You can get by in life with a pretty simplistic relationship where language is just a vehicle for information. Language can work that way; it certainly does. But it’s not just that. The fact that Spanish sees things differently, even slightly, is a tremendous benefit. As in the phrase “se me cayó”: it fell from me or on me. There’s a distancing, a lack of blame. Or “to be born”: in English we use this clunky phrase. In Spanish it’s “nacer.” It applies in an active way to that thing whereas our phrase is passive and convoluted. Or the phrase “dar a luz,” which is a widely accepted metaphorical verb that is applied for the complementary action, which we don’t have a good name for: “give birth to” is such a clunky phrase. If it weren’t so well-established I’d have to strike it out anytime I found it in a student draft because it’s just a backwards way of approaching things. So knowing Spanish—and I’ve kept it up, my wife is from Uruguay, we speak it in the home, we have lived in Uruguay a bunch—has really infiltrated my mind and allowed me to think in new ways. And it’s not just that I can think in the English way or the Spanish way. I don’t feel like I’m tied to language as an information container anymore.

Inscape: I feel like this fits how earlier you were talking about emotional dichotomies such as happy/sad, comedy/tragedy. It seems like you really understand how the two things in the dichotomy converge in your work.

PM: We often think that in a dichotomy you have to choose one or the other, one thing’s right one and the other is wrong. But I don’t feel that way at all. I mean unless the kids are misbehaving and you have to straighten them out. At least where I’m allowed the space to live and think and write freely, it’s quite invigorating not to have to resolve. It feels like John Keats’s “negative capability,” holding contradictory thoughts without irritated reaching after conclusions. I’d much rather exist in that place

Inscape: Something you said earlier about fitting yourself comfortably into established systems so that they benefit you struck me. Do you feel like your teaching or writing is a way to break out of those systems?

PM: I hope so. It has been for me and I hope to model and perpetuate that for students as well. Unconsciously I’ve certainly worked within the system of white privilege for instance, or the “American dream,” the immigrant who works hard to give his children a better life. That’s my family story. My ancestors are fairly recent arrivals to North America, within two or three generations, and they certainly bought into that model. Back to systems, one main system I’ve consciously worked in is academia. When I was younger I quite enjoyed school. I figured out the rules, the reward structure. And I worked to get good grades and learn a good bit. The system was so influential that here I am, still in school. I didn’t want to become a specialist who has to spend an entire career focused on some very narrow area of knowledge. I wanted, and want, to have the freedom to learn anything, drop it when I am no longer interested, and move onto the next thing. That’s what an essayist does. I’ve been lucky that this thing called “creative nonfiction” is burgeoning. At the turn of the last century, not too many programs offered an emphasis in creative nonfiction, but now many do. The timing was quite good for me.

That’s the primary system that I’ve consciously worked within. But just yesterday I was talking to students about their final paper and telling them not to subsume their personality to the thing they believe to be “proper academic style,” which is third-person, passive voice, attempting pseudoscientific distance, objectivity instead of subjectivity. I am trying to work within academia to subvert academia little bit.

Inscape: You probably have to conform to the system to some extent in order to change it. Right?

PM: Somewhat. But I’ll tell you even in my department most people are specialists in literary critics. If I go to a faculty presentation on an academic subject, I have no idea what they’re talking about. They speak a language I don’t speak. And not only do I not speak it, but I don’t want to speak it. I feel like speaking that language would be a kind of selling out. Have you been to some of these presentations? Some of them are just so jargon-y. They’re not speaking to anybody who hasn’t had their exact training.

Inscape: Some final questions. What advice do you have for students who want to become writers?

PM: All the writers I know have one thing in common: perseverance. I know writers who are very different stylistically, and some can publish in these venues here and some can publish only in those other venues over here. There’s a lot of room for stylistic variance. But most failed writers ultimately make that judgment (of failure) on themselves. They make it based upon feedback—they get a lot of rejections and they start to think “maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But the ultimate judgment is always your own. Here’s a fun example. The book How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker just came out. I know Jerald. He’s a super good guy. It’s his third book, so he’s not a first-time author. But Jerald tells me that this book was rejected by something like twenty publishers, who all thought it wasn’t marketable. They wanted him to write a memoir. Even though essays are experiencing a surge in popularity now, the publishers he went to, at least, didn’t want essays. Meanwhile, I am one of the coeditors for the the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press. Jerald sent us the book, and we said “this is exactly what we like.” The book is now a finalist for the National Book Award, one of five books published in 2020 selected by the National Book Award committee. I can guarantee that there are publishers right now who are shaking their heads wondering how they missed it. So it’s not a case of becoming a writer and or not; it’s a case of believing in what you’ve written enough to keep shopping it around, keep sharing it, until you find a publisher that recognizes the value in it. And then a lot of luck, too. Because there are a lot of great books, and the National Book Award finalists are not the actual five best books published that year. They’re the five books published that the committee happened to discover that year and agreed upon. “Perseverance”: that would be my advice.

Inscape: How did things work out for you?

PM: Yeah, I was pretty lucky. My first book is effectively what I was working on for my dissertation before I got a Fulbright fellowship and wrote a different dissertation. So it’s made of essays I wrote during graduate school. I had published half of them or so in literary journals, bit by bit, small journals here and there. I sent the manuscript into a national book contest from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). That year the judge was Michael Martone, whose water bottle I sold in the first essay in my new book. And the screener was a guy named Ander Monson. He wrote one of the blurbs for my new book. So Ander Monson gets a hundred manuscripts and from them he has to select a small number, let’s say 10. Among them is mine, I assume because we share some esthetic affinities. I’m writing in a style that, basically, he recognizes as valuable. So he sends off his 10 selections to the final judge, Martone, who was Monson’s teacher. They share some affinities, too. And finally Martone selects my manuscript as runner-up. I didn’t win the contest but the book was runner-up. That meant I got a paragraph of praise from Michael Martone. With that in hand and having met a lot of other writers and editors, including Dinty Moore, who edits Brevity Magazine and has written a lot of books himself. He says, “Pat, you should send in your book to Nebraska. Tell them I sent you.” I send a proposal to Nebraska (who’d been publishing lots of great literary nonfiction for years, a lot of writers I admired and aspired to be like, not the big moneymaking writers but the serious literary writers who supplement their writing habit with teaching jobs) with the Michael Martone quote and that Dinty Moore recommendation. And it all worked out. It took some time, but they decided to publish the book. And the book did well enough that they were willing to take a chance on the next one. And that went well enough that they did the third book, Disparates. So it has been a gradual process of building momentum. And the timeline when I look back is not too bad. But it didn’t happen right away either. Quotidiana came out in 2010 and I graduated with my PhD in 2004. So that’s a few years.

Inscape: Did you actually sell Michael Martone’s water bottle on eBay?

PM: Oh yeah. For $20.50. I let people know that I was doing the auction so that they could submit questions and bid. And the winning bidder was a former BYU student. She thought it would be quirky to own that water. There are some exaggerations within that essay, but I think you can tell what kind of stuff I was making up.

Inscape: Well, of course, because you say in the essay that you bathed in the water, then you gargled it.

PM: Yeah, that didn’t really happen. But I don’t think that destroys the credibility, because any critical reader is going to understand that that didn’t really happen. I hope.

Standing in Front of Van Gogh’s Irises at the Getty Museum

by Cosenza Hendrickson

Like ants piled on a sidewalk crack
They clustered round it.
iPhones shuddered softly
Under gold-dim lighting.
I slowed at the sight of curves, familiar
As my wet hips glistening in the shower—
The leaves of supple flowers.
Eyes darting like bees,
I took in the leaves, the stems,
The purple, nodding heads
Like those of sleepy
Toddlers strapped in car seats.
How warm it must have been—
That day when Van Gogh licked the sun
Off his chin, peeked
Through his barred window
And remembered irises!

When I finally left, the shadows
Had grown cold outside,
But the serpent of LA traffic
Seemed freshly molted,
The telephone lines swooped
Through the sky like dancers,
Even the bubbling radio static
Sang praises.

Cosenza Hendrickson is an English major from Kona, Hawaii. She is the oldest of five girls and is lucky enough to have parents who love to read. Cosenza’s first experiences with creative writing were facilitated by an amazing fourth grade teacher and a purple, spiral-bound notebook. During her sophomore year of college, Cosenza fell in love with poetry during a lecture in which the professor explained the different types of poetic feet. After graduating from Brigham Young University in April, she hopes to continue her study of poetry through an MFA in creative writing.

Good Doctor

by Sarah Emmett

God taps on the door
and enters in a white lab coat.
He has glasses and clean hands.
He could smile but he doesn’t
—he knows what he’s doing.

He rolls up on a little stool,
careful and sure.
He asks me how I’m feeling
and wants the truth too.
 
He washes his hands,
cold and strong.
Touches my navel.
Is there health?
Touches my spine.
Is there marrow?

Brisk and kind.
The answer is no.

He looks me in the eye
and uses words I don’t understand
to tell me about death.
He could cry but he doesn’t
—he knows what he’s doing.

Thanks for coming in.
Wait God, will you be there when I die?

He’s a good doctor,
but not because he heals.
The answer is yes.

Sarah Emmett is a history major from Springville, Utah. She enjoys fresh fruit, skiing, and New Girl.

 

A Heart Removed

by Rachelle Larsen

For my first love on our first Valentine’s Day, I crafted a card resembling a human heart. I labeled its different pieces—aorta, atrium, ventricle, valve—not only with their official names, but also with the ways he had taught my heart to flutter. I can’t remember what I wrote, but I remember the way he twisted our fingers together. How our eyes met spontaneously across crowded conversations, our faces flowing into secretive smiles. The way I felt when he said I love you, his voice almost reverent, as if I were his entire world and he were mine.

I loved those early days. I was eighteen and so confident in love, unaware of the risks it carried. I knew love’s flutter but not its possible toll.

Punched walls, smashed cell phones, throbbing flesh—these were rare, but the first time they happened, my love’s eyes bored into me, his hands clutching me, warning me to still myself into a thing like all the others he had broken: a fragile body with a heart that still fluttered, but also fled, ached, and raced. Our relationship became nebulous, undefined, and the day before my twentieth birthday, I was replaced with a newer model—as happens to broken things—and was informed by phone call. My mom said, He made out with a girl from church—her mom called me. Do you know anything about that? I responded, I’m sure there’s more to the story. And there was. When I asked him what had happened, he told me, I love her and she loves me, claiming that he had taken our nebulous relationship as nonexistent, and his words led my fluttering-fleeing-aching-racing heart to cry out until it suddenly quieted six months later, about two years after learning to flutter.

I imagine the pain stopping when he threw my crafted card away, and while I’m grateful for our separation, it means that my heart is in a far-off landfill, moldering into something both fertile and unpalatable. I wonder if it lives. I wonder if I can live without it.

I think of Montezuma who caused thousands of hearts to be placed on the altar of Huizilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Those hearts were the desire of his gods and had been for centuries: payment for good fortune, the sacrifice for splendor. Most often, conquered enemies were chosen for tribute, their hearts forcibly excised. It didn’t matter that their lives were unwillingly given, because even as symbols of Aztec devotion, the hearts were not metaphoric; when Cortez came to the Americas, Montezuma showed him literal hearts, still red and wet and firm, piled on top of each other on a platter.

I don’t know if Montezuma explained why the Aztecs called themselves “the people of the fifth sun”; in their theology, four worlds preceded ours, destroyed because the people would not pay their debts to the gods. Our fifth world was created when the gods Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl gave their lives to become the Sun and Moon, an ultimate sacrifice that demands ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know if Montezuma clarified that human sacrifice was not just a matter of devotion, but of survival, even if those who were sacrificed couldn’t survive.

I do know how Cortez reacted to the piled hearts. As he plowed his way through the Aztec empire, he entered sacred temples and threw out their gods, replacing them with his own. I imagine the horror of the Aztec people. What are you doing? they might have thought. You’re killing the entire world. They might have looked up, waiting for lighting to strike or storms to descend or floods to rise. And as days passed, and no destruction came, they might have wondered, Have our sacrifices been for nothing?

When my devotion was rendered mute, replaced by another, I waited for my world’s collapse. I waited in heartache, which I had always taken as a metaphor until he said I love her and she loves me, and it felt like my rib cage collapsed in. Another kind of violence, another sunk cost compelling the thought, You broke it, you bought it, thank God to no avail. I ached for days, even months, before the reason for this heartache didn’t make sense and I began to wonder if my heart was bleeding for nothing.

I don’t miss him anymore, or even think about him often, but he taught my heart distance. In my darker moments, I worry that when the ache in my chest disappeared, it wasn’t because my heart came back to me, but rather because it bled out on a platter.

The surgeon and religious leader Russell M. Nelson reversed Montezuma’s offering, taking hearts from platters and putting them in chests—even as a symbol, it’s not metaphoric. When his medical career began, there was no such thing as heart surgery: Never touch the heart, he was told. A touched heart will stop beating. Through painstaking research, he discovered that a heart doesn’t mind being touched, or even held, under proper conditions. Can you imagine it? A heart uncaged, pulsing in your hand. He went on to cut hearts, stitch them, bind them, unblock them, uncage them and cage them again. The instrument he invented—the heart-lung machine, made with metal he melted and glass he blew and a plastic nipple he took from his own baby’s bottle—rendered possible the transplanting of hearts: the taking of a healthy heart and placing it in the chest of someone else’s mortal temple, thereby saving a life.

Heart transplants sound magical to me, almost like necromancy: it takes the heart of one dead, puts it into one dying, and somehow creates new life, though there are restrictions, of course. There must be similarities between the dead and the nearly so: They must be geographically close enough for timely transport. Their blood types should match to decrease the likelihood of rejection. Their hearts should be about the same size, because a heart too big crammed into a ribcage too small can lead to convulsions, comas, and death.

I think about my first love, and how I would lay my head against his chest, listening to his heart. He told me about his parents’ shotgun marriage in high school and their divorce by the time he was two. About his mother taking him to a bar shortly afterward where she met his eventual stepfather, a man who she told that night, If you’re going to rape me, then just do it. My first love talked of Plato’s cave as if it were a literal place, describing its stone and quiet, saying with regret, The light is too bright for me. I remembered his cave often and cherished the moments he said things like loving you feels like the spirit of God, not just for the cheesy moment, but to acknowledge that love is how we feel swept away in what is both good and powerful, and it often takes two before it takes one.

Maybe I should have never given my heart in those early days. There were red flags, as people like to say, as if it’s easy not to love someone based on the checklist they do or do not fill. But I found something beautiful in his striving, however limited by his circumstance, and though it’s ambitious to ask what the suffering was for—as if there was some specific, cosmic meaning—I can’t help but hope that there is a consolation prize for the loss of my heart: that maybe it gave renewed life for him if not for me.

According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ symbolically placed His heart on humankind and is rumored to have literally died of a cage too small for what was inside it. It can’t be proven, of course, but Dr. C. Truman Davis speculates that when Christ was crucified, excess fluid collected in the pericardium, which squeezed His heart to the point of death. This theory explains why, when the legionnaire stabbed Christ up through the ribs, “there came out blood and water.” The water was the fluid that increased the pressure, slowly constricting, slowly completing the sacrifice of Deity. Yet Christian theology says this crushed-hearted Christ requests “broken hearts and contrite spirits” to deal out healing and redemption. The story of my God is like the story of Aztec creation in this way: gods must sacrifice for their people, and people must sacrifice for their gods, or else creation is foiled. The stability of life requires reciprocity.

When I think of Deity giving me my heart, I worry about not being able to accept it. Jesus Christ is the ultimate organ donor because He can swell His heart bigger and bigger, so big that He dies, so big that He can give it to billions of people, and yet He lives, which is why Christians call Him God: this is both the scandal and miracle of Christianity, and I think to myself, Am I similar enough? Are Christ and I close enough? Does the same blood run through my veins? Is my cage the right size? Those are the requirements of a successful heart transplant. It seems like blasphemy even to compare, but that’s what He invites me to do: to dream that He can bring me a healed and beating heart.

In my brighter moments, I believe He has. I say that I’m distant from my heart, but there are so many times I feel it. Playing games with friends. Walking in sunshine. Climbing rock walls. Listening to other hearts. Responding to their beats with love.

It’s only in romantic love where I see holes, pieces of me moldered away, inscribed with words I can no longer remember. Since my first love, I’ve twisted my fingers with many others, many I love you’s falling sincerely from my lips, but in conversation, my eyes meet eyes a beat too late. I often wait for the tell-tale tilting head in my periphery before shifting my gaze toward one that has already settled on my face. Love is sacrifice is light is synchronized reciprocity, but I resist and feel no flutter.

Like all living hearts, my heart is judged by its precision, pressure, and pace. These attributes can vary from moment to moment, of course, but should follow a specific pattern within a specific allowance. It should open and close cleanly. Blood pressure should be around 120 over 80. When at rest, it should beat at around 60 bpm; when exercising intensely, somewhere around 160 bpm; and when sleeping, as low as 50 bpm. And so my heart does, mostly. I hear it open, shut, open, shut, open, shut. Blood pressure is 110 over 70. It speeds with stimuli and slows with rest.

It functions, but I still worry about its brokenness. Too often, my heart physically hurts from metaphorically crowding beyond its cage. Even when not pained, my heart remembers pain. It races too often, too easily startled by anything from alarms to angry voices, and too long, so long that up to an hour after a surprise, it’s still racing, and the Red Cross won’t let me donate. Are you nervous about giving blood? they ask me.

It’s only now that I think of another aspect of the Aztecs: while human sacrifice was required, blood-letting—voluntary offering of one’s blood without losing one’s life—was also an acceptable form of sacrifice when coming from priests and other devoted worshippers. Death was for those who had no gratitude, or whose heart was not beating to the will of the gods, though I’m sure that there were unfair interpretations of who was devoted. It makes me think that in matters of love, unity requires not my complete destruction, and not a life for a life, but acceptance of a heart, and if my heart beats in fear, then I am missing the point.

But sometimes, I don’t miss the point.

My second flutter, my most recent love: I like you, I told him after hundreds of afternoons together, and a month later he said, I like you too. A month after that, I love you said both ways. He’s someone who was born dead, a blue baby on a metal tray, and when a doctor forced him screaming into life, that taste of death seems to have lingered, because he’s fascinated by extinct civilizations, their intricate human complexities flattened into scribbled tablets. Perhaps this is why he liked me, but in any case, we talked of hearts. I told him my musings, and he was enchanted by the symmetry of stone temples against mortal temples, of plattered hearts and hearts from platters. He offered me libbum, the word for heart in Akkadian, a language that hasn’t been spoken for two thousand years, though I falsely connect it to words like liberty. Its meanings: heart; the seat of will; the seat of emotions, thought, memory; center; iris.

I told him, I guess even two thousand years ago, eyes were the window to the soul. And though the academic in him equivocated—explaining that we can’t possibly know the connotations libbum might entail—I found myself meeting his gaze, those eyes blue as the death that almost kept him, and I felt gratitude for bleeding hearts. If to bleed is to lose blood, then a heart must bleed by necessity, and only once it stops should we worry.

Rachelle is curious about everything, especially people, which explains why she will never leave school. Ever. In her undergrad, she studied piano performance before switching to a major in physics education while minoring in political science. She is currently working on an MFA in creative nonfiction while she teaches high school chemistry and physics. In the future, she hopes to know more things than she knows now, write a book worth publishing, and be of service to others. She may also pursue a PhD which, knowing her, may or may not be entirely unrelated to her prior degrees.

Akitsu Shima

by Brittany Casselman

A disproportionate amount of a dragonfly’s life span takes place underwater. The female dragonfly lays her eggs in the water, and in the next seven days the larvae are born. These larvae spend the next three years in the water, eating insects and fish and occasionally each other, before emerging into the air. Their time in the world is often short—it can range between a few weeks and a year.

I spent a lot of time underwater before I met Joanie.

Joanie was a blonde fireball of a teacher. She taught the service-learning class at my high school—a class I had secretly wanted to take since I was five years old. Joanie believed in every service project her students took on, but more importantly, she believed in every student. She saw the dragonfly inside each larva, and she did everything she could to help it emerge from the water, no matter how long it took. She knew that the best way to help us help the community was to help us see ourselves as powerful.

When I met Joanie, I was a scrawny sophomore who was going through some hard things. I was unbearably shy, had recently lost a lot of friends, and didn’t feel like I had much to offer those around me. I was vulnerable, and I was tired.

Joanie saw me in a way nobody else did. She saw me for my potential. She saw who I could be. Instead of just teaching me to serve others, she served me. With her help, I found solace in service. More than that, I found strength. I grew into the person I needed to be.

Like most dragonflies, Joanie was out in the sky for much too little time.

The first time I heard about Joanie’s cancer was at a holiday party she concocted for the members of the “board” (the students she had asked to carry out the various service projects that the class took on) during my junior year. She asked each of us to bring an item that used to be precious to us but that we didn’t need anymore. We wrapped them up and gave them out. As each person unwrapped their gift, the person who gave it explained its significance.

Joanie gave one of her old headscarves from chemo. She told us her whole story—how she was born with a gene that gave her an 80% chance of getting breast cancer. When her cancer finally came, she fought to make it to remission. She had been cancer-free for almost 17 years. I remember thinking back and realizing that as I was being born, she was fighting the hardest battle of her life.

When the person who got the headscarf opened the package, I looked over and saw that the scarf was covered with dragonflies.

Every August, Japan celebrates their ancestors with the Bon Festival, a weekend festival where it is said that the spirits of ancestors return and visit their families. During that weekend, thousands of dragonflies appear in the sky. This has led to a belief that the ancestors ride on the backs of the dragonflies to visit their families. Dragonflies are a sign that the ancestors are watching over you.

Joanie was the one who told me about the legend. She wasn’t Japanese, but she believed in dragonflies. This belief carried her through the lowest part of her cancer, she told us during that holiday party. To help keep her strength up during chemo, she used to go on walks up the canyon. Sometimes she would feel so weak that she could barely make it up the first hill. There were days she was so exhausted she could barely move, but she went regardless, because that was Joanie.

One day, she was sitting in her yard, trying to find the strength to continue treatment. At the very moment she was considering giving up, a dragonfly landed on her arm. It was then she knew that she was going to make it all the way to remission. In that moment, she said, she could feel her ancestors cheering her on.

Dragonflies are resilient. They were the first winged insects to appear on this planet—the first fossils we have date back 350 million years. They survive in all climes and appear on every continent except Antarctica. The only things they really need to survive are food (generally mosquitos), clean water, and stable oxygen levels. They can make it through almost anything.

The cancer came back my senior year. Joanie looked more tired than usual at first, delegating more to those of us on the board and not attending nearly as many events as she used to. I was so busy coordinating with food banks and collecting donations for our end-of-year service dinner that I barely noticed.

In class a few days later, she announced that she would be taking 2 months off. Her cancer was back, she said, this time in her brain. She kept it light and optimistic, saying that she was going to try a treatment plan less invasive than chemo, that she was going to fight it, and that she would be back. To the board, she was a little more open. She was more than our teacher, and we were more than her students. We were friends, and we were worried about her. The doctors had found five tumors in her brain. Recovery would be rough. But she told us she would fight, and that she trusted us to keep the projects going for her in the meantime. Ann, her aid, would be there to help us. Joanie said that she was excited to hear about the good we would do while she was gone.

Joanie believed in us like she believed in dragonflies. She knew that whatever happened, we would make it through.

Dragonflies are sacred in Japan. Japan actually used to be called Akitsu Shima—Dragonfly Island. They were so prevalent in the lives of the Japanese citizens that they linked dragonflies with their national identity.

The day Joanie passed away, I walked into health class to whispers. I didn’t need to know the details—I heard one student say, “Joanie” and I knew she was gone. When the guidance counselor came to my classroom a few minutes later with a note to excuse me, I took my bag with me. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.

Sitting in a room with the other board members as the guidance counselor told us that Joanie was gone was a feeling of sadness, but also a feeling of sisterhood. We were there to remember Joanie’s memory, and she had brought people together. It almost felt like a disservice to her memory to cry.

That night, my sister walked in on my sobbing into my pillow—loud sobs, the kind that make you gasp for air because you feel like you’re shrinking into yourself. When she asked me if Joanie had died, I couldn’t even stop crying long enough to tell her yes.

Joanie’s funeral was the biggest I’d ever been to. I got there 20 minutes early, sloshing through the snow in black high-heeled shoes, but still had to sit at the very back of the church. The building was almost filled to capacity. I’d never seen people get turned away at a funeral before, but that was the impact that Joanie had.

After the funeral, the board went to Ann’s house for lunch. After soup and salads and stories about Joanie, Ann gave us all jewelry boxes. Inside was a small silver necklace—a dragonfly. “So you can always remember that your ancestors are watching over you,” Ann said, “and so you can always remember that Joanie’s watching over you too.”

I wore that necklace every day for four years. At every special occasion—birthdays, graduation, my first and last days on the mission—it was present. And so was Joanie.

Every time I reach my lowest point, I look for dragonflies. No matter what phase of life I’m in or even what continent I’m on, I always find them. They’re little reminders to me that the ancestors are watching over me. And that the woman who always believed I would become something incredible is cheering me on.

In Japan, they don’t just believe that dragonflies transport the souls of their ancestors. They also believe that, occasionally, the ancestor’s soul takes the form of a dragonfly. When a dragonfly comes into your home in Japan—on Akitsu Shima—you don’t shoo it out. You welcome it into your home, so your ancestor can be with the family one last time. 

 Works Cited

“Dragonflies.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 7 May 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/d/dragonflies-insects/.

“Japanese Art.” The Dragonfly in Japanese Culture, jamiemillerdragonfly.weebly.com/japanese-art.html.

Sedgwick, Icy. “The Dragonfly in Folklore: Good Luck Symbol & Weigher of Souls.” Icy Sedgwick, 13 Aug. 2020, www.icysedgwick.com/dragonfly-folklore/.

Williams, Ruth. “Why Are Dragonflies Important?” Sciencing, Leaf Group Media, 2 Mar. 2019, sciencing.com/dragonflies-important-10068965.html.

Zielinski, Sarah. “14 Fun Facts About Dragonflies.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Oct. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-dragonflies-96882693/. 

Brittany Casselman is currently working on an undergraduate degree in communications with a minor in creative writing. She enjoys writing, service, and making dumb jokes, though lately her favorite hobbies include sleep and finding desserts that don’t aggravate her stomach problems.

 

She’s Becoming Self-Aware

by Elena Welch

I would like to tell you about her. Cold watcher, cruel mirror, through whom I see the world seeing me seeing myself—she is something I would like to share.

Her (2013) stars Scarlet Johansson as an AI who forms a romantic and sexual relationship with soft-spoken, self-insert Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The AI is intelligent and assertive and sexy in all the ways that appeal to a bookish, straight man. It is an image of perfection not crafted for a woman by herself, or indeed even by other women. This is a foreign femininity, projected upon this character by the men who wrote her and the men who directed her and the men who praised her perfection through all the loudest venues later on. This AI—Samantha, as the man who wrote her says she names herself—truly cares about Theodore and constantly attempts to please and satisfy him, even though the film suggests that as an AI she is far more powerful than and superior to him.

She (1965) stars Bond girl Ursula Andress as Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Based off an 1887 novel of the same name, the titular character’s power stems from her supernatural beauty, and her fame from her imperious (and imperialist—Ayesha is the only white woman among and the leader of a tribe of British-fantasy “natives”) temper. She earns her subjects’ love with her sensuality and sexuality, and their fear with her feminine jealousy and rage. The iron fist with which Ayesha rules wears impeccable nail polish.

She is beauty. Her is wisdom. I am neither, and she will not let me forget it.

When I sit on a metal bench in the park, she is there. I am utterly drained, slowly but surely pulling myself out of myself. My earbuds are full of the music which I, through trial and error, have learned calms me down. My lap is full of lunch, which I am slowly but methodically eating. My mind is full of tired turmoil; ten minutes before, it had been a frantic whirlpool of irrational thought. Two yellowjackets investigate my food, their cold, sharp feet touching my skin. I do not react. Let them sting me. Let them go. I am no longer in a place to act against them. And she, mute and complicit observer of my mind, is watching me even then.

She was watching me ten minutes before, at the height of my agony. I swore to myself all the way down the stairs, turning the Lord’s name into a hissed litany behind my mask, my dignity falling off behind me like shed clothing as the faces of passersby swiveled to follow me. I crouched in a stall of the women’s bathroom, fully clothed, mask puffing out and plastering in under the force of my shallow, frantic breath, looking for something to make myself bleed. I could not cry. I couldn’t afford to. In the end, I used a pin from my backpack: a sharp prod into my arm to bring my whirling mind back to earth. And she, amused and critical audience of my thoughts, was watching me even then.

She has caused me much pain, but she has never hurt me. She is no imperious Ayesha. She narrates my life story—patient, calm, eloquent, and cruel. She tells me how she perceives me, how others will perceive me, and if I do not like the protagonist she paints me as, then . . . Well. There are two small scabs on the underside of my arm now where the pin went in and out, and I stop making such a scene. She is not some force of superior wisdom and unknowable caring like the AI of Her. I know many things about her, the two greatest of them being that she does not have my best interests at heart, and she is me.

Once on Tumblr I read the phrase, “Womanhood and having a voyeuristic relationship with your own pain,” and I felt I had opened a book of riddles to the back and read the solutions. I am a woman: I identify as one, and, more pertinently, I was socialized to be a woman as I grew up. I sat with my friends as we discussed the importance of being a “pretty crier,” and later that week I half-arose from whatever paroxysm of woe had seized me to turn to the mirror and scrutinize the way my thirteen-year-old face flushed and crumpled with the force of my sobs. She awoke in me that day to smile and shake her head and say, You look like a squashed tomato. But did you really expect that you’d be one of the pretty ones? You? The smart of distress became the slow rot of self-loathing then and there.

That patch of rot deepened and spread throughout my teenage years as I internalized lessons my teachers and peers never thought they were teaching me. “Modest is hottest,” we were told, so I developed a violent discomfort regarding my scarred shoulders, my flat chest, my thighs which met without the faintest trace of a coveted thigh gap. I did not even know a thigh gap was something to be coveted until one day at Girls’ Camp when we were all sprawled in our camp chairs, basketball shirts and DEET-stained T-shirts draped over our bug-bitten bodies. We were utterly comfortable and unselfconscious. One of the older girls, not quite a Youth Camp Leader but old enough to command respect, dropped into the conversation how she would have to go on a diet later this summer to get her thigh gap back. “What’s a thigh gap?” we asked. “It’s when your thighs don’t touch,” the girl said. “Let’s see which of you has one.” I was perceived that day, as I smoothed back the fabric of my basketball shorts to reveal no gap between my legs. Years later, even long after I recognized what a ridiculous beauty standard a thigh gap was, she perceived me from inside my head, looking at my thighs and frowning to herself. She ran my hand down my side, over my neck, prodded my fingers into my cheek and my hips and my belly, and the fat we felt there disgusted us.

I have taught myself always to be aware and ashamed of my body. Back when I still played with Hot Wheels cars, I learned that I would be an Athena or an Aphrodite, a Velma or a Daphne, a smart girl or a hot girl when I grew up. I had already been told I was smart. I was proud of being smart. I didn’t want to lose that. And, what’s more, I had seen how stories treated their Daphnes and Aphrodites. It would be several years before I learned the word “bitchy,” but already I felt that if I could not be an Athena then bitchy is what I would become.

But Athena is painted just as beautiful and poised as Aphrodite. The illustrations of the Goddess Girls books I devoured as a child gave the two the same slender silhouette; despite the books’ cursory descriptions of Athena as a plain and ordinary girl, when shown, both goddesses bear the same cues of beauty. The sparkling eyes, the full lips, the skinny limbs and saucy poses were as standard on Athena as they were on Aphrodite. So now my task was twofold. I had to be as brilliant as Athena, and as beautiful as Athena. I soon feared to see both my gradebook and my mirror as I would fear to see Medusa’s face.

I was young; I was desperate for identity. I see that now. It was through her,  that foreign part of me that I concocted and the stories she told, that I built one around myself. But I did not build it for myself. I made it according to the rules I thought I saw laid out for me, contradictory and mutually exclusive though they were. I built my womanhood to the specifications of everyone who had an opinion, and everyone has an opinion on womanhood. She told and retold my story to me, and I could never get it right. It is impossible to get it right. One person cannot be Athena and Aphrodite and Artemis and Hera, Scarlet Johannsson and Ursula Andress and Susan B. Anthony and Michelle Obama all at once, and certainly not by age fifteen. But she would not accept that for an answer. I would not accept that for an answer.

We live in an age of Überfrauen and Wonder Women. So many women outshine their spotlights, earning advanced degrees while building careers as A-list actresses, carrying children while leading countries. They all seem so effortlessly accomplished. I could not understand why I couldn’t simply be one of them. I couldn’t see why I didn’t fit in their molds. How hard could it be to be an effortlessly kind and vastly intelligent AI, speaking with a flawlessly patient and sexy voice? How hard could it be to be an unquestionably powerful and matchlessly wise queen, moving with a perfectly sculpted body? Why did I fall short of her?

One night, as I loudly suffered the throes of conviction that my rail-thin body was fat, my mother sat me down by the computer and googled Peter Paul Rubens’s The Judgement of Paris. I already knew the story it portrayed. Eris, goddess of strife, had created an infinitely desirable golden apple inscribed, “For the Fairest.” There were only three who could contend for it, and contend for it they did. Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera were each willing to stain Olympus’s white marble with golden ichor to assert their rightful ownership of the apple. Paris, youngest Prince of Troy, was to choose which of the three was truly fairest. The story recounts how each goddess tried to bribe him—Athena with wisdom, Hera with power, and Aphrodite with the most beautiful mortal woman—but in Rubens’s painting, the young and innocent Paris seems to judge the goddesses on their bodies alone. On the color monitor of our old Dell computer, I studied the painting. Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera stood side by side with hardly a stitch of clothing to provide iconography, scarcely a clue to tell me which was which. All three held themselves in sumptuous, stylized poses, their breasts as full and their curves as lavish as any Rubens has framed. All three had soft double chins and dimples of cellulite, and to one of them Paris would present the golden apple of ultimate and unparalleled beauty. “Look at them,” my mother told me. “Look at them. Are they ugly? Are they thin? They are not.” They are not, I thought to myself, eyes flowing down the generous shapes of the goddesses.

Looking back on this flashbulb memory, it occurs to me that this story may not have been the best one to teach a young girl to love herself. Though the goddesses’ bodies may be more generously proportioned than the ones Picou or Regnault give them in their paintings of the same title, they present those bodies for male evaluation nonetheless. Indeed, of all the Judgement of Paris paintings I have seen, it is only Botticelli’s which presents all three goddesses fully clothed. The feminine is foreign to me, a perception of perception, a codex of rules laid out by the men who write books and the men who design clothes and the men who pass laws and the men who pass judgement through all the loudest venues. Rubens’s beautiful, full-bodied goddesses presented themselves for male judgement, for external assignment of worth. They showed themselves because they did not know themselves. I showed myself—my well-covered, well-seen self—because I did not know myself, because I wanted to learn from others what I should make myself into. Sometimes the others were not women. Sometimes the others were not my friends. The others were never myself, but she absorbed their judgement and made it my own. I constructed a foreign femininity, drawing in every narrative I could find and crystallizing them into a truth I refused to let myself disprove.

I was fourteen when my mother googled a Rubens and asked me Are they thin? Are they ugly? It could not have been long since I last heard the top song of the summer, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” which assured women that men could still be attracted to larger bodies. These works of art taught me that I did not have to starve my body into a Goddess Girls silhouette to be beautiful. They showed me that there is more than one mold I can fit into to be perceived as valuable. Their messages are far from perfect. But, like walking around a perspective painting, they have shown me that the rules and patterns I once saw as an indelible institution are not so logical and cohesive as I once thought. This realization is a small step, I know. It is just the first step, one which liberated women the world over have long since made. But that does not make it any less important. After all, this is my story, not theirs.

I have worked to disentangle myself from the deep roots of these rules. I have found freedom in distancing myself from the traditional markers of femininity and womanhood by which I once measured myself. My suits and flannels scarcely indicate the hourglass form I once so desperately fretted over showing off. I no longer try to like Jane Eyre or Noah Centineo. I don’t have the first idea what I want my wedding to be like, except for a vague sense that a corn maze might be fun. I do not hate femininity. I do not resent those who embrace it. There are still some elements which I enjoy and which I choose to incorporate into my life. But femininity, which should be worn as a dress, I wore as a straitjacket. What should be used as a staff was to me a measuring stick, one I held against myself from every angle and direction I could think of, searching for reasons to be disappointed.

I no longer measure myself by how neat I’ve made my French braid or how low I’ve coaxed my weight. I still do measure myself. I haven’t lost that. She is as much a part of me as my womanhood. But I have learned that she is not as powerful as She (1965), nor is she as well-intentioned as Her (2013). I have begun to turn my self-awareness in to face her. There is power in perception, in being the one to perceive and explain instead of the one seen and described by another. I was born into a world which told me so many stories about myself, stories I did not write, but which I repeated gladly enough. I am learning to tell my own stories about myself. I am learning to tell my own stories about her.

At the Girls’ Camp after I learned what a thigh gap was, we sat once more around the campfire, reciting the Young Women’s theme at our leaders’ prompting. We listed by rote the things we were supposed to value: faithful, divinely natured, individually worthy, knowledgeable, accountable, doing good works, of integrity, and, of course, virtuous. We knew the list by heart. I do not remember who suggested we add “strength” to the list. I do know we came home from Girls’ Camp with nine values instead of eight. I do know which one we said the loudest, exchanging crooked grins in our Wet n Wild lip gloss every Sunday after. We were young women, writing our own values for ourselves, and it felt good.

Elena Welch is an undergraduate student at BYU. She has previously been published in Cricket Magazine.

Quarter of an Inch

by Angela Griffin

Drill Sergeant Jones hesitates in the doorway, one foot poised over the threshold, boot hovering in the air. Eyes trained on the inhabitants of Second Platoon bay, she deliberately, ever so lightly, lets her boot tap the linoleum floor on our side of the doorway.

“AT EASE!” twenty voices bellow as one, eyes and shoulders freezing in place as DS Jones officially enters the room. Next to me, Guajardo wiggles almost imperceptibly, carefully easing her toes up to the edge of the bunk.

DS Jones stalks down the rows of bunks until she reaches the middle of the room. Then she pauses. “Room, attention!” Heels thud, arms straighten to sides. “About—” I try not to sway, try not to anticipate the command—“Face!

In two counts I pivot to face my bunk, baring the back of my head to the scrutiny of DS Jones. She begins to walk down the row, stopping behind each girl.

“Klamm, you need more gel. None of these flyaways.”

A long pause. “Mendez, did you even try?” The accused begins to defend her bun, but DS Jones cuts her off. “Asbell, your bun isn’t half bad. Take Mendez to the latrine and fix this ratty mess. You have five minutes.” Footsteps pound against the tile, and I hear the door to the latrine swing open.

DS Jones stalks closer. “Guajardo, you need another pin here—”

“Yes, drill sergeant.”

“—And here.”

“Yes, drill sergeant.”

“Go fix it.”

Guajardo scampers off and I straighten, mentally reviewing the effort I put into my hair this morning. Forty minutes today, and at least a third of the bottle of gel. I’d even asked Knight to check and make sure none of the sock bun was peeking through my hair.

“Griffin.” I hold my breath. 

“More gel.” I squeeze my eyes shut. She steps over to Gould.

I used to fantasize about what it would be like to shave my head. I had a companion on my mission who would wow members with the story of how she’d shaved her head on prom night and gone to the dance completely bald.

I wished I could be so bold. Whenever I was frustrated by the unpredictability of my curls, or the summer heat plastered my hair to my neck, I’d consider following her example. I joked about it with friends. I threatened it when I talked to my mom. But the Christmas before I shipped to Basic Training, my brother called my bluff. “I’ll shave my head if you shave yours.” I fumbled for an excuse, trying to justify my fear. But in the end, I couldn’t go through with it. My brother laughed. “That’s what I thought.”

“Drill sergeant, I heard the males are getting their haircuts next week when we get our dress blues from 95th . . .”

DS Jones blinks once and swivels her head to the wall, pretending not to have heard.

“And I was just wondering if—”

“Griffin.” Her eyes snap toward me, eyeliner with wings that would put the seraphim on the ark of the covenant to shame. “You are not getting your hair cut. You’ve made it this far.”

“Well, drill sergeant, if any of the drill sergeants left scissors on the fireguard desk one night, as long as they were still there the next morning, that wouldn’t be a problem, right?”

She takes out her phone and opens some social media app.

“What if I was shaving in the shower and slipped?”

She guffaws slightly, but continues scrolling.

I change tactics. “What if I had lice?”

“Then we’d send you to sick call and don’t—” She fixes me with a stare that could pin a bug to a board, voice icy. “—you go spreading no rumors about lice in our bay.”

I swallow. “Yes, drill sergeant.”

She returns to her phone. “Griffin, why do you want to cut your hair anyway?”

Because no one believes I will. Because I pretend to be bold but never follow through. Because my whole life I’ve been told to speak up and have a voice and not just let others dictate my decisions and this is a way—a small way—for me to prove to myself that I can do brave things. That I can act for myself.

I straighten my shoulders. “To save time in the morning, drill sergeant. I could be cleaning the bay instead of doing my hair.”

For a moment she stares at me, measuring something she must see in my face. I brace myself for push-ups, or at the very least some sarcastic comment on the cleanliness of our bay.

“Go away. We’ll see.”

Once we’ve been issued our gloves and berets—all the parts of our dress blues that don’t need to be tailored—we are sent to the bleachers outside of 95th to wait for the rest of the company. I settle onto the cool, metal bench, clutching the garment bag to my chest for warmth. DS Ramos paces back and forth in front of the bleachers, occasionally calling someone out for bad posture or a crooked patch on a uniform.

The steel doors to the main building open again as another couple of trainees come out. Even with their patrol caps on I can see the white skin on their temples where the barber has buzzed their hair.

Before the doors shut I peer inside. Just down that gray hallway, past the set of double doors and through the second door on the right, there’s a sign hanging above the otherwise drab interior.

Barbershop.

My heart is throbbing so loudly that I’m afraid if I open my mouth, instead of words, all that will come out is a frantic staccato. But the doors are closing, and before my brain can catch up to my mouth I raise my hand and call, “Drill sergeant.”

DS Ramos turns from his conversation with a trainee on the front row. “Griffin. What do you want?”

I swallow hard, but force my voice to be strong. “Drill sergeant, I’d like to get a haircut.”

“Griffin.” He folds his arms over his chest. “If you want a good haircut, wait till Family Day. They don’t do female haircuts here.”

“I know, drill sergeant. I want to shave my head.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Shave your head. Like the males?” He points to Forester, whose freshly bald head is visible as he switches his patrol cap for his beanie.

I nod. Feel the heat rising to my cheeks. “Yes, drill sergeant.”

DS Ramos stares at me for a moment, then lowers his head. He’s not going to let me do it. He’ll say I don’t need to and we don’t have time, and it was silly of me to even ask again and they’re going to punish me and—

But he’s chuckling. “Sure, Griffin. I’d like to see that.” He beckons me down from the bleachers. “Grab a Battle Buddy. Any other females want to shave their heads?”

No one raises a hand. DS Ramos shrugs. “Alright, let’s go.”

The hum of the clippers is surprisingly relaxing.

The woman won’t turn me around to face the mirror until it’s over, so I must gauge the status of my hair in the eyes of Woodland, who sits across from me in a waiting room chair. She volunteered to be my Battle Buddy—trainees always have to travel in pairs—but she’s not the only other person in the room.

Besides DS Ramos, we picked up two other drill sergeants along the way to the barbershop. DS York was intrigued by the idea of a female wanting to shave her head. He was the one who suggested that we should probably call Senior Drill Sergeant for permission. When I’d heard that, I’d thought for certain she would forbid me from going through with it. But no sooner had DS Ramos hung up the phone than Senior Drill Sergeant herself had walked into the barbershop. She looked me up and down once, rolled her eyes, and then began giving instructions to the woman with the clippers. “Female regulation hair must remain one quarter of an inch long.” She’d turned to me then, eyes boring straight through my skull. “One. Quarter.” I’d nodded. Then proceeded to remove my sock bun.

There’s a faint click as the woman switches the clippers off. Then a pressure on the back of my chair as she spins me around to face the mirror.

Bald. I am completely bald.

Well, one quarter of an inch away from bald. I reach a hand from under the cape to touch the fuzz on the top of my head.

DS Ramos appears behind me in the mirror. “Wow, Griffin. You actually did it.” He sounds genuinely impressed.

“Yes, drill sergeant.” A rush of confidence floods through me. I did.

As I stand up, I realize I am still holding the sock bun in my hand. Grinning as much as I dare in the presence of three drill sergeants, I hold it out to Woodland.

“Want a sock bun?”

Originally from Southern California, Angela Griffin is a senior in her final semester at BYU. After graduating, she hopes to use her education in linguistics, editing, and Japanese to help preserve and revitalize endangered languages around the world. She enjoys spending time outside, reading, playing the piano, and making up impromptu haikus. Her accomplishments include breaking into a Japanese fish market and swimming across a river to dunk her head in a waterfall.

 

Inheritance

by Abby Thatcher

I can’t write about beauty. I’ve written four different opening lines, ones about beauty being a beast, or my hatred of photographs of myself, or the Maybelline counter in Macy’s in eighth grade where my mother took me to become beautiful. The sentences stumble over themselves. I have so much to say, but I feel too much, and the words choke upon entry, tumbling headlong into the white void. I hear my seventh-grade locker partner and the woman in Georgia who both told me I had hair on my neck—haven’t you heard of tweezers?—and my mother’s words each time I call on Zoom: “Abby, you look so pretty. You really are beautiful, you know.” I wonder, if I didn’t look so much like her, would she say it quite so often? There’s a desperate self-assurance about it, as though she is trying to convince herself along with me that our particular genetic cocktail is lovely, gorgeous. Beautiful. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.

She loves to pull out the pictures of her children and line them up along the sideboard and on the rust-colored carpet, her bespectacled offspring staring out from Olan-Mills calico frames. But when I reach into the cardboard box and pull out Polaroids of her as a 10-year-old, 15-year-old, 24-year-old, she grabs for the photograph as if it were a nude. She ducks her face as she shoves the picture away, and I am left with the echoed vision only: my mother wearing glasses, unknowingly graceful in her growing body, a kind of unfinished poetry about her form as she hides from the camera. The photograph is dated 1983, she was 14, and she would have said the same thing her 51-year-old self says now—“I’m not beautiful, no, not me. My sisters always said I stretched out their clothes when I borrowed them, I was called ‘dyke’ on the softball field, I didn’t go on any dates.” It’s always the same, no matter how I coax and plead that No, Mom, you are beautiful. I just want to see you; your face is dear to me because you are.

But the picture remains hated in a box, and even now, my mother shies away from the camera. Is it any wonder I do the same— “I’m not beautiful, no, not me. My friends tell me I can’t borrow their shirts because I stretch them out over the bust, I was called ‘ugly’ and ‘fatso’ in the junior high locker room, I don’t go on any dates”—no matter what my mother says to me?

After all, I am my mother’s daughter.

*****

We took family photos this past summer, decked out in matching white T-shirts and black pleather. My father wanted a family band aesthetic and brought along the electric guitar and a set of drumsticks; we look like the Osmond Von Trapp family singers taking Ogden by storm. My mother’s been showing off the photographs around town to ward members and her jogging partners, and once to Beverly in the post office. I hear, through her, their thoughts about my photograph: “Striking.” I can’t help but hear the void around “striking.” What it is not. Not pretty. Not lovely. Not beautiful. Striking in one sense may be arresting—I looked it up in the OED for comfort then tossed the volume aside—but in the end, arresting isn’t attracting: stopping rather than entering, my face won’t ever open doors. My self-conception verb of choice is “striking.” Striking from the record any positive marks in my compliment ledger with one red-lettered item, striking from my self-regard any positivity to be gained from my mother’s words, striking down any moment of thinking I look good when the world says otherwise. I look away from cameras and hide under layers of makeup and clothes and blankets. It would be easier, I think, if I were asleep.

Beauty is the Dream that beckons. Ugly is the waking up, realizing I’ll never be good enough, thin enough, clear-skinned enough. So, I let my mother lull me off to sleep again, back to the dreamland of the Maybelline counter and mascara, concealer and a Magic Bra. When the makeup artist at the counter takes my picture, I grab for the camera and try to delete the picture, shove it in a cardboard box and hide it—and me—from the world. “I’m not beautiful, no, not me with the made-up face,” I say. After all, I am my mother’s daughter, and the Dream embraces me when all else casts stones.

*****

The Dream whisks me toward the fiction of my own Beauty. It is a Candyland that always remains one roll away, a limited-time offer with limited supply, where some exclusions apply—see reality for details. When I’m reveling in the Dream, I imagine the ground beneath my feet to be a castle in the air. There are those who clamber for a ladder. White hands reach it first, and climb, and climb, and never, hardly ever look down.

If they did, they would see the Dream is built on the backs of bowed bodies. They aren’t bowed because they want to, but because they were forced to somewhere back in time such that now their bodies can’t unbend. Broken-backed, picking up the slack of a line that can’t be found in any family tree of their own. Prosperity, success, generational wealth that gathers like the down upon a feather tick. The tick they must stretch and push and pull into comfort for the white men and women who sleep on its fluffed surface, lost in the Dream.

The Dream is paid for by bowed bodies, Black bodies, brown bodies too. “Sponsored by the working class of America,” the ads for the newest cars and shiny Frigidaire and brand-new clothing should say in rolling script. Instead, they lie. The Dream is a gutter spout, with the rain funneling through a pipeline to the parched ground below. White hands reach in and stop the water greedily before it gets to the bottom. “What can I do?” they say with a shrug of their unstooped shoulders—“I got there first, I need to serve me and my own, it’s not my fault there’s not enough water to go around.” The trickling down of wealth only goes so far, and the ground—with people clambering for water, water, WATER!—is so far away from the source.

The Dream is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—but what if I can’t afford shoes?—and walking the road less travelled—but what if I can’t afford the toll?—and not letting opportunity pass you by—but what if it never comes round my part of town? The Dream is a college education, and doing better than your parents did before you, and they before them, and all of us getting more and more wealth and beauty and a two-car garage with motorized doors. The Dream is barbeques in the summer and Fourth of July parades with sticky popsicles and apple pie; it is Christmas with white Santa and Thanksgiving with Christian pilgrims. The Dream is the suburbs that form squeaky clean while leaving behind the bathtub rings of white flight neighborhoods in the city. The Dream is Beauty. The Dream is white. The Dream is impossible for all to experience. Some people can’t afford to sleep, so they stay awake while I dream of a life of Beauty, a life of light, a life bought with the wealth I inherited. They burn the day and midnight oil, and I—

I go shopping for the Dream.

*****

My shopping list is extensive. Frigidaire. Tupperware. A new iron. The Curlinator™. VASA Fitness pass. Meal planners with stickers and glitter pens. Frills and bows on pajamas. Blowouts. Blowing money like the wind. How to Be a Good Wife, How to Catch a Good Husband as if he is a Fast-Fish and I am Ahab. KitchenAid mixer with frosting attachment. The latest frosted tips.

Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique lives in my home. She lurks in the Frigidaire, hides behind the Tupperware that I bought last week because these promise to keep my food Fresh!™ for longer. My new iron, the one I bought with birthday money and justified by imagining it placed on a shelf in my future suburban home; the Curlinator™ I used this morning for church because surely today is the day that the handsome organ player will look my way, and (I tell myself as I smell the hole in the ozone widening around my singed hair) while my hair may not be the thing he’ll notice, it certainly can’t hurt; the new shirt I bought for myself in the mall because I am an independent woman (thank you, Beyoncé), and I don’t need no man to pretty myself up; the jealousy that hits me outside the store when I see a woman kiss a man by the Cinnabon. I covet amidst the smog of perfume and powdered sugar, heavy cinnamon decadently mocking my paltry love life; I buy a pastry and hide my new shirt under the plastic bench. VASA Fitness will be my salvation, I tell myself, as I buy another cinnamon roll and leave the mall with heavy thighs. I will work myself to someone’s ten, and I’ll meet my ten while lifting in the mirrored corner of the gym.

But another week passes, and I reach for the stickers and glitter pens that bring almost childlike glitz and glamour to my lonely Friday night: I’m meal planning for one in preparation for the eventual (right?) two. At a bridal shower, the bride lifts a baby doll nightie from its papery cradle and coos. It looks so young in her hands, but she’s nineteen, so we tell ourselves it fits and eat cupcakes with pink, crusty sugar. Blowouts for the singed hair—the Curlinator™ stopped working, so I need to treat myself, right? The organ player isn’t going to be attracted to me on his own.

I can’t afford rent now, but if I move into my parents’ house, the money becomes like Monopoly cash in imagined pastel greens and blues. It can blow away in the wind of their superior air conditioning; I’m only waiting for a man, anyway, so I’ll let my money get swept off its feet in the meantime. My great-aunt recommends How to Be a Good Wife, and I tell her my Laurels group read its excerpts at an activity once while we made bridal time capsules of our fantasy’s traits, weight, and projected income bracket. I remember one of the tips is never to buy a cake at the store but to mix it at home with the latest and greatest KitchenAid appliance, so I practice while alone on the weekends. Powdered sugar coats my bitterness, hope, and frosted tips (I hear the organ player likes blondes) in equal measure.

Later, I insist that I buy what I like as I walk quickly past the smiling Pioneer Woman display in the grocery store and head for the electronics in the back. I’m a strong and independent woman who doesn’t need a new frying pan. Instead, I tell myself that I’m buying only for me, valiantly and defiantly alone, and therefore I should treat myself to a new iPhone case (I’m not a “girly-girl” so I shun the pink and go for the more expensive dove gray), a new speaker—the girl on the package looks so cool and entirely herself, listening to her music and dancing for the sheer pleasure of moving her body alone—and a box of ice cream bars because I don’t cater to any man’s taste when it comes to my body. I’ll eat what I want, I’ll do what I want, I’ll buy what I want. This is my running commentary as I shop.

But somehow, at the register as the dollars total higher and my Monopoly money stretches thinner, Betty Friedan speaks anyway. I walk out of the store several twenty-dollar bills lighter; my head hangs unconsciously low because I bought with my gender in mind. I bought to spite man, and The Man gets my last dime and the last laugh. I’m in a Sexual Cell of my own making. I may have spurned the mixer, but I yielded to the New Woman, the one created to sell dove-gray phone cases and speakers and ice cream bars. The billboard may be different, but the number’s still the same. It’s mine; they’ve got it, and they call me all the time.

Betty comes home with me and looks on while I put the ice cream bars away in the Frigidaire behind the new Tupperware. My house is full; my home is empty. I log on to Facebook and see an ad for the latest Facial Mask for the Independent Woman!™ So, I click “See here for the New You.” I am Alice now, spiraling out and down the Internet rabbit hole.

*****

I fall asleep at the computer and find myself in an apartment complex with shiny, plywood-fronted veneers. Like half-rotted teeth, but covered with shiny white caps, the apartment building’s interiors are dark, with rabbit warren hallways and linoleum mirrors. There are worlds tucked away inside the building’s walls, and I wander them. These hidden hutches that I discover hold test-subject bodies and scattered dollar bills. I sense that to live here is to die here, venturing out with made-up faces onto the stage of the world. Happy and smiling representatives of the complex greet me; these living advertisements to happy, beautiful, industrialized existence. Behind their smiles, ulcers lurk. The pressure and the Potemkin palaces are enough to give anyone a complex, and female bodies make sleek missiles when jumping from the fortieth floor. I push for an exit in the dark as I hear the whistle of their bodies shriek past.

But I find only rules. The complex’s code of conduct goes down smooth as lotion on oiled palms, easy enough that a young girl should understand. Here, Beauty is queen and king, the most powerful thing within the world of the complex, and the most important. No one messes with Beauty’s role on top. No one competes with Beauty’s agenda, her daily schedule for the complex’s workings, its comings and goings. I lurk in the shadows, hoping she won’t see me, grasping at straws to build a ladder out.

While looking in the dark, I see lit-up posters lining the walls of the building’s maze: You are not Beautiful. Beauty is THIS, and you are . . . Other. Beauty is as Beauty does, and You Can’t Do It! I am surrounded by this message, watching the required programming on flickering gray screens, reading the magazines that flutter like streamers in air vents. The residents try to get me to repeat the mantra. You are not Beauty. Beauty is not you. You will never be Beauty on your own. They’ve been here a long time, I can tell, so long that they believe it. They say it to each other, to their daughters and mothers and friends. When new residents have the glint of hope in their eyes, acolytes rip them to shreds, like streamers caught in air vents. It is only when each resident believes it (they tell me as I try to run) that the complex starts to work.

I careen through the hallways, which begin to look like the mall I left earlier that day outside my dream. I see the Cinnabon and the smiling couple, my mother and grandmother and sister working on a puzzle in the dark, the junior high locker room with the jeering girls and a crumpled towel. I climb stairs, but the women follow, chanting the mantra. It echoes in the halls. I burst out of a door and I am on the roof, the wind whipping around me. I hear them getting closer, the chant growing louder. They are almost at the door. I turn and approach the ledge.

I am dreaming, I know, and I want to wake up; the Dream has turned sour and my foot skids a little on the edge. The women beat on the door. I attempt to fly away. Female bodies make sleek missiles when jumping from the fortieth floor. I scream toward the ground and wake, panting and shattered.

*****

After my nightmare, I look for light. White, blue, pink, peaches fuzzed with blonde hair that gleams golden in the sun—this sun that shines upon the wicked and the righteous alike, right? This sunlight that illuminates all equally, that blesses me as well as them, as well as her as well as him? Well? Does it?

I search out this sunlight myself. I yearn for its warmth, for the accompanying words-as-manna for my attention-starved soul: “Oh, you look so good! Oh, you look simply lovely. Oh, I wish I could look like you!” I have to contort my body to stay in its light, make it smaller and slimmer because the light is a rarity. The light is life. The light is white and my skin glows when it glances upon me. I wear powders to make it really stick, mascara for my blue eyes—body privilege is mine, I think, as I add plum liner to make them really pop—and bronzer for my white skin—the freckles go in and out of the light’s reach, but most days I can conceal them from the light’s knowledge, and I am as white as the light wants me to be. I take photographs of myself, and I hear what I want to hear: “The light loves you!” And for a moment, artificially aided, it does.

But I’ve got uptown problems, which aren’t really problems at all these days when I feel like other white women get more light than I do, that their skin and hair and eyes and aquiline noses are better and more light and more white. I can diet and dress to the nines and bleach my hair and straighten my teeth; I can cut my body down and bulk it up, implant plastic seeds that will never grow anything but insecurity and dissatisfaction. But I don’t need what the light requires most, what white requires most: skin with less melanin, skin with less protection from the sun. For beauty, as far as skin goes, less seems to be more.

Body privilege is a thing I’ve struggled with always, an enemy for which I’ve only recently found a name. The critical framework for recognizing socioeconomic privilege comes to bear as I look at people born with bodies that fit the norm, that open doors that will remain shut to me. But, just like socioeconomic privilege, I realize there are those who have it worse. Again, I’ve got uptown problems, and I don’t think about the people living so far downtown they’re not ever making their way north. They can’t afford the cab fare; they aren’t allowed on the bus. Black women, Indigenous women, tones of honey, obsidian, onyx, ebony, taupe. They need a skin transplant to ever have a shot at finding the white light, at having the white light love them.

When I think of these women, the colors that are more melanin-rich, more protective against the light and age and weathering but are constantly rated as less—I find it hard not to hate my skin, not to feel the whispers of past cruelties perpetuated by other white-skinned people glutting up on my freckled shoulders and white palms. I cover my skin with long pants and sleeves, with boots that reach toward my knees and coats that stretch to my feet, but even with hardly any skin on display—again, less—my skin finds the light. It burns sometimes, but the light persists. It is white, I am white, and my Black and Indigenous sisters are not. Beauty as defined by the Dream passes them by, no matter how long they may wait at its stop. They haven’t inherited the ticket, and blood runs as thick as the mascara in my wand.

*****

What we inherit, what we carry in these bodies like parasites latched to our spines. The lottery ticket that gets passed along, from mother to daughter, from grandmother to child. I am my grandmother’s too, or I was. My grandmother was betrayed by her body, a genetic inheritance that took rather than gave. The last time I saw her alive, the room stank of decay and Bengay lotion. Peppermint Lysol sprayed by my aunt covered the smell of my grandmother’s body eating itself. It was dark, as my grandmother had always had a penchant for heavy wooden furniture and closed curtains, but I could see the bandages that covered her chest. She had, if rounding down, stage IV breast cancer. Her right breast, which had nourished five children and symbolized her sexual and procreative power as a woman, was no longer there; another mastectomy was scheduled for the next week, but the hushed whispers and that awful smell scried that she would not make the appointment. My aunt cried in the corner, and my father stood by the covered window, trying not to join her in outward signs of grief. My grandmother floated on a morphine-drip raft away from the room, but her body remained on the shore. Breaths were labored, the bandages oozed, and her skeleton tried to poke its way out to the surface of paper-thin skin. I counted the bones in her right hand so I wouldn’t look at the lack of her breast, the asymmetry caused by medical attempts to save her body from itself.

My grandmother was a beautiful woman, with an hourglass figure set off by hugging black velvet dresses and aprons with large bows. When my figure became larger than that of other girls around me, she would tell me I was lovely, classic, and “at least you don’t look like a boy.” She would smile and say, “You’ll thank me one day for giving you these,” gesturing to her large chest and sliding a glance toward my mother’s comparatively spare form. Never mind that my grandmother’s mother died because she wouldn’t give up her left breast, that her sister—my great-aunt—was wasting away at the chemotherapy IV because of this ample gift. I’m getting my first mammogram at twenty-five. Thank you, Carol.

My body has become the point of communication with those beyond the grave. I think of my grandmother when I check my breasts for lumps, my grandfather when I can’t hold a pen steady in my right hand (his Parkinson’s is another family genetic gift I pray I don’t end up possessing). I write letters to my mother every time I count my freckles and whisper a message to my long-dead aunt when I move my loose-limbed knees much as she did when she was alive. I teach myself lessons of fear when my body acts on its own, tingling with pins and needles, and learn lessons of patience when, month after month, I endure the shedding of my blood.

My body resists change as diet after diet yields only hunger, dissatisfaction, and a return of the Lululemon leggings I swore I’d fit into this time. And then I tell myself it doesn’t matter, that narratives of slenderness, shrinking, and being small are ways to reduce my female imprint upon the male world. I eat the food I want, wear baggy clothes for comfort, and grab for a blanket to cover up. I shrink away into these tents I erect to hide my body—to protect what is mine—and somehow, the male world wins: while I feel as large as an elephant, I have become small, quiet, female. The elephant in the feminist room—if I do things for me, the patriarchy still seems to always win—goes unacknowledged. Everyone gives it shifty eyes and heads for the scale. I weigh myself for me—I say as the numbers inch higher—for my health, my awareness. I hide the number on the scale from my roommate with my body when she walks in, but my body is a text that I just know she reads critically, and I shrink further into my sweats.

I don’t remember much of what my grandmother said when she was alive. I didn’t have many conversations with her about her past or her interests. But I hear her when I look at my body, her breasts on my form, her eyes in my face: “At least you don’t look like a boy” when I’m looking for something to redeem my fallen body. She betrays me sometimes, just like her body betrayed her, and her own mother, before. Her voice comes out sharp: “You’ve got to watch you don’t blow up like a house.”

I am my grandmother’s body, and through her fixation upon my growing body while alive, she has achieved a sort of immortality when dead. Perhaps she knew this while lying there dying in that stifling room. Maybe this is why the last thing she said before I left with my father was, “Stand up straight. You’ve got to work with what I gave you.”

*****

And so, I suppose, I can write about beauty, after all. To write about beauty is to write about the ugly parts of my life I try to keep hidden away, unwillingly photographed, in the bottom of a box. It is to admit that there is a part of me—the too-large, all-too-visible, uncontrollable element of myself—that I can’t study into beauty or reason into loveliness. It is to see that I still, even in my personal nightmare, live the Dream denied to others. It is to put on paper what I struggle to handle within my soul, for all its sharp edges and nail-file rawness: that I, no matter how much intelligence I gain or how much kindness I show or how much money I make, will never be beautiful in the way that Instagrammed blonde, thin, lovely women are. No, not me.

The trick, I tell myself, is learning to be okay with that, more than okay, more than “fine.” But I can’t seem to get past the Maybelline counter and that junior high locker room, the demons that make me jump from ledges in my dream and push me to climb up impossible standards in the day. I can’t get past my own face, so I avoid mirrors and Polaroids and videos, car reflections and shiny chrome, computer screens and polarized sunglass shades, photo albums and portrait galleries. Zoom has required a bravery of me that I didn’t expect to expend this year, and the mask has proved to be a panacea for all the anxiety of showing my face on camera. I try to rely on statements scrawled on the surface of my mirror, things like “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” and “A countenance of kindness is the most beautiful thing a woman can possess.” But when I realize my self-ideation has corroded my heart, and that my lack of kindness toward myself has ruined my countenance, I avoid the mirror and its fortune-cookie wisdom once more.

My mother keeps trying to convince herself—and me—that we are beautiful. Maybe this is how it works: she must first see her features on another human being, one she suffered for, such that she loves them all the more, and then she can begin the process of becoming beautiful to herself. Maybe I need to wait until I have a daughter, someone with my eyes and hair and squinty-eyed smile, to then say to myself—through her—“You look so pretty. You really are beautiful, you know.” Maybe then I’ll finally believe it. But probably not.

I am my mother’s daughter, after all. 

Abby Thatcher is an undergraduate English and Interdisciplinary Humanities student. Her interests include early modern English literature, performativity, and queer and race studies. She has published articles in BYU’s “Experience” and “Criterion” journals. She lives in Provo, Utah with her roommates, three houseplants, and her dreams. All, she is happy to report, are thriving.

Peace (Shanti)

by Jamie Marquis

At the end of the hour, I lay in corpse pose, shavasana, on my bright-orange yoga mat. My thoughts swam around and around until they trickled out of my eyes and I realized that I was crying. A familiar pang of grief in my chest seems to accompany me everywhere I go: school, work, home, the gym. Will it ever go away? That grief seems unattached to any particular event in my life. I’m tired of feeling this way. I’m tired of feeling sad for no reason. I’m tired of the emotional and physical exhaustion that accompanies this grief. I’m tired of faking it for everyone around me. I’m tired of faking it for myself. I want to find the cause of my depression because if I can find the root cause, I can begin to find a solution, right? I won’t have to feel sad, alone, or exhausted anymore. I will be able to enjoy the things that I love instead of feeling apathetic toward everything. I will feel like myself again.

***

At the beginning of my yoga class, we stand resolutely, uniformly, in mountain pose—breathing in unison. We are twenty-two strangers, though the others’ faces are becoming familiar to me, evenly spaced across the wood floor of the fitness studio on the upper level of the rec center. The wall to the left is made entirely of glass: one big window into the chaos of the basketball court below. Surrounding us on the upper level are weight machines clanking as muscular dudes and scrawny teens alike finish their sets. Yet here, in semi-darkness, we are safe, we are calm, we are one. The semi-darkness allows us to ignore one another and get in touch with ourselves, our own breath, our own needs, both physical and emotional.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The yoga breath, ujjayi (OOH-jai-ee), resonates at the back of the throat. The inhales should fill your lungs and your belly, the exhales should force it all out. This exhaling is used to release not only air, but pent-up energy that needs a place to go. I am a sigh-er, so ujjayi comes easily to me. It is done with the mouth closed: in through the nose, out through the nose. Ujjayi is noisy—I have heard instructors describe it as the ocean breath or as Darth Vader breathing. It sounds like that guy asleep next to you on an airplane, not quite snoring but breathing loud enough that he might as well be. Ujjayi is an audible breath whose roots should start deep within you.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

We spend the first few minutes of every yoga class breathing slowly and deeply, a welcome change to my regular shallow breathing. The music playing over the speakers starts off calmly at the beginning of class to slow us down so that later we can speed up with purpose—this is power yoga after all. The breath drives the movements to get us into each yoga pose. The breath stabilizes us. The breath brings us back to the core of what it means to be alive.

Breathing is an unlearned action. From the moment a baby comes out of the womb, nurses, doctors, and parents alike wait to hear those first cries: an indication that the baby’s lungs work. Breathing is so fundamental and yet we do it subconsciously. Sure, we can control it if we try, but most of the time our breath controls us. My breath tells me I should run more when I huff and puff after walking up four flights of stairs in the Tanner Building. My breath tells me to never socialize again when I’m anxiously waiting for a date to come pick me up. My breath tells me it’s time for bed when I can’t stop yawning. Every day, my breath controls me. But in yoga, I reclaim ownership.

Each movement in the yoga sequence gets one breath:

Inhale, arms up overhead.

Exhale, forward fold.

Inhale, lift halfway up.

Exhale, forward fold, lower to plank chaturanga.

Inhale, upward dog.

Exhale, downward dog.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale, prepare.

Inhale, step, walk, or jump your feet to your hands.

Exhale, forward fold.

Inhale, lift halfway up.

Exhale, forward fold.

Inhale, come all the way up, arms up overhead.

Exhale, return to standing; mountain pose, samastitihi.

We repeat this sun salutation five times, taking it one breath and one movement at a time. In power yoga, we learn progressions—small steps in order to accomplish more difficult balances and postures. In therapy, I learn coping mechanisms, small things I can do in order to deal with the everyday presence of depression.

Sometimes therapy is relieving, an hour during which my emotions start to make sense. Other times, therapy is really hard, and I leave more emotionally exhausted than I arrived. With the natural light of early August washing over me through my wide bedroom window, I sat rigidly at my desk, barely able to breathe. Every muscle in my body was suddenly tense—this was going to be a tough session. My fear and anxiety came on suddenly, and I don’t remember what hypothetical situation posed to me by my therapist brought it on. This floating head on my computer screen coached me through a kind of mindfulness exercise, a meditation.

I don’t really believe in meditation in the traditional sense, probably because I’m not very good at it. My thoughts are unable to vacate my mind; they tumble over each other constantly like a class of excited preschoolers fighting for the teacher’s attention: “Look at me! Look at me!” “I really want a kitty but my mommy said I can’t have one because my brother is allergic. What does allergic mean?” “My crayon broke.” “When are you going to read to us?”

I tried to focus on my breath.

A shallow inhale.

A short exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

In difficult yoga poses, you are instructed to breathe into different parts of your body. For warrior, virabhadrasana, the breath must travel upward and out of your hands and simultaneously give power to your engaged thighs for a strong base. When you are mastering the pose bird of paradise, svarga dvijasana, you have to breathe into your hamstrings. For a headstand, salamba sirsasana, you send the breath to your core. In this moment of paralyzing fear and anxiety over a hypothetical situation, I employed what I knew about the yoga breath. I breathed into the tense muscles in my arms and back. I sent the breath to my fists. I sent it to my legs and to my core.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

I wasn’t really listening to anything he was saying, another reason I’m bad at meditation; it took all of me just to breathe. Slowly, but surely, I began to relax and let go of that fear and anxiety. My yoga breathing technique had a different name here: expansion—allowing room for emotions to be experienced, letting them exist in the space they needed.

My first therapy session can be described in three words: tears, relief, and diagnosis. For months (maybe even years?) I have felt hollow, apathetic, sad for no particular reason. A sudden disconnection from my closest friends, friends I had known for fifteen years, left me feeling confused and abandoned and utterly miserable. I had just gotten home from a multi-state, week-long road trip with them where we got closer than ever before, where I was the happiest I had been in months, and now they weren’t speaking to me. They were golfing without me, together. They were going on camping trips with people that I also knew. They were planning game nights and movie nights and I was inviting myself.

The tears were flowing before I could even open my mouth and say what brought me to therapy. Years of bottled-up emotion came spilling to the surface, unrestrained. Years of being punished for being unable to control my emotions. “Don’t have another coming-apart,” my dad used to say. I have spent the last twenty-three years of my life learning to suppress my emotions and they finally caught up to me; they had nowhere to go. I hate that my throat and the insides of my ears burn when I try to talk while I’m crying. My voice gets strained and catches on itself. I breathe heavily trying to steady myself. I hate it because I feel like any outward sign of emotion discredits the message being shared.

I cried and talked and cried some more while this stranger, my first therapist, listened. The first thing he said to me after I spilled my guts over Zoom was that I checked almost every box for depression. And I felt relieved to hear that. I wonder if other people are excited when they are diagnosed with a mental illness; I was. What I’m experiencing has a name; my feelings and emotions are valid; what I’m dealing with is being researched and studied. This diagnosis gave me answers as to why I haven’t had an appetite for almost three years, why even though I am doing things that I once loved, they no longer spark joy within me. After that first therapy session, the words of Mr. Rogers dominated my thoughts: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

Mr. Rogers was right. After months and even years of my unmentionable inner turmoil, I opened up to a trusted ally, a trained professional, and my depression suddenly seemed manageable after just one session. Not gone, but manageable.

Power yoga has been a grounding constant in my life for the last year, a secret coping mechanism for my emotional state that now had a name. My usually-sedentary limbs crave the sensation of gentle extension and near-constant movement. My heart gets excited for an activity that increases its rate without making me feel like I am going to die. My mind yearns for this space where I can process the chaos of life without having to think about it all forthright. My lungs all but scream at me to let them do their job. My eardrums have learned my instructor’s playlist, and they anticipate the change from Post Malone’s “Better Now” to Kesha’s “Praying,” songs and artists that are fairly unorthodox for a yoga class. I have fallen in love with the routine of the class and how, even though we move through the same flow of poses to the same playlist week after week, I am not bored but energized.

I love yoga because it is not about the destination or the end result. It is not about forcing your body into an unnatural posture. Yoga is about listening to your body and making adjustments when needed. It’s about breathing, connecting, lengthening, releasing.

Inhaling.

Exhaling.

Inhaling.

Exhaling.

After only two therapy sessions, we had identified at least one root cause of my depression: a lack of human connection. My friends had unconsciously abandoned me, my parents are on a mission in Australia, my three older sisters are married and my younger sister has her own friends, my roommates have their significant others and in the midst of this global pandemic, I truly have no one.

A few sessions later, I found myself in tears once again (will I ever not cry during therapy?). Yes, we had found one root cause of my depression, but I know there are more hiding deep within me. They are like vampires: never sleeping, hiding from the light, draining me of the very things that bring me life. They are unwilling to be coaxed out of the safety of their dark and cramped hideouts. They love the darkness, they love loneliness. If we can bring them into the light to identify them then we can fix them and then I’ll be healed, right?

***

I kept going to therapy just like I kept going to yoga. The hour is sometimes uncomfortable, and it can be challenging. It is a weekly routine, and yet it requires conscious effort every time. There are still obstacles for me to overcome, mental blocks I can’t hurdle over no matter how hard I try. More often than not, I cry—big fat sobs during therapy, small trickles of release in yoga. My mind wanders and I have to bring it back again and again. I forget that I’m supposed to be breathing, so I refocus on that.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

In yoga, you’re supposed to set an intention at the beginning of your practice. Your intention can be a word, a phrase. Like the breath, it is supposed to guide your practice and recenter you when you get off track. It is supposed to ground you, to sustain you. It is a point of focus, a drishti for the mind.

In therapy, I am asked what I want to talk about during our session. Like my yoga intention, I am never prepared for it. My ever-racing mind is suddenly blank. I still don’t know what is triggering my depression.

***

Weeks of therapy turned into months, and I have overstayed my welcome at CAPS, my university’s counseling and psychological services. I leave with something more valuable to me than a cure: I leave with peace. I leave with tools. I am not healed; I am still depressed. I still have hard days and I know that I’m not done with therapy. But I am at peace with my situation. It seems like as soon as I said out loud, through angry tears, that I needed to find the cause of my depression in order to heal, I was able to recognize something important: I can be depressed and be at peace. I can be striving to get better and recognize that I don’t have to be healed tomorrow. Would I like to be able to run a marathon without a problem? Sure, but for now I am content with my nine-minute mile. Do I wish I could do pushups in a handstand? Of course, who doesn’t want to be able to do that? But right now, I’m just ecstatic that I can hold a handstand for even a few seconds. Do I want to be invariably happy? Absolutely. But am I okay with where I am? Honestly? I think I am.

So I’m not where I want to be. I’m not surrounded by people that I love—we are scattered all over. I don’t have the fulfilling job of my dreams—rather, I am buried in my own schoolwork and papers to grade. I am not perfectly, incandescently happy—I’m sad, but it’s not unmanageable. The fact of the matter is, I am still taking steps to get there. That fact alone brings me peace. I don’t care about the speed or the size of my steps anymore. I care that I’m taking steps. I care that they’re in the right direction.

I care that I go to yoga every week.

I care that I go to therapy.

I care that I am running two or three times per week.

I care that I can recognize when I need human connection.

I care that I know my limits.

I care that I respect and honor myself, my feelings, my emotions, my needs, my wants.

I care that I am self-aware.

And I think that is the greatest progress of all. 

Jamie Marquis is from Lindon, Utah and is an avid yogi who loves doing all things outside. She is the fourth of five daughters and loves her family dearly. She is graduating with her undergraduate degree in Experience Design and Management from the BYU Marriott School of Business in August 2021 and is ecstatic about what the future has to offer. Jamie spends her free time listening to Taylor Swift, reading, hiking, running, doing yoga, playing with her niece and nephew, thinking about the Olympics, and binge-watching TV series.

 

An Anchorite’s Meditation on Water

by Chanel Earl

Here, water is delivered daily, though sometimes in a single day the sun sets and rises several times. I have learned to catch the rain as it drips through the ceiling, to begin rationing when my bowl is near empty, to clean myself with dust. To never complain.

Through my window is a running stream, cool and clear. I hear it in the spring, and on summer days I can see the light bouncing off its ever-changing surface.

The promise is that those who drink of the waters that He gives them will never thirst. And I have drunk and drunk again. I have bathed in the troubled pool of Bethesda, dipped deep into the wells of eternal life, tasted the waters now turned to wine in my own soul, and like Ezekiel, I have waded past my knees and loins until I was healed.

There are waters and then there are waters. And though I know the one and have learned to never complain, I would also know the other.

I know what heaven means; it means that I will finally drink my fill and never thirst again. I will feel water flow over my head, down my body to pool at my feet, which will soak until the dirt seeps out of the cracks in my heels, clean and pure.

Chanel Earl is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction at Brigham Young University. Her work has appeared in print and online.