Posted on November 27, 2015
I turn 40 next month and I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought until recently. Until a friend responded to something I’d say with you’re not in your forties yet. A kind of slow-your-roll response, to which I laughed and said you’re right. I have a habit of rushing through things. I won’t burden you with a tidy list of things I’ve learned now that I’m approaching four decades of living because I kind of think those lists are a remarkable pile of bullshit–one can’t demarcate knowledge acquired neatly within a decade, rather knowledge is learned and unlearned and re-learned, and what we have with age is the comfort and discomfort you feel when you oscillate between what is known and what is not.
I read a tweet yesterday where a beautiful woman was applauded for looking “young” at the ripe old age of 43 as if we expect our women to be covered in scales with gray weeds sprouting out of their head. As if money and surgery and societal pressure don’t have a say in the matter. As if we keep reminding women about how they look over the years instead of how they’ve lived. I’ve had my time to look and feel young and I’m okay with the fact that when I look at my face in the mirror the reflection back isn’t the Felicia of 17, 27, or 35. I’m okay with lines on my face and a body that aches a little easier than it used to. I’m okay with standing aside and watching the next generation find their way and interpret the world for us, as we did. I’m fine with sitting in quiet. I’m getting accustomed to letting go of regret.
Perhaps what’s bothering me is the notion of mortality and how it presents itself as the years cycle forward. I didn’t much think of death when I was younger because it felt like an impossibility. You’re filled with all of this wonder and promise and you can’t even fathom the idea of loss. Until you grow older and the casualties slowly creep into your life. By 25 I only knew of one person who had died–a suitemate of mine in college who suffered from inoperable brain cancer. Yet her loss felt random, a freak occurrence of nature–unimaginable. And then a good friend of mine died of cancer, and then another. And then someone I knew took his life. And then another. People you love, and acquaintances you know only slightly, depart. Loss makes itself known whether you want it in the room or not, and when I got a mammogram this year and I learned I have dense breast tissue (nothing to be concerned about–just something which requires attention), I thought that the impossibility of dying became real, possible and unavoidable. Now I think it would be insane not to have health insurance because you never know. When I was younger I thought about the life unfurling in front of me, and while I still think about that, while I still try to hold on to the wonder, I think about time, about all the ways in which I could avoid squandering it. I’ve moved from desperately cleaving to the want of happiness and toward a life of purpose. And I suppose I will continue to oscillate between the wonder and the legacy for years to come.
At various points in my life doctors have asked me if I’ve ever considered taking my life. I nodded my response and said while I thought about it and all the ways in which I’d devise my end when it came down to it, I wouldn’t do it. I would only think about it, and the thought would come like a torrent and it would leave as swiftly as it had arrived. All the doctors would invariably follow the first question with this–why? And at every point in my life I said because there’s so much beauty left. There’s so much more worth doing in the small time we have here. Because it’s not fair to just give up. Because I don’t only want to know one small piece of my life without experiencing the whole wonderful composition of the rest of it. One of the few gifts that time breeds is perspective, context. A few days ago a new friend came by with her sweet daughter and we walked around Santa Monica, and she did the thing I wanted her to do–talk about anything other than the specter that I’ve been thinking of (i.e. this omnipresent sadness). We got to talking about Room (the book and the movie) and I’d expressed anger about one specific scene. There’s a scene where the mother is being interviewed about her time in captivity, and when her son was born had she ever considered giving him up. The mother is incredulous. Why would she give up her child? So that it could be free was the seemingly obvious response. And in that moment I saw the ways we’re cruel to mothers. We paint them as selfish, their bond to their child unhealthy, borderline selfish. Freudian. As if there exists a singular moral truth for every situation. The scene was minor, but I walked away from the film and my re-reading of the book, angered. My friend, who’s a new mother, and I talked about this for a bit–the idea of morality within context. There might have been a time when my moral compass would have been myopic, my pursuit of right and wrong, binary. But now there exists so much gray. Context emerges. Empathy creeps into the picture.
I don’t have much to offer about growing older. I can’t deliver neat little listicles that are easily tweet-able. What I can tell you is this–age has brought me physical and emotional space. And that space is filled with so much gray. That space requires patience, temperance because it dawns on you that you are in the midpoint of your very short life and the world is not clean, simple and complete. And this is okay. As the years press on, you keep telling yourself that this is okay. That it’s okay to settle in the gray, vacillate in the betweens.
Or who knows? You may already know all of this at 25. I could be wrong and that’s okay too.
For the pie crust: makes a nice 9″ pie, it can also create 2 4″ pies (approximately)
2 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 tbsp organic cane sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 sticks of cold, unsalted butter, cubed. Keep this in the freezer until you need to use it.
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup ice cold water
For the pie filling:
4 cups blueberries
1 cup organic cane sugar
3 1/2 tbsp flour or cornstarch
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar and salt until combined. Cut the chilled butter into the mixture with a handheld pastry blender. Cut together until the butter is the size of small peas or lentils. If you’re using a pastry blender, don’t SLIDE the blender, press down on the butter against the flour or you will lose the integrity of the solid butter. You can also pulse all of the ingredients in a food processor. I opted to do this by hand as I wanted to understand how the dough should look and feel before I take shortcuts. Of note, it takes a while (10 minutes) for the dough to be properly cut, so be patient.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, chilled water and apple cider vinegar. Using two forks, make a “well” in the center of the flour mixture. Pour the egg mixture into the center of the well. Using the two forks, toss dough from each side to cover the wet well and then toss the flour mixture into the egg mixture from the bottom up. Toss this gently as if you were tossing a salad. I know this sounds odd, but it’s genius. I used to use my hands and I ended up overworking the dough and my crust would always have a cookie-like, tough texture. Do NOT touch the dough with your hands and I even recommend chilling the forks.
Intermittently, check the dough by lifting it up with the fork on its side. If you see lots of “sand” that means you need another small drizzle (think 1 tbsp) of cold water and continue to toss until the dough comes together. You don’t want a wet, sticky dough rather you want a dough that completely comes together. Continue tossing until there are no loose crumbs of flour and the dough sticks together.
Turn out the dough onto a baking sheet, wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Believe me when I say that this is critical. YOU DON’T WANT TO WORK WITH WARM DOUGH, TRUST ME.
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. While your dough is chilling, in a large bowl toss together the fruit filling mixture. Remove your dough from the fridge (after 30 minutes) and unwrap. Coat a clean, dry work surface with a dusting of flour. Lightly coat the chilled dough with the flour. Cut the dough in half and coat the cut edges with flour. Place one-half
of the dough on the flour dusted surface. Wrap the other half and chill in the fridge.
Using a rolling pin, begin rolling the dough. Make sure you lift the dough between rolls and make sure the dough surfaces are coated with flour so it doesn’t stick. Continue rolling the dough. Roll each corner of the dough, one time, then turn the dough clockwise, roll again, turn, roll again, until you achieve a round circle of dough about 10 inches in diameter (1/8 inch thick). Fold the dough in half. Gently, transfer the dough into the pie tin, align the dough with the center of the tin, covering half the tin. Unfold the dough to cover the other half of the tin. Gently, relax the dough into the tin to shape. Cut off any excess dough hanging over the edge of the tin.
Now you can fill your pie with your fruit mixture! Place the pie tin in the fridge (cooling again! I’m serious, kids!) while you roll out the top crust.
Remove the other 1/2 of dough from the fridge and roll out until you achieve a round circle of dough about 10 inches in diameter (1/8 inch thick). Fold the dough in half. Remove the pin tin from the fridge and transfer the folded dough onto the top of the pie. Unfold to cover the entire pie. Cut off any excess dough hanging over the edge of the tin. Fold the edge of the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust. Crimp the crust with your fingers to create a decorate edge.
Chill the pie until the dough is firm (20 minutes). Once chilled, brush the top with heavy cream and cane sugar. Cut three score marks in the top of the pie to allow the pie to vent while steaming. Place the pie on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake the pie at 400F for the first 20 minutes. You want to shock the pie to allow it to hold the integrity of its shape and create a flaky crust. Reduce the temperature to 350F and bake until the pie bubbles in the center — approximately 45 minutes.
Remove, cool on a rack, and serve with ice-cream!
Posted on November 25, 2015
Note to self: don’t drink fancy local trade coffee at 8pm and binge-watch Jessica Jones. You’ll stay up until four in the morning, flipping through episodes on Netflix while reading through Pank, comforted there are others who write strange, miraculous fiction.
I’ve just finished a draft of an exciting new project. I’ve got the words down but the visual and multimedia aspects aren’t quite there–essentially this is text with customized/commissioned illustrations and images, not the full spectrum I’m trying to achieve. I’ve published a few pieces here, which you can read at your leisure. Part of me wrestles with the joy this project has brought me and the desire for people to read my work–it’s not a new struggle by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to prioritize lasting and fleeting joys. The deep joy is in the creation, collaboration and assembly. The fleeting is in the work’s reception. I have to remind myself, daily, that the success of what I do is not predicated on the velocity of its online movement or perception. If I tether myself to the applause I also have to accept the jeers. I also have to remind myself that I’m playing in a space where inbalance still exists, where women are perceived as good if they’re writing toward white men. I have to wonder if my work will be harder to push into the world because I’m not popular, I don’t have a writerly tribe, I’m not part of the elite, I’m not purely white, and male. But on I go, you know?
The story of my life is wanting what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have. —Roxane Gay
I started seeing a psychiatrist this week (I don’t plan to go into any detail here other than to say I’m focusing on getting well), and he asked me what I wanted from our work. I said two things: not to feel this way, and, more importantly, not to use the words love and loss interchangeably. To return to the things that bring my joy (baking, cooking, photography). Last night, I spent hours on Stocksy (check out my friend Lauren’s work–isn’t she marvelous?!) and I marveled over the talent of teenagers in Slovenia and women in Nebraska. How they have the ability to make you see by the photos they take with a lens. That’s what an artist does–makes you see how they interpret the world, and I wish I had the ability to move through image and type seamlessly. Perhaps because it’ll make this project I’m working on easier. If I could just do it on my own.
I suppose that’s my view on most things–why can’t I just do it by myself, alone?
This morning I baked a bundt cake, trying slowly to return. I curled up next to my cat, existing between the space between sleeping and waking, the space between loving to bake and making myself do it to feel. So that I could see.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito’s Baked Explorations
3 cups gluten-free flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated
2 cups organic cane sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
freshly grated zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1 1/2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter and flour a 1o-inch bundt pan
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks until they are pale and light; slowly pour in the sugar until it is completely incorporated. Add the yogurt and olive oil and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the orange zest and vanilla, and mix until just incorporated.
Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in two parts, beating after each addition or until just combined (this will take about 10 seconds). Scrape down the bowl and beat again for 5 seconds.
In another large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Scoop 1 cup of the egg whites into the batter. use a rubber spatula to gently fold them in. After about 30 seconds of folding, add the remaining egg whites and gently fold until they are almost completely combined. Do not rush the folding process.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 – 50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, or until a small sharp knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan (I sometimes use and offset spatula for this) and turn it onto the rack. Just before Serving, dust the cake with the confestions sugar. The cake can be stored at room temperature, covered tightly for about 3 days.
Posted on November 23, 2015
Millie (Credit: Lauren Naefe)
Girl, please. Everyone remembered Felicia, that black girl who jumped out of a window. Lived with her mother and that hustle man Marlon in the projects. Homegirl was half black, technically, although you’d never know it because she had the kind of face that belonged on milk cartons. But that hair, shit gave you whiplash with the double take. White girls don’t have rough hair, all thick and tangled. Like wires. White girls don’t have it like we do.
I remember because I was there, said Sakima digging through a bag of cheese doodles. Back then fifty cents got you a proper meal—a bag of chips and a grape juicy juice. Onion rings and plantains cost you extra but we didn’t play around with that shit because stupid. Back then we flashed our bus passes or hopped the turnstiles on the R train to scrounge uptown for quarters. You’d be surprised how many people left change in the payphone, and we slid our fingers in, and it was just like being in a box of Cracker Jacks only we didn’t get those treats until Christmas, and then you had to go and share your shit because you were Christian (whatever that means) even though you fell asleep in church when you went and woke to your mom slapping you in the face for being insubordinate. Where did you get that word, you snapped back. Doing crossword puzzles? That type of smart mouthing got you a backhand slap and no dinner. Everyone in the house was scheming, perfecting their eye-roll. Everyone hissed: you did this to yourself.
You was there, ‘Kima? Bugging. I was with Millie trying to sell this Walkman we found at Sunset. The plan was hot dogs and a pretzel but then we ran into Thomas and Judy and they were like, let’s listen to some tapes, and we ended up in their apartment dancing to Taylor Dayne. When we left it was dark out and we knew we were going to catch the beats for certain. But there was Felicia, waving at us. Like she knew we were coming. Like we were supposed to be there all along. And we waved back because we’re not anti-social. Her moms would sometimes sneak us hot muffins when the Greek wasn’t looking so Felicia at least deserved a wassup. So we gave it, and then we saw her knees on the ledge, and she was waving but not to us, not to nobody, and then we started to wonder what was up. We thought maybe we should go over and ring her bell—but then no. Then she fell or jumped out, I don’t know, and then her body was on the ground and her neck broke and you wouldn’t believe the blood and I remember that night because nobody caught the beats. Everyone got a free pass, because what business did that white girl have breaking out? (She half white, stupid! Bitch, whatever.) We remember Felicia and the books she carried around with her in that blue backpack. We remember how her mom dressed her up like a baby, but she wasn’t a baby. She was ten and why did she jump out of a window?
You think Marlon was her father? Shit, girl. He’s everybody’s father. What do it even matter? He wasn’t behind her, pushing her out. He was out, hustling for the pipe. The only reason she made the news was because oh the tragedy of a white girl in the projects. Half white, she was half white. Yeah, but you know white people—they don’t know the difference. You heard what happened to her mom, right? Came home from work and found her daughter, eyes wide, on the sidewalk. The police didn’t even cover her proper, they just stood around her, taking pictures, writing things down, and yelling at us to stay back. Stay back? We live in that building. Anyway. Her mother took all the books out of her backpack and off the shelves and tore out the pages. Crumbled them up and shoved them in her mouth so we couldn’t hear her scream. Come to think of it, we never saw her mother cry. She just went back to waiting tables, writing things down, and yelling at us to stay away from the fucking muffins.
How old was you? Hmm…ten, eleven, I think. But that wasn’t the first body we saw—it was one of the few we remember. Because she white? Nah, it was nothing like that. Sakima laughed. She turned away from the midday sun because it hurt her eyes. She thought about the shades in her backpack if they would be useful, and then she decided against it because shades weren’t appropriate for the conversation. This kind of talk required eyes. Maybe I remember because that’s the age when we started losing people, Sakima said. Or maybe it was how she looked. How she look? Happy.
The girls from the neighborhood (Credit: Lauren Naefe)
I talked to her once, said Millie, playing cat’s cradle with Luz. Luz wore red lipstick and was used to always winning. But Millie kept on playing because the idea of a single victory, something she could shout up and down the block and then some, kept her going. Even if a victory was an impossibility, even though Millie was the kind of girl who would be there when a girl they sort of knew fell out of a window but couldn’t tell the story about it, she kept playing. Look at Sakima, acting all philosophical. As if she knew Felicia. As if she knew what was going on in that girl’s head. As if we didn’t all know that she copied Felicia’s poems and passed them off as her own. Millie didn’t know much, but she knew this: we don’t know anything about the people we do and do not know.
¿Qué dijiste, Millie? Millie shook her head. She didn’t remember, but she did, but how could she tell her girls about the time when Felicia pointed to one of the books she carried, one with two white girls on the cover wearing soft sweaters and pearl earrings, and wondered aloud if she could jump in. Millie didn’t understand. Jump in as in fight, as in dive in the pool? White girls were always saying crazy shit. No, Felicia said. Would it ever be possible for us to go in and stay there, in their world, their life? In a life where their greatest fear would be losing the money they would never lose because happy ending.
Right then Luz fell on her back, eyes wide, mouth open so you can see the molars and crooked teeth, and said, was this what she looked like?
Disrespecting bitch, this ain’t the Land of Make Believe. She looked like someone would look if they fell out of a four-story window. Everyone had bars on their windows now. Unless you lived in the basement because who cares, you didn’t have windows to fall out of.
Cálmate. Next year Luz had a baby because she wanted someone to love her, and a year later the baby crawled out of its crib, hungry, and broke its neck when it landed on the floor. Luz was at a house party in Brownsville for a few hours and ended up in Jersey at some brother’s house, a rock hustler who told her she was the kind of woman made for making babies. She came home a day later to find her brother smoking in the living watching MTV on the hot box and he said, it’s weird your baby’s mad quiet. Did you leave it with titi? No, she did not. In juvenile detention, she told her sister to take the dead baby’s clothes for the new one she was carrying. What if it’s a boy? Luz shrugged her shoulders because who cares until they can walk anyway? Everyone filed in, shaking their heads. You could’ve been somebody if you hadn’t fucked up your permanent record. But now, right now, Luz lay on the grass, playing Felicia. Playing dead.
She told me she read all those books because she thought she could get in them, Millie said. That’s what she said. She lived for the possibility of not being here and when she found the possible, impossible, she wrote her own happy ending. What does that even mean, Millie? Millie pulled on her sweatshirt and held her elbows in, close. The fabric had started to wear, but Millie liked this, the feeling of skin under cotton—like feet under sheets. Protected, safe. There was the math test she didn’t study for and the personal essay she couldn’t write because how do you explain what it felt like when your mom stopped looking for work—I’m stupid, why bother, and guess what, you belong to me so you’re stupid too—when she waited in line the first and fifteenth of every month, and how those two days would be the happiest her family would ever know. Millie wore Sakima’s old shoes and read the poems her best friend stole from a dead girl, passing them off as her own.
What happened to Marlon? Stupid question. What do you think happens to a young brother selling rock? He got cut, in the neck, but check it—he didn’t die from the knife. He drowned in his own blood. That’s what you get when you go fucking with Dominicans from The Bronx. Never get high on your own supply, we chorused.
Felicia was a white girl who could pass, said some random who just rolled up. I never knew her, but I lived in her building. I never talked to her, but I saw her play jump rope with herself a couple of times, so we definitely met. She asked me to play once. She held out her rope. But I said nah, I have somewhere to be, and she looked down at the ground like she was studying it, and said, no problem, and went back to jumping rope behind the gate. I felt bad about that because I didn’t have any place to be—I just didn’t want to be seen with some white girl playing rope. Know what I mean?
We nodded in our own way.
Remember that party her mom had in her house when she was dating Neysa’s man, Keith? Everyone remembered that. We didn’t because we were maybe 5 or 6, but our parents still talk about it. It wasn’t that Felicia’s mom ignored her because what parent didn’t. We were forever being told to shut up, go to your room, go outside, don’t bother me, and don’t you have something to do? Don’t your teachers give you homework? You want to end up in this shithole like me? Since you got a smart mouth you asked, is that a hypothetical? Lesson: you’re never too old to catch the beats. Anyway. Maybe Felicia didn’t get the memo on account of her being so young and all, but she kept taking sips of Barcardi from everyone’s cups and there she go—a little girl holding a bottle of Brut, drinking out of it, like she on the stoop. She was drunk and pretty and funny and she was five and it was sad because no one told her what we were only here because having children was something women did. You weren’t something your family paid attention to or loved. And that was the hurt—everyone in the room knew this except for the child who didn’t. That’s the kind of shit you shake your head to because it damn near breaks your heart.
What you girls got going on for tonight? Nothing much. The usual—chill.
Later that night while Sakima slept Millie opened her binder and removed all of Felicia’s poems. Millie read them and felt a kind of sadness that she would spend her life forgetting. In magic marker, Millie wrote Felicia’s name over and over like she was at the blackboard getting punished. Sakima woke to find Millie out on the fire escape smoking a loosie she got at the store for ten cents. Kicking pigeons in Sakima’s old shoes. What you doing out here in the cold? You didn’t write those poems, Millie said. You need to stop telling everyone you did. It’s not right. Millie was crying—her face was a mess of tears, and Sakima didn’t know what to say to her best girl she known since they were little. Their mothers said they crawled to one another. Millie fell over because Millie, but she crawled under Sakima and Sakima liked to think about that especially now when Millie looked at her like she was a prison from which she sought her escape.
Luz came home and pressed her head up against the bars of her window thinking that Felicia was smart. Felicia had an open window to jump out of while Luz had the possibility that she might be pregnant. That her period was the one thing she actually missed. Maybe if she asked the girls and they all got the change together she could buy one of those tests from the pharmacy so she could freak for real. She cried, and after her mother ripped the hair out of her head for not taking out the garbage, she looked around their apartment and then at her tiny stomach that would inevitably bloom. Her house was a prison and her stomach…well that was freedom.
After a while, everyone forgot because there’s always another Felicia. A little girl named Shareen who was thrown down a flight of stairs because her mom was high and thought that was the logical thing to do. Shareen was five with pink barrettes in her hair and people could hold onto a tragedy that wasn’t of one’s own making. The possibility of Shareen made headlines. Nobody remembered Felicia’s mother, the woman who still worked at that diner, who wore those white nursing shoes, pad in hand, asking in a voice that had flattened with age and the sadness that only loss could bring, can I take your order?
Two posts in one day, crazy? Here’s another taste from the new book. Enjoy! –FS
Posted on November 23, 2015
I wrote a book. I’m in the darkest hours I’ve known and this book came like a torrent. I can’t take on major work projects because I can’t focus, and I can’t tattoo tiny smiles on my face for the people who want me cured, transactional, and normal again–but I can write a book of linked stories that I dare say is better than the novel that I’m set to publish next year. And I wrote 180 good pages, 48,000 words in two months. It took me a lifetime to write my first book, two years on my second, and both endured major surgeries, required backup generators, and defibrillators on standby. This book simply came, effortlessly, and I printed these pages and stared at them thinking, what the fuck is this? Words, illustrations, and photographs surround me on the day I’ve embarked on turning my mental beat around. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this just yet because it’s not visually ready (although the story is there and it’s sound albeit in need of copy-editing), but it’s something that suggests an urgency. It’s something that needs to be doing something. It’s not like anything else I’ve written that requires cooling on a rack. Part of me is nervous about sharing a story collection with my agent without giving him a roofie first because…story collection and book publishing and yawn and fucking yawn some more. Part of me wonders how this project would have taken shape had I had more money, and then I realize I’ve enough saved for rent and the idea of one of these crowdsourcing campaigns feels unseemly, the equivalent to elegant panhandling and if there’s one aspect of my personality that’s stubborn it’s my inability to ask for help because that means I’m beholden to someone. I owe someone something and I honestly hate the idea of art as a card game, art as arbitrage, leverage. Not being beholden means this can be as strange as it needs to be. Part of me is like, fuck it, I’ll publish this whole thing online knowing maybe 5 people will read it. And part of me wonders if that still matters to me. I don’t want what to tell you other than I have this thing and it’s arrived and it’s doing the thing that newborns do–fucking cry to make themselves known, heard, cared for. This isn’t a call for advice, honestly, it’s just an update on the strange happenings going on in my life.
Posted on November 22, 2015
Leave me alone. Let me have my wine and my poison and let me be done with it. You tantrum your way through a screen to let me know you can see the stains on my mouth, the amber liquid in my glass — reminding me of what I can and cannot have. I am on a spit, roasting, turning and turning from your admonishments. Let the darkness that surrounds me rise up, and watch me fall out of windows and claw under doors. Can you see my desperate fingers stained black from your reprisals? You once worked your way through my hair while I apologized. I’m sorry everything with me takes so long. You send me papers that instruct me to Get Well Soon and I think: and then what? What happens in the space between wellness and not wellness? Do we mime our despair? Perhaps winter will breathe out my sadness, diminish it. Do we stand under deciduous trees with mouths gaped wide? Do we harvest what’s in the earth in hopes that we can pry the cobwebs out of their sleeping mouths so they can tell us what they’ve learned? We plunge those desperate fingers inside to only feel the rough edges of cold coins. Notice where your fingers go when you say your mother’s name, a doctor tells me. I want you to know that I tried to play happiness, but the graft didn’t take, and the fingers become hands that lock doors, and open faucets and bottle caps and sharpen razors and then finally, I feel the embrace of the clean and cool quiet. I will purple. I will sleep with hands in tight fists. My subtractions will multiply multitudes. The glass of still water on my desk warms while I cool. There are no temperatures here. There is a yard of me and I feel hideous and weeded.
Where is the rain when I’m feeling this brave and reckless?
Can you give me permission to go? No, I will not. You have traveled screens and now you orbit a room that resembles a womb, only it’s white and there are bars on the windows. You tell me I was once happy, coaxing what you need from my dry mouth. Yes, I was happy but I was mostly unhappy and what would be the point of living for a number of smiles I can count on one hand when I’m drowning in oceans that are my tears and the sorrow of others who’ve had to bear the burden of my grief. I look outside. The day pulls taut and sours. While the nurses take my temperature, I tell you that I’m tired of being necrotic. I was momentarily purple, but you discovered my cooling body and now I’m back to fucking black. Look at my fucking face, all covered in ruin — everyone’s minor injury. Speak your white noise and leave. Please? You say: did you know you took enough pills to spell out the words I tried so hard to be happy. You say did you know this? And then the razor, the fucking razor I sigh. Of course, I did. I made the words. I’m not one of those cry-for-help types.
The doctor swans in and announces that visiting hours are over. He administers the drugs and you fall out of focus. The days don’t make demands of me so why do you? Why do you insist I go on, I can’t go on?
Doctors scan my skeleton and I ask them what my bones say. Are they trying to hold on to my entropy? Watch for the edges, they’re perforated. Big shock, my appendages are sad.
Make me understand, you say. I shrug. It’s simple, really. I am sad because I’ve never become acquainted with happy. I drink because I am sonnets — my body is too small to house all of this pain so I fill bottles. I’ve been flickering off and on, on and off, what else is there to know? Why do you want what I can’t give you? Trust me, my body is a province and it’s in revolt. If I walked in the world I would crack. Now do you see? Next time can you bring me a carton of eggs? Why? I want to count the children.
One day you come and tell me stories. You stole someone’s laundry. There was a shirt you wanted to buy a few years ago and by the time you had the money it was too late, and wouldn’t you know there it goes like a Ferris Wheel in the dryer in your building, and the shirt was the only thing you took and you’re wearing it now and I say that it suits you. You ask me why I’m smiling; it’s been ages since you’ve seen that shape on my face. It never occurred to me that you would be capable of taking. You have been here for a month and all you do is eat tacos, browse surplus stores, and fit your feet over the cemented footprints of stars. Go home, I say. My father will take the night shift. You ask me if this — the bed, the doctors, and the drugs — was about my mother, about not having time.
It’s simple but not that simple. Don’t reduce this to the sum of someone else’s parts. Does the crack of ice in a glass resemble the crunch of bones underfoot? I don’t say this out loud because I need to leave this place so I can go home and do what I need to do. I need to complete. The woman across the hall practices her primal screams. The color of her pills is different from mine — this much I know.
My father tells me that he has no idea what I’m thinking. My father’s favorite word is coffee. Coffee was a demand, a question, and an answer. Coffee opened and closed are conversations and was the blanket we were tethered to. What are you thinking? What were you thinking? There are tears in his eyes. There is a photograph of him on a horse and he is shimmering and young and I cry independent sad movie tears when I say, coffee.
There’s no going home to the home we think we know. No, no, no home for me. I hold a blank book in my hand and it is filled with your memories. Do you remember the photographs of us — few exist — and we are ghost white and smiling? Knowing that one would soon follow the other to our natural conclusions?
My father doesn’t understand. I was so solid. Things were going well. (All those Get Well Soon cards and well wishes!) I shake my head because I am not a canister. I am the lid of a coffin opening and closing to the hum of the telluric dark. He doesn’t take the joke well. I am a wound where no flesh comes with its warm coverlet. My father tells me he needs me to get better. I nod because I’ve taken inventory of everyone’s needs.
We need you to get better soon. We need you to not open bottles and drink them. We need you to not open pill bottles and swallow the contents. We need you to ignore certain “contents”. We need you to steer clear of sharp objects. We need you to tattoo the shape of a smile on your face. We need you to kick this, snap out of this, forget this, move on from this, and be better than this.
I’m aware of what you do and do not need.
My friend flies home because she’s run out of money and I send her a credit card check for my limit. My father reasons that I’ll be fine with fresh air and walks on the water. Months have passed and I am tired now. I approach a mailbox and it’s hard to see and walk straight and I mail him the Polaroid’s of my slow wave goodbye and there is the water behind me and I write coffee over and over in black ink. You are right. I’ll be fine by the water and under the air. They will carry me coffee, home, coffee.
Author Note: Going forward, I’ll be publishing short pieces of fiction from my new short story collection, multimedia thing, here instead of Medium. If you like what you’ve read, let me know! :)
Posted on November 16, 2015
I’ve been called a cacti-killer because of the year I bought ten succulents and watched them all slowly wither and die. You can’t kill a cactus I was told, and in 2002 I rose to the challenge. Up until this year I was convinced that if something didn’t alert me to its existence I’d probably neglect it and ultimately be responsible for its demise. When I moved to Los Angeles my friend Jennifer drove me to Marina Del Ray and we cruised a nursery. I slept-walked my way through the greenery as my friend piled plants into my arms.
Two months later, my plants are still living, and I can’t begin to describe how this fascinates me.
Saturday, I spent an hour on the 10 with a cab driver who grew up in South Central and now lives in Inglewood. His family’s from New York and we talked about the differences between New York and Los Angeles, and all I could think of (beyond the obvious) was landscape. I haven’t yet succumbed to the car culture because I love navigating a new terrain–I can’t imagine not walking. This weekend I spent a day in the San Gabriel Valley and yesterday I trekked to Westwood, and I’m starting to see how every city had its own landscape and vernacular. While New York has devolved into one whitewashed shopping mall, there are places here that still feel unoccupied. Trust me, I’m not being overly romantic because one could see the unsettling gentrification (and the disparate income/class/race juxtapositions) in DTLA among other areas, but I’m enamored with the landscape, the streets that seem to change from city to city (it’s so incredible how far Santa Monica Blvd, Pico, Olympic, etc runs). And maybe that’s why I’m producing at such a staggering rate–I’m forced awake. I’m forced to experience, to see.
Granted I’ve only been here for three months and it’ll take me years to fully appreciate where I live, but I feel so at home in California. While there are things I miss about New York (my friends and my pop, the subways in the early morning, the shores of Oyster Bay, and bagels I can’t quite find anywhere else), I’m happy that I live in a place that forces me to be present. I no longer sleep through my waking days. I’m no longer killing plants. I wake, and before I work I sometimes bake bread.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Year of Cozy, modified based on what I had on hand + how I like my quick loaves
1 1/2 cups gluten-free flour
2 tbsp sunflower seeds
3 tbsp millet seeds
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup organic cane sugar
1 large egg (I ran out of eggs, so I made a flax egg: 1 tbsp flax meal in 3 tbsp water for 5 minutes)
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 ripe, yet firm bananas, mashed
1 tsp baking soda
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour an 8.5×4.5 inch loaf pan. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix the flour, salt, and seeds. In a large bowl, mix the melted coconut oil and sugars until thickened and combined. Add the egg (or flax egg), vanilla and mashed bananas until completely combined. Mix in the baking soda.
Add the flour and seed mixture to the wet mixture, and fold until completely combined. Make sure you scrape the bottom of the bottom and the center as you’ll often find pockets of flour that haven’t been incorporated.
Add the mixture to the pan and bake for 45-50 minutes until a knife comes out clean in the center and the top has browned. Cool for 10 minutes on a rack before turning out the bread to cool completely.
Posted on November 10, 2015
Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.
Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.
People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.
What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.
The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?
Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.
Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.
Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.
Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.
When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.
The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.
The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.
Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.
Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.
Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.
Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.
Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.
When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?
You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia
*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS
Posted on November 8, 2015
I read a post this week, one of those exhausting listicles from someone who purports to have learned universal truths and feels impassioned to pass them along. I hate these lists because they carry an assumption that life is neatly demarcated, as if a decade of years can be excised and put under a microscope for observation and analysis without realizing that truth doesn’t reveal itself in a linear continuum. I never compare decades, rather I think of what I’ve learned, and more importantly, unlearned, in the context of a complete life. We’re forever trying to figure things out; we’re always students and teachers at once–the only difference that age brings is the shifting balance between the two. In Hridaya Yoga, there’s a concept called spanda, or the primordial tremor of the heart, and I like to think of this in terms of pulsation between points in time–a present heart oscillating between the past and future, and life feels as if you’re always reconciling the two. There are things I knew about life intuitively when I was 10 that I struggle with now, at 39, and vice versa.
When I was ten I started to realize that you could lose people. Kids hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, in the park, their eyes and fingers jaundiced. And although the police have covered their bodies you could still see their toes, a patch of skin. People took pills, lots of them, and fell into a dark, undisturbed sleep. Cancer and tumors serve as breath-robbers and we lie on the pavement trying to memorize the license plates of cars that read, I keep on living. Time doesn’t take it, rather it shows you the inventory of what has been lost and how you’ve navigated your way through sorrow and fear, how you continue on as one of the living until you’re the one somebody cries over. You have become paper-thin, ash, a figure in the past tense. In the space between you will lose and you will be lost, you exist in the phrase, I am here. In the present, I order $400 worth of end-of-the-world supplies (iodine tablets, masks, 3,500 calorie food bars and packaged water) because you never know. In the present, I meet an extraordinary poet, a fellow introvert who skulks in corners and writes operas, and I think it used to take me a bottle of wine to walk into a room and wonder if meeting people, the excruciating fear of it, will get easier.
It’s easy to meet people but hard to cultivate a tribe, and while part of me aches for my friends back home and the ease with which I could see them, I love being in California because it affords me the thing which I thought inconceivable–a fresh start. And what I know at 39, I knew at 10–sometimes it wonderful to know someone without the burden of your history. The burden of that specter–who you used to be–no longer exists, and there is the only the present and the future and you’re retelling of your history.
I’ve spent much of my life as the caretaker of my own company. This is not a cause for slow-singing–I prefer solitude, however, I know the downside of that: the fear of never finding where I fit. The unease that accompanies an odd sort of voyeurism–while I prefer to be distant from things I sometimes long to be a part of things, and my struggle is achieving a balance between the two. Facebook is sometimes terrible in the way that it reminds me of all the things of which I’m not a part while at the same time providing a forum for which I can meet new people. Facebook reminds me that I’ll have to get blurbs for my book at one point and it’s harder because I’m not part of the “club”. Facebook reminds me of all the conversations I feel intimidated to participate in because I’m not part of the conversation. Most times I feel like an interloper, eavesdropping on conversations, skirting the edges. Most times I’m reminded that I’m not a part of something. Part of me is fine with this because belonging has its own set of rules, etiquette, and potential baggage, but what I knew at 10 is the same as 39–we yearn for people, we long for a place to lie down our head.
Last night I met a few extraordinary artists. One of them approached me as I was studying my story, head-down in a corner. Another came over because she preferred the quiet of corners too. An old friend, the host of the event, interrupts the conversation and I talk to her about her work. A decade ago she published a remarkable story collection and time and the business of work has altered her affection for work. We talk about the installation she’s created on the wall–a visual odyssey of her zig-zag journey across the country–all in an effort to understand and reconcile loss. She’s struggling with the project because the journey wasn’t (and isn’t) a linear one. The story doesn’t start at point A and ends with point B, rather depending on where you are in your life when you enter the story you might cleave to point C. Or point D may be your beginning. The narrative alters itself based on your experience (or point-of-view). I told her that I started the installation at one place, the middle, and the mess, and found myself reading not from left to right, not to establish a point of entry, rather I tried to understand her journey as a kaleidoscope, where one oscillates between confusion and clarity and the only thing that time brings is an accumulation of experience. And while she’s back in Los Angeles and has some sort of roots planted, she’s still traveling and I get it. I’m here, but I’m still traveling. I moved here because it offers the advantage of geography–physical and emotional space on terrain that is new, undiscovered, and alive.
At 10, at 18, 24, and 39, I’m still nomadic. I’m still trying to find my tribe.
1 qt (2 pints) low-sodium, organic/local chicken stock (or you can use vegetable)*
1 shallot finely diced
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
1 cup of arborio rice
5 tbsp of pumpkin puree (you can use canned pumpkin, but DO NOT use pumpkin pie mix. This is a common mistake as both products are merchandised alongside each other)
2 tbsp truffle goat cheese (you can use regular goat cheese, as well)
1 tbsp pecorino romano cheese
1/4 tsp sea salt; 1/2 tsp white pepper
*1 quart is the equivalent of 32oz or 2 lbs
In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Keep this pot next to our sauté pan, as you’ll need to continually ladle from the stock to the skillet, so proximity is key.
In a large sauté pan (translation: a skillet that can hold 3-4 quarts), sauté the shallots and salt on medium heat until translucent (1-2 minutes). Add the sage and stir for another 30 seconds. Pour in the rice and cook until the rice is translucent and browns slightly, approximately 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low. You do not want burned onions or rice, so if this starts to happen ladle in liquid immediately. Do you want to sob over burnt risotto? My guess is NO WAY, NO DAY.
Add the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, and stir, and stir, and stir, until all of the liquid is absorbed. Keep ladling in the liquid in increments until all of the water is absorbed and the stock is thick and creamy. Remember, risotto isn’t a dish that will cook itself, it requires dedication, so be prepared to stand in front of the stove stirring for 20-30 minutes. I’ve been blasting Lil Wayne’s “I Feel Like Dying” in these sorts of parallel parking scenarios.
Once all of the water has been absorbed, stir in the pumpkin and pepper until the risotto transforms into a satiny orange. Mix in the cheese. Stir for a good minute and serve hot.
Posted on November 4, 2015
“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” –Anne Dillard on Writing.
Eleven years ago I sat in a small office facing Nathan Englander. He held two copies of a short story I’d written: one was unblemished and the other was a massacre of red ink. I remembered staring out the window, staring through it, as Nathan spent the next two hours recounting the bloodletting.
This was at Columbia—I had returned to the writing program from a two-year leave (parenthetical: don’t do drugs.Don’t) and found it changed. Line writing had come back into fashion and everyone was obsessed with the architecture of the sentence. Stories became less about people and the things that happened to them, instead they morphed into complicated maps, the kind you fold in sixteen, the kind that took you more time than you were willing to spend to find where you were. In the time it took to find yourself, you’d become exhausted from the journey, because who wanted a map, a compass, and a CIA operative just to find your way around the block? That’s what line writing felt like, and I found myself editing stories that read beautifully but meant nothing.
I wasn’t that kind of writer. I’d been writing since I was a child, only I didn’t have a voice because I’d spent my life swallowing it. I wrote sad stories where everyone had complicated feelings and died. I lived in a dark country where lights would flicker and inevitably flare out. This was a place I knew; I’d spent the greater part of my life navigating the terrain, and the only challenge was how much further I’d be willing to go.
I think about the controversy that surrounded the movie, Kill List. Viewers were furious because Ben Wheatley didn’t turn the camera away from extreme violence. He boxed you in, forced you into a place of anguish and discomfort. He made you see. I remember watching the film and feeling sick, but then I understood what Wheatley was going after. We spend so much time as protecting ourselves from the dark—whereas art doesn’t have constraints. Its meant to take you to places you sometimes don’t want to go.
I think about Kill List and Nathan because both put a scalpel in my hand. Both made me butcher and maim until I got to what was honest. Both made me see the complexity in the simplest of sentences. Lately I feel subsumed by the extreme nature of the culture around me. Stories are over-written for effect. The only risk is how one could shock, bait, and attract (I slept with my father! I dated a racist!). What I see today is what I saw all those years ago at Columbia—the noise of style trumping substance.
Quiet in prose rarely exists. Listening, instead of waiting for your turn to speak (or type, as it were), has become obsolete. In one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read on writing and ideas, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the notion of patience, of allowing a story, a world to whisper to you before it makes its complete presence known. Ultimately, Le Guin returns to Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the masters of modernist fiction (DYK that her work influenced G.G. Marquez?), and surmises that ideas have a rhythm to them, much like a wave:
Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.
In that, I imagine this work requires a certain kind of quiet, a deliberate surrender. Maggie Nelson (my fucking hero) likens it to creating space in an effort to get specific and real. She says,
I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own.
And I can’t imagine that kind of work jutting up against our demands for velocity, one’s ferocious need to produce and accumulate affection and validation based on likes, fans, and followers.
I’ve finally found my voice, but it exists amidst so much noise. I read this piece on the clickbait nature of Medium, and I’m inclined to agree. Apart from literary journals and a handful of good publications, it’s been challenging to sift through the bad writing, bullshit and noise to find good work. I had a long conversation with a new friend today about growing audience and how far I’d be willing to go to do this without changing or sacrificing who I am and how much I’m willing to give to strangers, and I find myself resolute in the sense that I know I’ll never be mass market or largely popular, but that’s okay because I live and create on my own terms. So instead of sharing stories on Medium (I tried this experiment and didn’t feel I got the interaction I craved), I’m going to share them privately, with you.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling blue. I’m slowly (and privately) getting out of this slump, but I managed to write this story (newsletters subscribers only, however, I just wrote this piece I posted on Medium), which is part essay, mostly fiction, and one of the most honest things I’ve written in a while. I was put on pause by this podcast relating to Instagram and depression, and I thought about our demands for happy! positive! pretty! and how life doesn’t neatly fit in those boxes, ascribe to those terms. My story is about what we’re willing to share, what we want to see and how that collides with the pain we sometimes feel.
For those of you who are curious, I’m aiming to finish a story collection, Women in Salt, by the end of the month.
Finally, I know I’m forever coming to the party in last decade’s clothes, but I’m infatuated with The Leftovers. Setting aside my taste for stories that emerge from an apocalyptic event (brief aside: please buy Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus), the show is one of the finest meditations on loss, depression, and emptiness I’ve seen in some time.
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Posted on November 1, 2015
When people ask me how long I’ll stick with this freelancing thing, I tell them I’ll play this hand until I’m forced to fold. Until I have $0 in my bank account and all my credit cards are maxed and I’m facing eviction. I’ll keep at this because setting my own hours, having control over which clients I’ll take on, and the freedom to write short stories, is the greatest gift I’ve given myself. It’s been over two years and I’m still at it, and even though I’m going through a dry spell right now, I’m turning my attention to writing as much as I can and sharing all the knowledge I’ve gained so far.
Money is such a sensitive topic for some, and I think that’s bananas. We, especially women, NEED to talk about money so we can level the playing field. Talking about money helps us create and fight for our worth. I hope you enjoy our responses, and if you find these panels helpful, let me know in the comments (along with suggestions for future roundtables). Now on to the questions!
Harper Spero writes: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a connector. I’ve connected people with friends, jobs, apartments, business opportunities, sponsorship/partnership opportunities and the list goes on. I get completely jazzed from making these connections. As a new entrepreneur, I’ve realized how much time I’ve put into doing this pro bono and have FINALLY realized how valuable my resources and connections are. I’m in the process of building out an affiliate program in order to be compensated for making connections but am stuck on the challenge of….how much do I charge? What are my contacts worth? So much of what makes a publicist successful are the relationships they’ve established. I welcome your thoughts regarding pricing and structure. Thanks ladies!!!
Meghan Cleary: Dear Harper, you sound amazing first of all. Without knowing exactly what types of connections you are interested in monetizing it’s hard to say as I have found there are so many different structures and so many different ways it can go. For example someone doing business development at a startup might get a fee of 3-5% for introducing to the startup to a VC that then comes through with funding. For securing a strategic partnership or sponsorship, it could be as high as 15% depending. And then in some industries, connecting people is considered part of the job and doesn’t bring in the revenue in and of itself, but instead drives a business pipeline of potential deals. Saying all of that, my main advice if you want to monetize your connections, is to create some type of ballpark deal structure for yourself based on how much value the connection will yield on both sides.
Leah Singer: Good for you for realizing your time and expertise has value! I’d do some research to find out what the standard rates are for publicists and communications experts in your city/state. Then determine how much money you need to live on, and then come up with a formula based on that. Your time IS valuable. So don’t undercut yourself.
Aly Walansky: While I know nothing of doing something like this via an affiliate program model (though it’s a very interesting concept), my going response when asked for coffee to “pick my brain” is along the lines of “Thanks so much for thinking of me, my rate for an hour of consulting is…” – and that rate can change based on what we are discussing (and how in-depth you expect me to get), but I guarantee you it’s more than the cost of a latte.
Felicia Sullivan: Harper, congratulations! This sounds like a fascinating venture, and I’m hoping you might educate us down the road on what you’ve learned from it? In terms of monetizing your contacts, I’m going to agree with Meghan on this one. I don’t see this endeavor functioning purely in binary terms. Depending on the situation, you can benefit through remuneration, experience, goodwill or through additional connections/relationships. If your referral brings a tangible financial benefit between the two introducing parties, then I’d take, at minimum, a 10% commission. For example, I’ve referred a client to a friend who has an agency, and my friend paid me 15% of the first year’s retainer income. Sometimes, I make connections where there isn’t an explicit, expressed objective, but I think the karma I’ll get in bringing together two smart people is invaluable. I also think it puts me in someone’s mindset. In that way, I’ve gotten business because of this good karma. It’s not an A+B=C relationship, but the goodwill comes back to me at some point.
In short, it really depends on the situation, your motivations, and the desired outcome. Do you think the person can you offer you up something in terms of contact barter? Are you doing it because you’re being altruistic? Or is this a pure financial benefit? One thing I would stress–don’t make your contacts purely about financial gain. That fosters greed and it never bodes well for anyone.
Joy Bennett writes: This will be such a good series! I’m totally with you on being more transparent about money.
I find myself struggling to make the jump from charging per hour to charging by value. I hear over and over that this is a better way to do it, but I don’t know how. Time is at least measurable, so it’s easier to wrap my head around.
But some projects have a start and end, while others (especially social media management) are ongoing and can become time sucks if you let them.
I currently have different hourly rates for different kinds of work, which is my first go at value-based pricing. I do want to build in time for some things – especially limits on how much time I will devote to monitoring social or limits to numbers of revisions. I usually start with a rough estimate of hours X an hourly rate to get to an amount per project. But I also factor in how much I want to do a given project and the client’s budget, which means sometimes I lowball myself and take work on for love, not money. Other times charging what I believe I’m worth will cost me work and makes me think I’ve overpriced myself. It ends up feeling so subjective. Is this lack of a set estimating process normal? Or is there a better more objective way to do it?
How do you approach this?
MC: Dear Joy, Here is my number best resource and tool to go to value-based pricing. It is free and a true gem: http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/breakingthetimebarrier/
LS: I prefer to charge by project than hour too. The worst thing you can do is get into a situation where a client wants to nickel and dime the minutes you spend on a project. So for larger projects that are more one-time based, then I do a project rate. I detail to the client what that amount includes (e.g. meeting, phone calls, research, drafting document, two revisions/edits, and delivery date).
That being said, I do have some clients that want monthly, ongoing work. There are two ways to approach this. One is an hourly rate, which I tend to do if I know it’s monthly work. You can also do a retainer amount. Similar to the project scope, you charge $XX per month that includes all the work you do. I think if the work you do is writing, this is the best way to do that because it’s sometimes impossible to know if an article will take you two hours or 20 minutes. And you don’t want to get short-changed because something may take you less time.
AW: It’s totally normal. I absolutely have some projects that I take at “love” rates and others I ask for more money. There’s a quality of life issue. Will I be miserable this whole project? Or is it something super fun and interesting that I will enjoy and feel fulfilled at the end of?
FS: Joy, I have several models based on the project, timeline, and sanity level of the client–all meant to protect my time and hours. If the deliverable is a packaged product (i.e. a brand guideline, a strategy, copywriting for a website), I charge a flat project fee and that fee is based on a calculation of a number of hours I think the project will take, giving a little cushion for veering off the road, emails, and the like. That project fee has an hourly cap attached to it, and I’ll often say, this costs $5000 for X amount of hours, and anything over that hourly costs Y in terms of hourly rate. Some clients fear hourly because costs can get out of control, while a flat fee + hourly gives both of an assurance that the price is contained but the value of the work gets rightful compensation. Make sense?
Lena writes: Should you price your services differently when you’re first starting out doing freelance work? I always feel uncomfortable quoting people a price that is “standard” among graphic design or editorial professionals when I just graduated from college so recently. But it could go both ways – either discredit the work that I do and make people think my services are actually worth less, or help me build a portfolio by attracting clients who would otherwise not be able to afford my work even if that means shortchanging my income.
MC: Dear Lena, This is a question everyone grapples with at every stage of their career. The most important thing is to determine the value in it for you – and your desire or passion for the project. Even if a publication cannot pay you what you want will that piece work for you in other ways? Will it introduce you to new sources of editors to pitch or get in front of? Will it allow you to monetize your writing or graphic work in other ways? If they can’t give the rate, can they give promo – marketing your article or work in their emails or social media? In the end, you need to decide how much you desire the project – does it light you up? Would it be fun to work on? Do you love it? And then determine if it would for you to take a hit monetarily because you love it so much or because it will work for you and elevate you in other ways. This is different than just doing whatever work comes your way for whatever rate when you are building your name in your field. Determine and evaluate what will work on a case-by-case basis for you.
LS: There are several things that you should consider with this. You need to charge the amount you need to earn a livable wage. Don’t undersell yourself just because you’re new to freelancing. If you were in the same line of work prior to freelancing – or were in college and received the training – then you’re not new to the business. For many people, money equals value. If you don’t charge the standard, a client may not think you do the same quality work that others do. Also, your clients aren’t going to know how many other clients and work projects you have. Just because you may only have one or two clients to start, you’re a business and that’s what you’re selling to others that need your services. This is not to say that it’s bad to take on one or two pro bono clients when you’re first starting out. But don’t make that a continued practice. Charge what you’re worth!
AW: Yes. There’s absolutely instances when I accepted a lower rate when I was “new” –and in some cases, I simply didn’t know how to fight for myself or respect my work yet, but I also was building a portfolio and they were giving me that opportunity.
FS: This is a GREAT question. While I have a set hourly, day and project rate, I’ll often adjust those based on the client, considerations of my portfolio mix (i.e. I really want to do X kind of work to bring some more diversity), or pro bono work because it makes me feel like a decent human. If you came from a set salary and years of experience, why take a pay cut? Your talent and experience didn’t change, your job did.
Think about it in terms of how you’d negotiate your salary for your next job. Are you taking a role that’s a stretch, where you’ll have something to add to your professional toolbox (this is bullshit jargon, but I like it) so maybe the pay cut pays dividends in the end. And once you prove value and indispensability, you can negotiate up pretty quickly. If you’re moving laterally or a promotion up, I’d keep my rate or raise it.
Sometimes you’ll charge less because you believe in the project, you love the people, you’ll get something true and meaningful out of it (the non-tangibles), but for the most part don’t discount yourself.
Amanda writes: I’m in the food writing, recipe development, and food photography field as a freelancer. Status quo in the industry is to have a rate sheet that depicts different services available, as that is what the brands or PR agencies ask to see. What I hate about this is it feels like I am pigeon hole-ing myself. It can totally depend on the project, the timing, the urgency, the rights to the images/copy, and most of all, then the rates are set for some time. It doesn’t feel like I have much wiggle room. Do you have any advice on how to handle that?
I’m also wondering how to negotiate, rather than back down after 1 exchange of “my rate is this” “we only have this for budget”. It seems that I always want to make something work and end up undercharging.
Thanks so much for your help!
Amanda ~ heartbeetkitchen.com
MC: Dear Amanda, This is bummer but certain industries have a cost of entry and sounds like that’s what this is for yours. You want to be considered so you need the rate sheet but the reality we all know is it always depends on the project what the rate comes down to. My advice would be to create a very specific rate sheet with clear parameters around additional fees – like you mention for rights, etc. Don’t asterisk them in small type, be up front and clear. Use the rate card as a discussion starter to get your foot in the door for the gig, and then ask a lot of questions about the project to get a better sense of what it would cost. Give an estimate based on what they tell you. Then put together a very detailed scope document when you get ready to sign with the client. Include the scope of work you will perform, rates and clear parameters about additional fees for over time, rights, etc. That way you will give yourself some padding. In terms of they have x to work with and it will cost y, see my answer to Lena. You have to decide if you want it and it will work for you. But saying that, I’d always say to their first number, can you do z? Z being 30 percent more than what they are offering. If not, you asked and you can determine from there if you want to do it.
General thoughts about $:
To everyone, be aware that there is always price perception in the market – a very huge tool in the marketing world. Many times people will not perceive the value of something if it is priced too cheaply, so marking up your fees can actually help in some cases. Obviously you don’t want to mark yourself up and out of the market or charge exorbitantly high rates – but be aware that often if you are priced too low the person hiring you might think well this person doesn’t value their work, why should i?
General advice to every woman working, in business for themselves or in the world in general – always, always ask for 30% more than you think you can get. You will get it. And you will also be correcting our wage gap one deal at a time.
Also no one work for free, please and thank you.
LS: Developing a draft of a rate sheet is important because it will help you get an idea of what you want to charge for certain services. But just because you have a rate sheet doesn’t mean it’s published and set in stone. You are right that the project scope will be different for each client. I say develop the rate sheet, and then tailor it toward to the client and project.
With respect to negotiation, you should only do what you’re comfortable. So if the company wants a different rate – and you really want the project – maybe it’s worth negotiating your rate down a bit. But if you get the sense the project won’t be worth it or you’re not excited about it, hold firm with your rate and leave it at that. If they don’t accept your rate, it’s not the right fit.
AW: I have been guilty of under selling myself, too. But I always find negotiation is fine. Not all projects can be fit into neat little rate sheet categories. It’s OK to have a discussion and see what they need and what you can do for that.
FS: I second Meghan’s answer, and I would also check out my response to Lena’s question, which allows for some flexibility in holding to a base rate, with wiggle room for negotiation. I’ve also tackled projects with phases (you deliver a portion of the work) so the client has budget flexibility and you get paid for your work. And honestly, most brands have the budget they’re just allocating it to different people. I shouldn’t have to reduce my rate or take less money because the client doesn’t have the budget? It makes me think of this Oatmeal comic and this write-up of the recent HuffPo/Wil Wheaton kerfluffle. They’re valued at $50MM but they can’t pay their writers? PLEASE.
Posted on October 30, 2015
There’s been silence on this space but I assure you a lot of good, healthy things are going on. I’m spending time with friends on the phone, on Facetime and in-person. I’ve been making calls to find a person who can help me sort everything out and get me back on track and I’ve been producing. A lot. I wrote an email to my agent relaying that I will likely have to drug him to read a story collection, but the work I’ve been producing, and the velocity of it, excites me in a way that you can’t imagine. In three weeks I’ve 120 good pages of a new story collection.
Also! I’ve decided to launch a weekly newsletter. It’ll be a sweet compilation of links, finds, and oddities online + off. And I promise–no spam. One email, once a week. I’d love for you to subscribe!
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