Turn and face the strange

Sometimes my teenage daughter’s anxiety gets too big, and I pick her up early from school.

I know her education is important, but living through a pandemic has changed my priorities and perspective. When she calls me, I don’t hesitate and I don’t make her feel bad. I get her.

Last week I picked her up after a flurry of upsetting texts. She told me her mental health was bad again. It scared me. It scared her. She’d kept it from me for weeks because she didn’t want to make me sad. My heart broke she’d tried to protect me, and I felt I had to say the right thing.

“We face what is,” I said.

These four words felt important.

I repeated them.

“We face what is.”

This opened the door for her to share, and for me to listen. We made plans for her to get new kinds of help, and to pursue roads to healing we hadn’t considered before. I reminded her she isn’t alone, and I’m more interested in her truth than in feeling comfortable and happy.

The next day, I was sitting alone and spiraling out about my eyes.

My eye to be specific.

I’ve got one good eye and one lazy one. It’s been this way my entire life, and normally it’s not on my mind. But lately, I’ve had trouble seeing when I read, or when I’m on the phone. Things were blurry and I couldn’t read the instructions on a medicine bottle. I bought a pair of reading glasses, and it helped. This should have been the end of it.

However, my anxiety over the experience grew and grew. It became unruly, demanding more and more of my attention and emotional energy.

I’d convinced myself I must have some horrible disease, most likely brought on by my weight gain and laziness. I began to tally all the ways I’m failing at caring for myself. I don’t wear my sunglasses all the time. I spend too much time on screens. I don’t blink enough. I got bacon grease in my eye on Christmas morning, which was irresponsible and preventable if I’d paid better attention. I haven’t done enough research to see how to protect my eyesight. I don’t eat enough green leafy vegetables or omega-3 fatty acids. I’m going to lose my ability to see, and it will be my own fault.

As I sat still, berating myself, those four words I told my daughter came to me.

“We face what is.”

I looked up the number of an optometrist near me and made an appointment.

As I sat in the waiting room, all the anxiety and blame thick about me, I kept countering it with those four words. Whatever the eye doctor tells me, I will face. I have family and friends who will love and support me. I can’t face what I don’t know.

As I went through the exam, I made lots of self-deprecating jokes. I knew I had to keep the mood as light as possible, and I had to keep talking.

“Which is better? One or two? Three or four?”

Each question was scary. The letters I couldn’t see felt ominous, surely indicators of something serious. I kept trying to hear it in her voice, waiting for the bad news to drop.

It didn’t.

My eye’s fine. I’m getting older. It’s normal.

Normal.

She prescribed reading glasses, the same kind I’m already using. She told me I’m okay.

We face what is.

I have some other health things I have to face. I’ve put on too much weight. I have pains in my hips and back. I’m concerned I might be pre-diabetic, it runs in my family, or I could be putting too much strain on my heart. I’m taking steps to correct my health, which means facing things like the scale, a check-up at the doctor, and returning to the gym. All of these things feel hard, and damn, there’s a lot of judgment and guilt around them.

However, I can’t do anything without turning toward what is. I have to stop ignoring the truth for some pretend comfort. I have people who count on me, and I have a lot more I want to do with my life. There’s no reason to run from perceived scary things or to let myself build them up until they are monstrous. It’s far better to shine a light on them.

We face what is.

My reading glasses and the chair I inherited from my grandmother.

52 Weeks – Week 3 – Fairy tales

Mash-up two classic fairy tales into one story

Include: fireplace, sword, grove, stroke, underbrush, mourn, seven, friendship, cardboard, giver

What is 52 weeks?

Read Anna’s Week 3 (my faithful writing partner)

It Bearly Fits

“What a waste of time,” Bruce says to nobody in particular. “I knew it wouldn’t fit any of those twelve silly sisters. I feel bad for their poor father with all of them talking at once and dancing everywhere. Such a nightmare.”

Prince Charming nods but says nothing. He holds his head high, mounts his pure white stallion, and kicks him forward with boots of shiny black leather. Bruce watches him for a moment, taking in his blonde curls, his golden crown of ivy, his white riding pants, and his blue velvet jacket. He looks like a boy playing a game, not a grown man who will be crowned King.

Bruce has been the valet and personal assistant to Prince Charming since he was seven. When he’d met the small, pale boy, his nanny had quit and his father wanted him to have a male attendant. Bruce thought it would be an easy job. He was happy to move out of his rundown shack, wear nice clothes, eat three meals a day, and live in the gleaming white palace.

He had no idea how difficult the job would be. At first, the young boy would run from him and hide all over the palace. He’d jump out and scare the maids, break things and run, or leave the palace grounds and roam the nearby villages. Each time the prince got into trouble, it was Bruce who faced the consequences. He soon learned his real job was covering up the prince’s actions and hiding them from the King. Not an easy job at all.

When he was 8, Prince Charming became obsessed with a white lamb in the stables. He named it Weatherby and spent all his time carrying it around. The King had a strict no-animal policy in the palace, but the prince insisted on sneaking it inside and feeding it food he swiped from the cook. Each night, Bruce would remove the lamb from the prince’s arms and return it to the stables, and each morning he’d find it curled up sleeping on the prince’s pillow. Bruce would smuggle it back outside in his jacket before it could be discovered, leaving him smelling like an animal for the rest of the day.

When he was 10, Prince Charming decided he wanted to become a knight. Bruce would find him pulling a heavy sword down a hallway or practicing archery by shooting the King’s prized pumpkins. Once he snuck out at night and tried to join the watchmen, wearing one of their uniforms he’d swiped from the laundress. Bruce had to follow him everywhere, making sure he didn’t hurt himself or others.

As the prince grew, he showed less and less interest in playing games or sneaking around. Instead, he grew sullen and serious. He’d walk around the gardens with his head hung low, refusing to do his lessons or practice his swordsmanship. Bruce became more of a friend and mentor, encouraging the young prince to prepare himself for the day he would become King. They’d spend hours together reading, talking and Bruce grew quite fond of the prince.

On the prince’s 16th birthday, a caravan arrived from the Eastern Kingdom bringing with it an auburn-haired girl wearing a flowing dress of bight pink. Her name was Princess Papillon and she was presented to the prince as his betrothed, an arrangement made when he was a baby to brokerage peace. He knew nothing about the deal, and neither did Bruce. It felt like a cruel birthday joke, and the prince was furious. He refused to have anything to do with her, even if she was incredibly beautiful.

“She’s a pink pampered poodle of a person,” he’d screamed loud enough for the entire palace to hear.

Bruce knew the prince’s anger was about being told who he had to marry, rather than towards the girl herself. However, the statement caused a great rift between the two kingdoms. It almost ended in war. Lucky for all involved, the King was a powerful negotiator and, after many days of heated discussion, he was able to negotiate a peace treaty involving trade benefits in the Eastern Kingdom’s favor.

The moment the delegation left, the King rounded on Prince Charming. They had a terrible fight, and the prince said he would rather give up his title than marry any woman his father chose for him. As the prince is the sole heir to the throne, a compromise had to be found. 

The “Who Wants to be the Queen?” ball held last night was the compromise. The King invited every girl in the kingdom, including princesses from far and wide, and the prince agreed to pick one to be his future queen. It was an elaborate evening with the finest of everything; food, clothing, decorations, and musicians. Bruce got quite drunk and figured the evening would end with the prince happy and content, but things got strange.

The mysterious girl the prince spent the evening dancing with, a stunning girl with golden hair and sparkling bright eyes, suddenly dashed out of the palace at midnight leaving behind her glass slipper on the grand staircase. Prince Charming, devastated and heartsick, organized a quest at once. Bruce, as his right-hand man, had spent the last six hours knocking on doors and shoving the slipper on the sweaty foot of more girls than he can count. It’s been exhausting, demeaning and rather depressing to see the Prince acting so lovesick.

It takes several soldiers to hoist Bruce back on his horse, a brown filly with a gut as round as his own. Both Bruce and the horse grunt, the horse from carrying his weight, and Bruce weary from lack of sleep and a night of excess food and drink, even for Bruce. A soldier hands him the golden basket containing the slipper, and he considers, for about the hundredth time, dropping it on the forest floor and watching it shatter. Instead, he kicks his horse forward until he’s beside Prince Charming.

“Sire,” Bruce tries. “I know I’ve said this already, but I wish you’d reconsider. This girl should be coming to you, not the other way around. You should not have to track her down. You are going to be King. It’s unbecoming.”

Prince Charming’s hand rests on the hilt of his sword, but he says nothing. Bruce pulls on the reins, and his horse slows. They ride in silence, surrounded by a dozen soldiers and pages, toward the next house on the search. Bruce knows when the prince has his mindset and there’s nothing he can say or do to change it.

Everyone at the ball agreed, the girl had the glow of magic about her. Bruce worries she may have been an enchantress who has bewitched the young prince. Her quick disappearance, the one glass slipper, and his complete and utter obsession with her all points to sorcery. He’d tried to get an audience with the King to share this opinion, but he would not grant one. As usual, the King wants results and doesn’t care how they happen. While the King’s focused on securing his legacy by having the prince married, Bruce wants the prince to be happy.

A family of rabbits dart from the underbrush, scaring the horses who whinny and jerk to a stop. Bruce loses his grip on the basket, and it tumbles from his hands. A freckled-face young page dives off his horse and catches the basket before it hits the ground. He stands, several fresh cuts on his cheek and arm, and bows before Bruce.

“I saved it,” he says.

“So you did,” says Bruce.

Prince Charming gives the young boy a nod, and he beams. He will be telling this story to his family for years to come, the day he saved the glass slipper for the prince. He limps over to his small horse and remounts. The other pages give him encouraging smiles, but Bruce scowls. This was so close to being over.

They’ve been riding in the direct sunlight for an hour and Bruce feels weak and light-headed. He clutches the basket with one hand and wipes sweat from his eyes with the other. He sighs with relief when they turn off the main road and enter a dense grove of tall redwood trees.

The path here’s a bit overgrown, and he considers catching up to Prince Charming to suggest they return to the road when a small two-story cottage comes into view. It’s made of wood and thatch, with a pattern like a stacked deck of cards, boards of varying dark and white wood. There’s a kind of wildness about the place, and it makes the hairs on Bruce’s arms stand on end.

Prince Charming dismounts and waits with his hands on his hips for Bruce. It’s a bit of a process to get the chubby man off his horse, and it involves several guards and a fair amount of moaning. Stiffly, he carries the basket and meets the prince at the door.

“This could be the place,” the prince says. “I can feel it. We are getting nearer to her.”

“Sure,” Bruce says.

Prince Charming grabs him by his shoulders and spins him so they are facing each other. There’s a look of manic love in those baby blue eyes, a sort of desperate hopefulness Bruce can’t ignore. For a moment he forgets his pains and wishes happiness for the young prince.

“We will find her,” he says.

“Your friendship means the world to me. I can’t imagine doing this without you.”

“There’s no place I’d rather be.”

He’s surprised he means it and hopes the owner of the slipper loves Prince Charming and isn’t an evil enchantress. He gestures for the royal horns to be blown and knocks on the door. It’s a few minutes before a high voice can be heard through the heavy wood.

“Who’s there?”

“Open the door,” Bruce yells. “Prince Charming has arrived and demands an audience with you at once.”

“Seems a bit harsh,” the prince whispers.

Bruce agrees, but it’s the first time he’s had to answer such a question. Each house before had thrown open its doors when they heard the horse hooves on the road. All had laid out elaborate settings of food and wine. Bruce had eaten and drank more than he could handle, but he was taken back by this house’s lack of pomp.

The door opens with a creak, and they are face to face with a young girl dressed in a strange costume. She’s wearing large round glasses, far too big for her face, making her eyes appear as two giant saucers of blueberry jam. An oversized pink-flowered bonnet covers her hair, ears, and forehead. Wrapped around her body, held closed by a rather dirty hand, is a tattered quilt of brown and green squares with a noticeable amount of brown fur clinging to it.

She blinks and yawns. It’s clear they have woken her up, even though it’s getting close to lunchtime. She shifts and it looks like she might close the door in their faces.

“What’s going on?” she says.

There’s no mistaking the grumpiness in her voice, and the prince takes a step back. She scowls and for a second, Bruce worries she may attack them. Perhaps she’s a wild child living alone in the woods. He takes a protective step in front of the prince.

“Are you the only one home?” Bruce asks.

He tries to peer behind the girl, but she’s blocking the doorway. She lowers the glasses from her nose and gives them a good look, up and down. Her gaze stops on the prince’s crown, and her face transforms. She gives them a huge smile of brilliantly white teeth, and her voice becomes sugary sweet. 

“Wait a second. Did you say he was a prince? Like The Prince Charming?”

“Yes,” Bruce says.

The girl giggles, her cheeks turning instantly pink. She bows, bending her body so her nose touches the floor. The pink bonnet falls from her head revealing an abundance of shiny blonde ringlets. She stands and removes the oversized glasses, but her blue eyes remain large and bright. She throws the quilt to the floor and bounces on her heels.

“A prince has come to see me,” she says. “It’s my lucky day!”

She does a sort of elaborate curtsey, with one knee almost touching the floor and one leg pulled far behind her. Her dress, soft blue checkered with a fluffy white petticoat underneath, has splotches of porridge all down the front. She doesn’t seem to notice though, beaming at the prince.

“Oh, you’ve caught me at a bad time,” she says, grabbing his hand and pulling him forward. “I’m usually much more bubbly. Please, come in and join me by the fireplace.”

The prince doesn’t move, so she yanks his arm. The guards press forward, but he waves them away.

“Come on,” she says.

He allows her to pull him into the dark cottage. Letting go of his hand, she chucks large pieces of wood in the direction of the fireplace but misses terribly. She knocks over a table, a beautiful yellow-flowered lamp smashes onto the floor.

“Oops!“ she says.

The cottage has the look of a bar after a huge fight. The kitchen table has one empty wooden bowl set in the center, but two others sit on the floor, the sticky contents of uneaten porridge pooling around them. By the fireplace, a large and medium-sized chair are knocked over and covered with dirty shoe marks. A small wooden chair has been smashed to pieces. The girl picks up a splintered leg, breaking it free with a loud snapping sound, and adds it to the wood she’s stacked in and around the fireplace.

“We don’t need a fire,” Bruce says.

“Oh,” the girl says.

“What’s your name?” the prince says.  

“Oh, silly me. I didn’t tell you! Why I’m Goldilocks! You know, the girl with the beautiful hair. Everyone knows me.”

“I don’t know you,” Bruce says.

“Don’t be silly,” the prince says and gives Bruce a reproaching look. “Goldilocks. Of course, we know you. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

He holds out his hand and she shakes it up and down so vigorously the crown on his head slips to the side. He removes his hand, wiping the sticky remnants of dried porridge on the back of Bruce’s shirt, and straightens his crown.

“We are sorry to intrude,” Bruce says. “Thanks for letting us in, but we better get moving.”

Bruce thought, for sure, the prince would agree to skip the foot of this very odd child, but the prince scowls at Bruce, and returns his attention to Goldilocks. He gives her a little bow, which causes her to giggle madly and blush.

“We are traveling throughout the kingdom today in search of a girl who was at the ball last night,” the prince says. “She left her glass slipper and we are trying to return it.”

Goldilocks smiles and, for the first time, she notices the basket in Bruce’s hands. She reaches forward to stroke it, but he steps back before she can. Her hands twitch, and for a moment, he can see a bit of anger in her blue eyes. She composes herself and walks into the kitchen.

“There’s a chair in here,” she calls.

Bruce sees her grab an object off the counter and slip it behind her back. He sighs. He didn’t know how many young ladies in this land could be sneaky and dishonest. Many, including this young girl, didn’t even attend the ball. Yet, he knows how important this quest and the ritual have become to the prince.

“I’m waiting,” Goldilocks calls in a sing-song voice.

Bruce and the prince follow Goldilocks to the kitchen. She’s sitting on a large wooden chair, her small bare feet dangling in front of her. Bruce hands the basket to the prince and lowers himself into a kneeling position. His joints creak and he feels a sharp stabbing pain in his lower back. He’s too old and too fat for this nonsense. He clears his throat, and begins the ceremony, exactly as he’s done each time.

“Goldilocks, please present your foot,” he says.

The girl wiggles her toes and giggles. He grabs the foot in his hand, it’s warm, covered in dirt, and smells faintly of bread.

“The glass slipper,” Bruce says.

The prince takes it out with two hands and closes his eyes. 

“Oh, sweet giver of the beautiful slipper, I will find thee,” he thinks. “I won’t rest until you are in my arms again.”

He can feel her energy attached to the glass slipper, and while he knows it’s not the girl before him now, he feels a certain reverence for the process. It’s practice for when he finds her. He wants the moment to be perfect.

“Last night the most…”

Goldilocks doesn’t wait for the prince’s speech, but instead yanks the slipper from his hand and spins around in the large chair with it held to her chest. The prince screams and lunges for her, knocking Bruce from his kneeled position to his butt. Goldilocks hops onto the table, turns her back to them, and slips it onto her left foot.

“It fits!” she yells. “Look at me! I’m the Princess! I’m the Princess!”

She dances across the table, the glass slipper tapping, her barefoot slapping. Tap. Slap. Tap. Slap. The prince feels light-headed and staggers back until he’s leaning against the kitchen sink. Bruce tries to get up but falls onto his back like a turtle. The soldiers look confused, and sort of shuffle around the room.

The front door swings open with a growl, and a family of three bears stomp in; a father bear, a mother bear, and a wee baby bear. They are dressed in fine clothing and holding baskets of fresh-picked blueberries. They scan the room with wide eyes, taking in the terrible mess, the dancing girl, the prince, Bruce, and the soldiers.

They all three growl, a low rumbling sound, and the soldiers move toward the prince.

“My bonnet,” Mother bear says.

“My glasses,” Father bear says.

“My blankie,” Baby bear says.

Goldilocks continues her slap, tap dance on the table, oblivious to the scene unfolding around her. The soldiers help Bruce to his feet and form a huddle around him and the prince. They watch as the bears walk around the room, pointing out broken items to each other, getting more and more upset.

“My chair’s covered in shoe prints,” father bear says.

“My chair’s torn and filthy,” mother bear says.

“My chair’s broken,” baby bear wails.

Father bear growls. Mother bear growls. Baby bear wails. They stalk toward the prince and Bruce, the soldiers form an even tighter circle around them. The bears look from the group of men to the dancing girl, and back.

“Who did this?” Father bear growls. 

The hair on the back of his neck stands on end as he notices the spilled bowls of porridge on the ground. The prince peeks through the wall of soldiers and points at Goldilocks.

“She stole my glass slipper too,” he says.

Father bear growls. Mother bear growls. Baby bear growls. 

The prince, Bruce, and the soldiers turn away.

Slap. Tap. Slap. Tap.

“I’m the princess!”

There’s a loud roaring, followed by ripping and tearing. The men cover their ears and inch as one group across the room and out the front door. A few moments later the door opens behind them and the three bears emerge. 

Father bears mouth drips red.

Mother bears mouth drips red. 

Baby bears mouth drips red.

“Here,” baby bear says in a wee voice.

He holds the now ruby red glass slipper in his small paws. It’s unbroken, and they can see a large piece of bread shoved in the toe. The prince takes the slipper with shaking hands.

“Thank you,” the prince says.

The bears say nothing, returning to the house and slamming the heavy door behind them. A page removes the bread and uses water and a cloth to clean the glass slipper, polishing it and polishing it until it’s returned to its former beauty. It’s placed back into the golden basket, everyone mounts their horses, and they continue on their quest.

Not one of them, not even the freckled-faced page, pauses to mourn the death of Goldilocks.

Author’s note: My favorite part of motherhood has been reading to my children. I’ve read them all the classic fairy tales, as well as hundreds of picture books and chapter books. This prompt had me spinning in lots of directions for several days, until I happened to be eating oatmeal for breakfast and the image of Prince Charming and a bloody shoe came to me. I had so much fun writing this short story, and I sure hope you enjoyed reading it.

My little Prince Charming and his butterfly princess sister.

Next week’s prompt: Week 4

A missionary in a remote village

Include: orchestra, finch, aim, development, ex, bold, old-fashioned, gut, brassy, sharp

Out with the old and in with the new, or something like that

I’ve struggled to find words to process the last few years.

We’ve collectively lived through something hard.

Impossibly hard.

I can’t write about the enormity of the experience, so I’ll take it to the personal micro-level.

I lost my grandmother to Covid. I didn’t get to say goodbye and we didn’t have a funeral for her.

My son had two terrible accidents. They were scary. I relive them daily and I hold him too close.

My daughter didn’t react well to social distancing. Her light dimmed so much I felt I might lose her.

Our family was together all the time, but somehow things got messy and convoluted. The undercurrent of fear kept us on edge, too internal, and we became strange to each other.

I want to move forward and say 2022 is the year it all changes, but it feels like rebuilding a puzzle without knowing the picture, and some of the pieces could be missing. It’s an uneasy feeling.

Yet, I’m going to try anyway.

Trying for me looks like refocusing on daily journaling, the short story challenge, and recommitting to posting to this blog. I’m moving my body and cooking dinner. I’m taking vitamins and sticking to a budget. I cleaned my closets. I’m making plans with friends.

These are important steps forward, creating new focus and new habits.

But if I learned anything from watching the Muppet Christmas Carol on repeat all December, we have to live in the past, present, and the future.

Not everything during the last two years was awful.

The dark night sky had some glittery stars, and they were incredibly beautiful.

Can I show you?

There was time to watch the sunrise and the sunset.

We drew this chalk mural for our neighbors to see as they walked by our house. We also hung hearts and paper cranes in our front window. It gave us a purpose and made us feel more connected to the outside world.

There was more time to spend outdoors, and we hiked a lot.

My sweet nephew got in on the hiking, too. Silly faces were a requirement.

We did an online challenge of trying to copy famous paintings. I think we nailed it.

We snuck away to a beach house during the lockdown, and took a walk on the empty beach. It began to rain, and we saw starfish everywhere. We lost count at 100.

I grew my first ever pumpkin, and then…

I became queen of the pumpkins.

I did some of my daughter’s school work with her and drew this beauty.

We did numerous photo shoots with Puff the Magic Hamster, who was a wonderful sport about it.

We had our own May Day, and it’s my favorite picture of us.

My son got his first car,

and my daughter grew wings.

I got to take my nephew to his first rock concert and see him light up.

I got my first tattoo, a matching wave with my best friend.

I captured this moment at the aquarium.

When I could hug my mother again, it was everything.

And when it was safe, this group got together and my heart was full.


My kids tease me because I take a lot of pictures, but I’m grateful. Looking through these memories, and there were a lot more, it helps me remember the last two years have been hard, yes, but also filled with tiny moments of beauty and joy.

Can you tell me some of yours?

 

52 Weeks – Week 2 – Gifts

Prompt: Anonymous gifts start arriving at the doorstep

Include: teenager, camouflage, birch, harmony, rifle, screen door, wrinkle, dive, pick-up, sticker

What is 52 weeks?

Read Anna’s Week 2 (my writing partner and collaborator on this project)

Photo/Bridgette White

The Biggest Little Gift

Ellyse wants to check the doorstep for a gift the second she wakes up, but she restrains herself. Yesterday when she rushed outside her grouchy neighbor, Old Bobsy the Gnome, saw her in her rose petal nightgown and shook his watering can at her and scowled. She should have punched his wrinkled old face and pulled his filthy white beard, but she’s not that kind of elf. Not anymore, anyway.

She changes into a maple leaf dress topped with her favorite cotton fluff sweater and takes a quick peeks out the screen door. Sure enough, there stands Old Bobsy wearing his stupid red pointed hat and doing his daily snooping under the guise of watering his vast mushroom patch. If Ellyse wants to avoid conversation, which she most certainly does, she better wait until after her morning cup of chicory root tea. She’ll wait for the sound of Old Bobsy snoring in his hammock and then do a proper check.

After heating the water on the stove, she settles into a place in the backyard where she can drink her tea and watch the birds dive and play in the birdbath. A pair of doves, the same ones she can hear cooing down her fireplace most afternoons, wash and splash until an enormous Blue Jay chases them away. If her knees weren’t hurting her, Ellyse would do something about it, but instead, she turns her attention to the treasures set on her table.

The gifts started arriving three days ago, all wrapped in bright green leaves and tied with a thin strand of white wool. She’d found them on her doorstep with no note, and not even snoopy Old Bobsy saw who left them. It’s a mystery, something she hasn’t had much of since her son Farryn headed out on his own last spring. She lays them out in a row, touching each one.

At first, she thought the gifts were from the pack of grubby goblin kids who live down the street. They are always running through her yard trampling her garden or knocking over the flowerpots. However, she can’t imagine those wild things sitting still enough to wrap something so carefully.

Her second thought was her friend Arylea, but she’s on a trip with her teenage son to visit some distant relatives across the ocean and won’t be back for another month. They had invited Ellyse to come with them, but she couldn’t stand to leave her garden and her animals.

When she was young, caring for a garden would have felt like a punishment worse than death. Back then, she was filled with energy and a restless spirit, adventure luring her with a song so clear and strong she could hear nothing else. Her parents tried to stop her, but when war broke out, she ran away to fight. 

The Great Fairy War, pitting the creatures of light against the forces of darkness, lasted decades and Ellyse grew up slinging arrows and fighting with short swords. She can remember the horrible blasts of the human rifles, the roar of the hideous snarling beasts, and the sting of magical rain. It still clings to some part of her and, although Farryn wishes he could experience it, Ellyse is happy he won’t have to. Peace and harmony have filled the land for decades now, and she does her best to keep it so.

The chickens squawk from their coop, and Ellyse slips on her rubber boots and lets them out. She sprinkles feed across the yard, lets the rabbits out, and gathers eggs in a wool-lined basket. The carrot patch needs weeding, and it’s time to prune some of the rose bushes. Her body aches, but it’s a good feeling, and Ellyse surrenders to the work.

Her stomach begins to growl around noon and she realizes she’s forgotten to check for another gift. She rushes to the front door and there it sits, another beautiful leaf package wrapped with a thin thread of white wool. She bends over to pick up the treasure and cradles it in her arms. 

She unwraps it carefully and finds a bundle of dried lavender, brown twine woven intricately around the stems. Breathing in the sweet herbal smell, she’s filled with memory. When Farryn was a small boy she taught him how to gather the lavender without stripping the flowers off, and how to tie them into bundles exactly like this one. They would hang the bundles from every beam in the house, letting them dry, and then give them as gifts to all their friends and family at Winter Solstice.

Ellyse begins to laugh as she adds the bundle to the row of gifts. Each one of these items is connected to a memory of Farryn, her only son. She can’t believe she didn’t see it before. The realization makes her heart sing with joy, and she touches each one again, feeling the energy and love of each.

The first gift was a fat dark brown acorn with a wide textured hat. Each fall, she and Farryn would travel two hours on foot to harvest acorns from the large oak trees near the fairyland border. They would carry home one bucket each to make acorn flour, but leave the rest of the acorns for the squirrels to hide. She taught him a little song. She can still hear his golden, high voice singing as they walked home swinging their full buckets:

Squirrel Nutkin has a coat of brown, 
quite the loveliest in woodland town;
two bright eyes look round to see where the sweetest nuts may be.

Squirrel Nutkin in his coat of brown scampers up the trees and down;
dashing here and swinging there, leaping lightly through the air.
All the livelong day he plays in the leafy woodland ways
but stop at night when squirrels rest in their cosy treetop nest.

The second gift was a dried seedpod from a white birch tree, the kind found in the backyard of Ellyse’s family home. When they’d visit for the Summer Solstice, they would collect the pods, dry them in the sun, and snap them open to release the seeds. The dried petal-shaped pieces would be made into jewelry or saved to make sweet, sticky syrup. She can still see Farryn balanced on a chair stirring a huge wooden spoon through the thick, rich liquid, making the house smell like caramel and honey.

The third gift was a greenish willow tree stick, the kind she’d cut from the trees lining the slow-flowing creek at the far back of their property. They’d stand at the top of the rocky bridge and throw the sticks in the water, rush to the other side to see whose stick emerged first. Farryn would then scramble through weeds to the water’s edge, balance on the slick rocks, and retrieve their sticks so they could play again and again. It took forever to pull all the stickers and burrs out of his socks afterward.

Ellyse looks up and sees the moon has risen high in the sky, and she’s amazed at how time can slip by so fast these days. Lost in her memories, she wonders how her son has been managing to leave her these gifts, and why he hasn’t shown himself. She devises a plan to catch him, and giggles at the silliness of it.

Dressing all in greens and purples, Ellyse hides behind the giant lilac bush beside her front door. She waits and waits, enjoying the deep, rich smell and watching the stars twinkle across the sky until she sees a familiar shape sneaking on silent steps. Just the way she taught him, dressed in dark colors to camouflage in the night. She watches him place another gift on her doorstep with an enormous smile on his youthful face. Her heart feels something she’d tried not to feel since he left, a sort of longing mixed with pride, and she elicits a loud sobbing giggle.

Farryn jumps and pulls aside the branches to see his mother’s face peering out at him.  

“What are you doing mother?” he asks.

“Catching you,” she says.

He lifts her to her feet and hugs her to him.

“What took you so long?” he says. “I thought you’d figure me out the first day.”

“Getting old, I guess.”

“Never.”

“Never.”

They hug and laugh so loud they wake Old Man Bobsy who emerges from his house wearing quite scandalously short red shorts, his wrinkled chest as white and hairy as his beard. He holds a stick in his hands and begins yelling a string of threats and curses at the mother and son. They duck inside, giggling madly.

Once they are sipping hot cups of mint tea by the fireplace, Ellyse opens the final gift, a large heart-shaped river rock. She glances over to a shelf covered in seashells, rocks, and bark, all heart-shaped items found by her boy. She holds his hands in hers and smiles.

“I’d have definitely known from this one,” she says.

“I’d hope so,” Farryn says.

“I love you, mom.”

“I know. I love you too.”

Author’s note: When I first read the prompt I had the idea of a time travel story where the items are left to help prevent something terrible from happening. However, when I sat down to write, my mind kept wandering back to stories involving a mother and son. I suppose I wasn’t done feeling all my feelings yet about my son turning 17. My first draft was a very sad piece about a mother and son not talking to each other, and he leaves little gifts out for her so she will know he remembers the fun they’ve had over the years. It was fine, but it felt too sad and too raw. So, I took another crack at it, and this silly little elf story took shape. I think it captures some of the same feelings, but it’s not nearly as heavy. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!


Next week’s prompt: Week 3

Mash up two classic fairy tales into one story

Include: fireplace, sword, grove, stroke, underbrush, mourn, seven, friendship, cardboard, giver

52 Weeks – Week 1 – Igraine

Prompt: A new take on the Arthurian legend

Include the words: Avalon, crossbow, orphan, list, comrade, corruption, lake, enfold, disgraceful, grass

What is 52 weeks?

Read Anna’s Week 1 (my writing partner and collaborator on this project)

Photo/Bridgette White

The Heart and the Stone

Someone has swept all the dried leaves from the grey stone floors and polished the colorful wood of the massive round table until its surface gleamed like a mirror. I squeeze between two of the tall backed chairs and place my palms on the cool, smooth surface. My face looks dark and angular in the flickering firelight.

It’s been four days since I arrived at Camelot to find I was too late. It turns out the prophecy delivered to me was true, and my son has ridden with his armies into the thick of it. I pull my woolen shawl tight around my shoulders and squint at my reflection, searching my eyes to see if they’ve been altered by what I’ve done.

My mind slips into memory, not of things past, but of things which are to happen, or maybe not. The images torment me, taunt me, and I wonder if she’s the one who set this all in motion. I wish I could stop the vision, but it comes, as it has for seven days now. It comes, relentless and vivid, and I’m helpless to stop it.

My beautiful son lies bleeding near an ancient oak tree, its branches rustling in a terrifying wind. His bright sword, Excalibur, sits bloody and still across his body. His deep blue eyes, the eyes of his father, are filled with terror and fight. I see him mouth my name, Igraine. He doesn’t say mother, or beloved, but instead my name. Igraine. He knows not of my true undying love for him. He knows not of the burning ache inside, always longing to be with him, and he remembers not the embraces and kisses I smothered him with as a babe. No, he cries out the name of the woman he hopes will feel his dying and perhaps do something to stop it. A silver-clad comrade, a crossbow strapped to his back, appears from the woods running towards Arthur, screaming his name, but it’s too late. The light from his eyes fades and his lips stop saying my name.

I rode as fast as I could the day the vision first came, but I arrived too late. Camelot was empty, the staff wide-eyed and teary, but not welcoming. No, they had no love for the mother of their king, for they’ve heard the stories, and they believe the lies. I knew the moment I arrived that I would seek her out, that this would be where it happens, but it took me four days to find the courage to set it in motion. Now I must wait and I must see his dying moments replayed in my mind over and over until I can be sure it’s undone.

“My lady,” a small voice whispers behind me.

I’m startled, but I don’t allow it to show. I turn, holding my head high and my back straight. It’s a thin girl with pale skin, one of the half-dozen servants I’ve seen the last few days. Strands of dirty blonde hair escape from beneath an off-white cap, and she’s got smudges of dirt on her small freckled nose. She holds a heavily loaded tray out in front of her with both hands and bows her head.

She’s probably one of the many orphans Arthur has taken into his care. Stories about the compassionate king who pulled the sword from the stone have been told across the land. Told and retold in taverns, castles, and all the places in-between. These stories of kindness and bravery seem fantastical, but I don’t doubt they are true. 

While I haven’t seen my son in 20 years, I know his heart. The boy who would collect wildflowers and bring them to me, the boy who curled in my lap as I read to him at night, and the boy who rescued wounded animals and nursed them back to health. My heart could sing ballads of all the good of Arthur, long before he became king, and long before he wasn’t mine anymore.

The young girl makes a sort of small squeak, like a wounded puppy. She’s staring at the floor, at the soft brown leather boots on my feet, and at the mud and grass sticking to the sides, soiling the cleanliness of the majestic hall. I know what disgraceful things have been said about me, and I wonder if she believes them. She won’t meet my gaze, so I imagine she does.

“No thanks,” I say. “Take it away.”

The ceramic teapot and cup rattle on the wooden tray, her hands and body shaking as if raked with fever. She doesn’t look up from the floor but speaks again. Her voice is now breathy and panicky. I wonder who made her come in here. 

“My lady, I was told not to take no for an answer,” she says.

The poor child looks as if she may collapse, so I motion for her to set the tray on the table. She shakes her head no and makes the same sound as before. It takes a moment for me to realize, I sigh. The rules.

“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “Nobody may use this table until my son returns.”

It’s one of the many rules I’ve learned since my arrival in Camelot, always delivered by some young servant with shaking hands and downcast eyes. I’m unsure if there’s an actual list of these rules somewhere, or if they are created by someone who wants me to know how unwanted I am here. Whoever gives the servants orders, they must be scarier than me.

The girl says nothing, but silent tears fall down her face. I wish I could enfold her to my bosom and tell her all will be well, but I cannot. I have lost the ability to comfort others, as my son’s dying face fades in and out of my vision. I point to a small round table set near the fireplace.

“Set it over there,” I say, “and please leave me. I don’t want any more interruptions, no matter what anyone tells you.”

The girl sets down the tray with a thud and runs as fast as she can out of the room. A sick feeling rushes through me, making me weak and dizzy. I close my eyes and summon stillness and strength, calling it to me as I was trained to do during my time in Avalon, amongst the priestesses. I walk with silent footsteps to the oversized brown leather chair by the fire and sit stiffly with both feet on the floor in front of me. I allow the full force of the feeling to hit me.

It’s happening faster than I thought. I consider drinking some of the tea, but my body hums and vibrates, and I know it won’t be possible to swallow it. The coldness inside burns, but my body begins to sweat. I stare into the fire, trying to see the happy image promised to me. I see nothing but the flames and feel nothing but the chill, as I replay the night, the horrible details clear and naked before me.

***

She’s easy to find, far easier than I expected. Her hut lies in the exact spot I’d been told it would be, deep in the woods, past the boulder fields, and nestled on the shore of a long-forgotten bog filled with decay and death. The smell overwhelms me, but the sound of my son’s pleas moves me forward until I’m standing at the doorway of a sideways leaning shack, the wood covered in greenish grey moss and mold. I knock hard on the scraggly door of rotting, softwood, and it responds with a squishy, soft thud, barely audible.

“Come in,” a scratchy voice says. “I’ve been expecting you.”

For indeed, this is the way of things, I think. Prophecy and fate, for I must have known all my life I’d end up here with this wretched spirit. Her voice sounds familiar, the stuff of nightmares, and a terrifying internal tugging accompany the sound. My body recoils and I fall to my knees and puke onto a pile of dead leaves. Something stirs, moving through the brownish mound, and I stand before I can see what it is. The door creaks, shifting toward me, and I turn the handle. I’ve already made up my mind, there’s no turning back.

The hut is small and dark, but several shafts of sunlight spike through the tattered roof and illuminate the scene before me. A horribly thin woman sits naked in the center of the dirt floor, a pile of grey skin and bones. Her legs are twisted to her sides, bent at odd angles, as if she’d been crushed. Tall piles of too-white bones lay around her. Long grey hair falls over her face and breasts, tangled and filthy. I try not to think of the things she’s eaten or killed, but instead on why I’m here, and what I’ve come to bargain for.

“You know the price,” she says.

She laughs, a short screechy sound I feel move through me like a gust of wind. She picks up two long bones, femurs, and smacks them together before dragging them in the black dirt, drawing two spiraling circles weaving in and out of each other. She presses harder and harder, the bones digging deeper and deeper, creating furrows in the ground. Grunting, she presses harder and harder still until the bones snap in two. The sound lingers and moves around me, mocking me. She lifts one of the broken bones to her mouth and licks it, her tongue a snake darting out of her hair and back, one quick repulsive motion.

She hums deeply and rocks back and forth. Then pulls a rough stone from under one of her thighs and sharpens the broken piece of bone, rubbing it back and forth across the dark rock. The continuous humming and sharpening sounds make me feel weak, but I don’t dare sit on the floor. I’ve heard the stories of those who show weakness in her presence.

“Say the words,” she says, “and it will be done.”

She continues to rock, to sharpen, and to hum. I’m dizzy, and I don’t want to say the words, but the face of my boy dances around me. All the faces of my boy, from the day I pulled him from my body to his dying moment, they flash like lightning before me, a cruel horrible storm of time, love, guilt, and regret. 

 I know the moment has come. I have no other choice. It’s now or he will die. Fate, it seems, has no wiggle room. Stepping forward, I hold myself in the regal way I was taught. I let down my defenses, all my guards, and speak clearly and strongly. 

“Save Arthur. Save my son,” I say. “Please. I will pay the price.”

The words slice through the air, stopping all other movements and sounds. A wind rushes around us, moving the hair from her face, revealing dark holes where eyes should be. She leaps to her feet and rushes toward me, faster than a diving hawk. I watch, outside myself, as she stabs the sharpened bone into my chest, into my heart. I feel the blood pour from my body, the corruption of my soul, the death of all I’ve been or ever will be. I don’t scream, and I don’t cry.

We stand locked in this position, her boney body pressed against mine and a wide, toothy smile on her skeletal face. Her teeth are sharp, and for a moment I think she will lunge at my throat, but she yanks the bone from my body and retreats to her spot on the floor, to her pile of bones. She begins licking and sucking the bloody bone, a horrible slurping sound, and I walk, dazed, out the door into the moonlight.

Never have I seen such a moon, so full of light and life. Merlin once told me it’s a giant stone in the sky, nothing more. Like a boulder in the middle of the ocean, held in time and place, but responsible for the movements of the tides and the flow of blood in a woman’s body. I didn’t understand until this moment. It’s as if death, its icy grip tight around my throat, wants me to truly see what I’m leaving behind.

As I walk back toward Camelot, I feel resolved. I would choose to save my son every single time. My life hasn’t been what I thought it would be when I was young, my dreams of adventure and epic love dashed and broken. I’ve made bad choices, I’ve hurt those I love, and I’ve suffered. But I saved Arthur, and I loved him with all I am, and for that, I am beyond grateful.

I touch my chest, expecting a gaping hole, but find none. There’s no trace of blood or gore on my body or my clothes, but I can feel it moving through me. I didn’t know death would be so cold. As I reach the top of a small hill, Camelot comes into view. The sun rises behind it, making the glorious castle glow golden and pink. It could be in heaven, I think. Such beauty belongs to Arthur, not to me. 

“Arthur’s back! Arthur’s back! The war’s over! We won!”

The excited voice of a small boy breaks the silence of the hall, and I realize I’d fallen into a trance as I watched the flames, reliving the last few hours, and feeling the cold devour me, bit by bit. I’m empty of the truest part of me, and I know it’s nearing time. I want to gather Arthur into my arms and feel his warmth, feel the life in his body, and tell him I love him. He must know I love him, he must know all the things I’ve held back, all the truths, and all the sacrifices. 

No.

The hall’s alive with activity; colorful banners and flags appear on the walls, the large chandeliers burn bright with dozens of candles, enormous barrels of ale with shining silver spigots appear everywhere, and plates of hot food and large, pewter mugs cover the famous round table. Servants rush to and fro, smiles on their faces, singing and laughing. Arthur’s alive and so, it seems, is Camelot.

The sounds of horns, horses, and metal armor reach the castle, and I stand. Nobody notices me, as I take a final look at the place my son created, at the people he protects. This victory will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for these people, his people. I know this to be true, the same way I know I shall never embrace my son again.

Weaving through the rushing servants, I exit the great hall. With all the strength left in my body, I hurry through empty corridors until I reach a small wooden door at the back of the castle. It’s left ajar, beckoning me outside, as if Camelot has decided to help me, to protect the king.

Nobody notices as I walk down the stone staircase, through the beautiful gardens, and to the shore of the lake. A bit of fog hugs the edges of the water, but it’s not too thick, and I can see the trees reflected in the glassy, smooth surface. I stop with my toe at the edge, savoring the sounds of celebration in the distance, and lift a large white stone into my arms.

I won’t allow Arthur’s victory and joy to be crushed by my death. It would be cruel to die in his arms, although my heart longs for nothing else. Oh, to hear his voice say, “I love you, dear mother.” I can’t think of it. 

No, my disappearance, if he’s told of my visit at all, will not seem out of character for me. My son has grown used to my comings and goings, my life seemingly my own. He knows not of the ways I’ve guided the world to bend toward him, and he will know nothing of my death or the price I paid to save him.

I step into the cold water, its iciness matches the chill already infecting my body from within. My dress and shawl absorb the water, forcing me to fight them, to fight for every step. I know not what awaits me, but I know this is the way it ends. I’d seen it as a child, felt it every time I was near the water. Yes, this is how it ends.

I step over slippery stones, see small fish rush away from my boots until I reach an underwater ledge, a drop-off so deep I can see nothing but blackness. Cradling the stone in my arms, as if it’s my baby, my Arthur, I step into the deep, and allow myself to sink below the surface.


Author’s note: With this prompt, I decided to play with the idea of the martyr mother. My son recently turned 17, and I’ve been experiencing some strong feelings as we navigate a new relationship. It’s been painful, and although I strive to not slip into martyr or victim mode, it felt like the perfect moment and story to explore the idea of giving all to our children without expecting anything in return.

Next week’s prompt: Week 2

Anonymous gifts start arriving at the doorstep

Include the words: teenager, camouflage, birch, harmony, rifle, screen door, wrinkle, dive, pick-up, sticker

The 52 Week Writing Challenge

Photo/Bridgette White

There’s something magical about mushrooms. I can’t pass one up without examining it. I don’t understand how they can be so varying, yet so beautifully the same.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been playing with writing. I’ve fumbled along with blog posts, journal writing, and a few manuscripts, all in an attempt to craft fiction and art from the bits and pieces of my life. It’s messy, nonlinear, and I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. Luckily, I’ve not had to do it alone.

I met Anna when our children were babies, and we weaved in and out of each other’s orbit for years. My fondest memories include camping along the river with her and her daughter, building fairy houses, and dancing under the stars.

During the pandemic, Anna introduced me to The Artist’s Way. As we worked through the prompts, we grew in our craft and friendship. This led us to complete two years of NaNoWriMo, inspiring and supporting each other through the ups and downs of life and art. Anna’s empathy, kindness, intuition, and raw talent make her a powerful artist and wonderful friend.

Now, as we continue to evolve as writing/accountably partners, we’ve decided to tackle a new project for the year we are calling; 52 weeks, 52 short stories. It’s a way to stay connected, to work on our craft, and to play with our words and our blogs.

Using the story prompts from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. we will share our stories each week on our blogs as well as share each other’s work. You can find Anna’s writing and beautiful artwork at https://loscotoff.com. I’m excited to see the direction we each take these prompts, and how much we learn about ourselves and our craft through the process.

If you want to join in the fun, I’ll post the next week’s prompt at the end of my story each week. Let’s write and grow together.

Dillion Beach last summer

Home, broken, home

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Our house in the 1970s

It doesn’t look like my childhood home anymore. It hasn’t looked like it in a long time.

The effects of depression hang in the air, tangibly thick, like the layers of neglect and random things. Peeling back each one we find plenty that’s broken, unusable, forgotten or discarded. There are cords, cigarette butts, bottles, worn-out blankets, unmatched shoes and boxes of stuff bought for a purpose or plan long since abandoned. As we shovel it all away, pile it to be taken to the dump, my heart is breaking for what is at the very bottom of it all, the thing left when you peel everything away.

My childhood home.

My childhood.

Skating in the garage. Homework at the dinner table. Christmas mornings. Biking around the court. Neighborhood friends. Mudpies. A summer wedding in the front yard. Nursing a possum back to health. Hiding in my closet. Buried pets. Ewok battles. Midnight Jane Fonda workouts. My dad at his computer. Microwave popcorn. Goodnight kisses. My purple room. First day of school pictures. Our pig running through the back and front screen door. Slumber parties. Dancing on my bed. Rosanne on the TV. Mom sewing at the kitchen table. Sandbags. Doves. Playing shipwreck. Daycare kids. Charles Chips tins. Yellow flowered wallpaper. Spacecat peeing in the entryway. Piles of leaves. Brown carpet.

None of these memories will be erased by this move. I get to keep them. They are mine.

Yet there is something profoundly sad about the way this place I grew up, this place I learned about myself and the world, became. It didn’t just get sold. There isn’t just a new family moving in.

The house was broken.

Then taken (foreclosure).

It’s violating. It’s as if a part of my childhood was left to rot and spoil in the sun, a dead fish in a pile of debris. It’s ugly and raw.

I don’t blame my parents. There is no blame to place anywhere. Sometimes families fall apart and ours did so at an excruciatingly slow pace. It’s been decades and there are still casualties. Piles of them.

Although it would be easiest to only look forward, to face away from what was, I find myself drawn back by the little pieces of history unearthed. I want to remember, to honor these feelings, to touch all the creases and cracks of the walls before they are no longer mine to feel.

This weekend we must say our final goodbye. We will take the last things off the walls. I’ll open the hallway cupboards and run my hands over the place the board games used to live. I’ll walk into my closet and shut the door and sit in the dark one last time. I’ll stare at the door to my parent’s bedroom, the one I couldn’t enter without knocking. I’ll look out my bedroom window.

I was lucky to have grown up in this middle-class suburban neighborhood. I know that. My brother and I had friends to play with, we swam in the gutters, got into fights, babysat, borrowed sugar, trick-or-treated, sold candy bars door-to-door, walked the dogs and slowly changed into the people we are today.

The home of those memories, however, has been gone for a long time. It was fractured by divorce, mental illness and time. Things broke and didn’t get fixed. Weeds became impossible to combat. Cracks too big to mend.

The park we played at has been fenced off, permanently closed due to gangs and violence. My car was stolen when I was visiting and pregnant with my first child. Most of the neighbors have moved and the new ones are not friendly. It isn’t the neighborhood of my youth, it’s as crumbling as the roof and as ugly as the butchered tree in the front yard.

Things don’t stay frozen in time. Erosion. Evolution. Transformation.

Leaving this home behind will be a new start for my mother and brother, a chance to wipe clean the wounds of the past that lay bare and bleeding. They can shed the guilt, the pain and the reality of a space no longer serving the purpose it once did. They can outrun the ghosts and the echoes of a life lived.

This is an opportunity to make things better.

It’s for the best.

I know all this, yet it doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve never liked the end of a book or the goodbyes when someone leaves. I wish I could skip ahead to the time when the pain is a memory, but that isn’t how things work.

The pain is here right now, whether I acknowledge it or not. This is the hard part.

Once we pull away with the last load of things on Sunday, maybe looking back for one last glance of myself riding my big wheel around the court, the real healing can begin.

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Can I love my fat body?

It’s midnight and I’m hooked up to the breast pump. I turn on the TV to keep me awake, too exhausted to load up Netflix. Three commercials in a row target my body.

Lose weight fast. Look good in a bathing suit. Feel good about yourself.

I look down at my stomach rolls, the extra heft of my thighs, the way my calves bulge with fat and I’m instantly disgusted and angry.

I should not have gained so much weight during this pregnancy.

I should not have banked on pumping to take off the weight.

I should have done better.

I grab my phone and google the Keto diet, price the latest Weight Watchers program and research what Sono Bello does to resculpt your body. I download two new food tracking apps, open a note file and make myself a workout schedule.

Time to get serious again.

No more eating carbs or sugar.

No more fruit. 

Stop being fat and lazy.

You are gross.

Maybe you need weight loss surgery so you can’t enjoy food anymore. That will teach you. 

You should punish yourself for being weak.

You’re disgusting.  

You don’t deserve anything good until you get the weight off.

I say all this to myself as I’m pumping milk for my sweet nephew who, as a surrogate, I successfully grew and birthed only a few short months ago.

I say all this to myself as I tell my daughter to love her body and to stop comparing herself to others.

I say all this to myself…and I believe it.

All of it.

For a moment, the hate for my body is so intense I wish I could rip the fleshy fat off with my bare hands. It would be worth it to not look and feel like this.

I go to sleep with all the plans and all the hate.

When I wake up the anger has faded, but the disgust lingers around me like a sunburn. I shower and step on the scale. I know the number, but it hits me like a bullet between my eyes and I stagger away from it. The towel, the one that doesn’t quite fit around me anymore, falls to the floor.

This is the heaviest I’ve been in my life.

The anger prickles, goosebumps down my arms and legs, focusing daggers at my swollen middle.

My core.

The center of my being.

The place I grew three babies.

The place of my deepest breath.

I hate it.

My daughter walks in and I focus all my energy on taking air deep inside and holding it. I stand, naked, shaking slightly, and take slow, gut-filling breaths in as she talks to me about the dream she had. She’s in her underwear and I’m keenly aware of the curves of her body and my emotions are complicated and ugly.

A vile snake built of guilt and shame slithers around me and stings my skin all over.

My daughter keeps talking. I can’t hear her, but I see the light in her eyes and the way she lounges on my bed. Her beauty is an undeniable force. I continue to stare at her until she is in focus and I can hear the words she is saying. I get lost in her dreams and her voice until everything else fades away.

It’s been several weeks and the sting of that hate still remains. To fight back, I found several body-positive Instagram accounts to follow. I look at their images daily; bikini-clad on a bicycle, doing yard work in cute shorts, eating food and kissing their spouses. I read their words and I want to believe.

Is it possible to love me at this weight? Do they believe what they are writing? Are they happy?

In two days, I leave for a trip with my husband to Paris. Instead of joy, this is what I’m thinking: “I’m the stereotypical fat American,” “what can I wear to not stand out” and “I wish I had more time to lose weight.”

I want to be excited, but this fat on my body feels like it’s holding me back.

It’s all I can see.

It’s all I can focus on.

Weight issues are complicated. It’s not simply a matter of calories in and calories out. I put on this weight because I was pregnant, yes, but also because I had anxiety about being a surrogate. I was scared because my sister and brother-in-law, the beautiful people I grew the baby for, had lost my sweet niece and we were all still grieving. I gained the weight because I had a bleed the first time I went to the gym after the embryo transfer and I convinced myself I’d lost the baby because I was vain and didn’t want to gain weight. I tried water aerobics but had a panic attack because I feared the water would suddenly be filled with blood and it would all be my fault. I ate because I wanted the baby to grow big and healthy and I was terrified all the time I’d do something wrong.

I gained this weight by eating calories, yes, but it’s more than that.

It’s all mixed up with emotions and the history of my body. It’s so much more than food.

Yes, I’m overweight. Yes, it’s not healthy.

But this is also the truth: This 42-year-old fat body grew a baby and birthed it. This 42-year-old fat body produced nearly 5,000 ounces of milk. This 42-year-old fat body cleaned up a very messy garage, took several loads to the dump, cleaned out every closet in the house, cleared a year worth of weeds away, chopped down a tree and daily drives her kids to all their activities.

Even with the extra weight, this body is doing all the things I love.

Isn’t that worth something?

Yes, I want to lose weight and be stronger. I want to feel better in my clothes and not be as winded when I run up the stairs. I want to chase after my little nephew when he starts running around. I want to do everything I can to reduce my risk of heart disease and injury.

But is it OK to love this fat body right now?

Can I?

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This is why I’m marching on Saturday

Another school shooting.

I see the headline for a moment, then set my phone on the counter and wash the dishes in the sink. I fold a load of laundry and vacuum the carpet. I drink another cup of coffee. I don’t want to read the details.

I read the details.

I read the news report from the safety of my living room while my kids are at school taking math tests, playing on the playground and writing about wombats.

They are so far away from me.

I hope they don’t feel alone today.

I hope they eat the vegetables in their lunch.

I hope they remember to be kind.

I hope they are safe.

Each school shooting drives a nail deeper into my chest. The fear and trauma these kids, parents, and teachers endure are incomprehensible.

Enough is enough.

My son, who is 13, and his fellow classmates participated in the walkout last week. We had talked about the shooting at Parkland High School, me doing my best to protect him from the details, but I didn’t think he gave it much thought.

He did.

He knows what the lockdown drills at his school are about.

He feels the fear and the uneasiness.

He believes those 17 minutes he sat in silence mattered.

He believes change can happen.

He has hope.

He is why I will participate in the March For Our Lives at the State Capitol on Saturday. I march because he, and his fellow students across the country, believe their voices matter and change can happen.

And I believe in them.

I’ve been surprised by the number of people insulting and putting down the Parkland kids, the sheer volume of charts and graphs about how more kids die from car accidents than gunshot wounds, the rationalizing of school shootings as a result of parents not spanking kids and the countless other ways people wanting to hold onto their guns try and spin it.

This isn’t about you and your guns.

It’s about them and their right to feel safe.

This is their moment.

I will march because it’s one action I can take against the insanity.

I will march because the Parkland kids have taken their anger and grief and channeled it into activism and power.

I will march because I believe in these kids and the world they want to create.

I will march.

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*In case you missed it, please watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt singing a charity song they wrote called “Found/Tonight” to raise money for the March For Our Lives movement. Each download helps raise funds and awareness.

Writing prompt #3: The Pledge

Two weeks late and a bit meandering, I give you this short story I’m calling “The Pledge.”

I’d love to know what you think of the characters and if you’d read more. Thanks again to Angelica for the prompt.

Enjoy.

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I push my bare feet into the familiarity of my cracked red cowboy boots. The dampness makes the worn leather grab them, so I have to pull hard. The sore muscles in my hands twitch in disagreement. It takes thirty seconds, but with his eyes on the back of me and the heavy stone returning to my gut, it’s like an endless looping moment.

Turning around, I see he is as I left him, laying on his back under the green sweeping branches of the old Willow Tree. He has slipped his brown corduroy pants back on, but his chest remains exposed and flushed. His bushy blonde hair and beard, thick legs and arms, give him the appearance of a resting lion. I blush remembering the hunt. He pats the ground next to him and I turn away.

“Don’t go yet,” he says.

His voice smoky and panting calls me back to our hidden spot and my body responds with natural instinct, a betrayal of my true intentions. The warring of my conscience, volleying back and forth, makes me sway in place for a moment. I kick a rock with the toe of my boot and watch it hit a boulder and break into uneven pieces. I don’t know if I can end this, or if I do, what will be left of me.

The rainclouds grow darker and fat drops fall onto my tangled red hair, bringing goosebumps spiraling from my neck to my arms and legs. The soft fabric of my favorite yellow sundress is plastered to my body, outlining its curving shape and my missing undergarments. The rock shifts in my stomach and I lean forward to avoid my boots as I release everything I’ve eaten in the last day on the mossy ground.

Shivering, I recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” in my head, my hand covering my heart in a motion so practiced it could not be restrained.

“I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America…”

In the moonlight, my father’s face looks as if it was carved from an elephant’s tusk, pale white and severe. There is a dark brown evening shadow of hair running in an almost straight line from his ears to his cheekbones, ending in a patch on his pointed chin. His eyebrows are pitched toward his nose in a deep scowl, making his blue eyes almost disappear into his wrinkled face. He spits a glob of foam onto the ground and twirls the hard, white ball in one hand.

I’m standing at the five-sided home plate in our backyard, holding the heavy wooden bat in my small hands. A tall, wispy girl of six, I’m dressed in jeans and a faded yellow t-shirt. My nails are thick with dirt from digging with the neighbor boy for worms near the creek behind our house. I concentrate on placing my weight on the balls of my feet and keeping a slight bend in my knees.

My father brings his arms together in front of his body,  pulling back and lifting one knee, he pitches the ball. Fear overcomes training, I close my eyes and freeze in place. The ball hits me hard on my side and I fall to the ground, tears coming faster than I can stop them. The bat rolls away and I gasp for air.

“Get up.”

He is snarling at me from his raised pitching mound, the anger hot between us. I wipe the tears with my hands, the dirt stinging my eyes. My lungs stab with pain, but I force myself to my feet and stumble toward the bat’s resting place a few feet away. When I bend to lift the bat, the pain makes me cry out. I turn to him, begging with my eyes for us to be done, but he doesn’t return the gaze. He walks toward me, retrieves the ball near my scuffed pink tennis shoes, and returns to his dirty throne.

“Again.”

I place my feet shoulder-width apart and hold the bat, making sure my index finger on the bottom hand is bent around but separate from the other fingers. I adjust the angle and keep my eye on the ball. Don’t look away. Don’t flinch.

“…And to the Republic for Which it Stands…”

Standing side by side, I try to stay in unison with my father’s deep voice as we say the pledge together. He pronounces each word sharp and crisp. When he finishes, he turns to me, tilting my ten-year-old face to his. He is wearing his dark blue army uniform, the special occasion one with the shiny gold buttons and the polished black boots. I don’t know if he is carrying his gun. He grabs both my hands in his.

“Never forget today.”

The seams of my white gloves press into my palms as he squeezes hard. We turn back toward the hole in the yard where Gretchen lay dead and stiff. Dad’s flannel shirt is laid across the lower part of her body and her favorite chew toy, a stuffed mallard with missing eyeballs, is placed in her paws as if she’s holding it. I’m scared she might move at any minute and lunge at me with her wild eyes and sharp teeth.

Dad stands at attention, and I do as well. I’m wearing a pleated yellow dress he ironed with starch and it itches, like bugs crawling on my stomach and chest. I look at the stand of beech trees near the back fence, yearning to play, and he grabs my chin, returning my gaze to the hole. Gretchen’s face is locked in a permanent growl and I swear I hear it rumbling out of her dead mouth. I shiver and squirm.

He slaps me across the face. My neck whips around and I fall to the ground, the smell of rotting dog making me gag. My face burns, my eyes refuse to focus and I puke, a dismal array of undigested oatmeal and orange juice. He pulls me to my feet, my white patent leather shoes scuffed with dirt, and screams into my face of disrespect and disappointment. I can’t see his face. I stammer an apology and return to his side. We stand at attention, the throbbing of my head making me sway, and say the pledge over and over as the stench of Gretchen’s body covers us.

“…One Nation under God…”

He holds my hand as we watch the casket, my father tucked inside, lowered into the ground. The sun is shining bright and the sky is electric blue and free of clouds. Sweat makes the black lace of my dress stick to my skin and drips streak the backs of my legs. I squint and cover my face with my free hand, pretending tears I can’t seem to force.

A soldier, young enough to have pimples on his chin, hands me a triangle of an American flag. It’s heavy in my arms and I resist the urge to throw it on the ground. All eyes are on us, the grieving couple. I’m about to say something when he makes a strangled cough which turns into a heaving sob, his bulky form shaking next to me. He sounds like a fish gasping for air. I keep my eyes on the hole in the ground.

My father and I met him at a car show. He was standing next to a bright red 1966 Ford F100. It had been his father’s truck and he was honoring his memory by showing it. He had long blonde hair pulled back into a neat ponytail and a trimmed blonde beard. He was dressed in a sandy brown suit, ironed creases along the center of the pant legs, and a soft yellow handkerchief folded with three points in the left breast pocket. His smile warmed my body. My dad was impressed and invited him to dinner at our house. We were married six months later, five days after my 18th birthday.

My father loved him, greeting him every time by gripping his arms and pulling him into a deep embrace. They never spoke harsh of each other, only of me. His sobs crescendo, his body wobbling back and forth as everyone watches. The light catches his wedding ring. I should pull it off his finger and throw it onto the casket.

He looks beautiful in his expensive Italian suit with its three round buttons, embroidered silk tie, and pale-yellow handkerchief. He’d polished his shoes for two hours this morning, but they look dull in the brightness of the noon sun. He goes silent and snaps his body to attention. His voice cracks as he leads everyone in saying the pledge my father lived. We all join in.

“…Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.”

I spit the last strings of vomit on the ground and tilt my head back so the raindrops fall on my face. I close my eyes. The ground is slick and puddled under my boots. I should not have come to him again. He wipes my face with soft yellow fabric and folds me into his arms, the scent of him like pine forests and mud. His lips brush my neck, licking rainwater and warming the air. I look at my red leather boots and beg them to walk away.