I’ve read a lot of books this year, more than usual. I attribute this to, of all people, Donald Trump, who seems not to have cracked a book since college. Starting back in December, when the shock of the “election” was still fresh, I quit all social media (I’ve since relapsed on Twitter), removed the Safari app from my phone, canceled my newspaper subscription, and stopped watching all forms of televised news. It was a total media fast, and it lasted about two months, all the way into February, at which point I slowly began to fall off the wagon and return to my old ways.

An addict.

 

thumb_DSC04715_1024 (2)Aren’t you afraid to ride a motorcycle?

Terrified, actually. And that’s kinda the point. My life kept getting smaller and smaller as I let my fears gain traction. Then one day at age 48, I knew I had to face those fears or my life would shrink up to nothing. It started with the motorcycle, which I bought the day after my father died. Soon I was able to confront other, bigger fears that had been constraining my life, like dealing with my falling-apart marriage, then becoming a single woman and learning to date in midlife. Along the way, I became willing to risk being raw and exposed and vulnerable in my life and in my writing work. Somehow, I felt invigorated by that shift and that inspired me.

978-0-307-26987-4Some eighty years ago, Freud proposed that anxiety was “a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence.” Unlocking the mysteries of anxiety, he believed, would go far in helping us to unravel the mysteries of the mind: consciousness, the self, identity, intellect, imagination, creativity—not to mention pain, suffering, hope, and regret. To grapple with and understand anxiety is, in some sense, to grapple with and understand the human condition.

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I have never come extremely close to dying—let me just say that up front. I have been very sick and in very bad situations, but my body has never begun the process of actually, physically failing.

Gravity

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

When I was nine years old my Gran and I took a cruise to Norway. We stayed in the Presidential Suite, which was the biggest suite on board. It was bigger than my Mom’s house. It had fountains, and mirrors, and balconies spread out over five different rooms. It had Tiffany blue carpet and thick, cream-colored down comforters. Gran said she didn’t want us to stop traveling just because Granddad was gone. Gran had survived a brain tumor that year, and her mother and husband had died within just a week of each other—Granddad was only sixty-four. I’d lived through a life-threatening heart virus that year, and watched my dog get run over.

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

As a boy I was something of a wanderer. Our family home, broken and then repaired into a chimera of middle-class normalcy, existed in a state of perpetually coiling tension wound ever tighter by dysfunction and abuse. To escape it I often fled outright in long excursions around the neighborhood; at first on foot, and later through the greater range afforded by a bicycle. When I was about nine years old we moved into a house directly abutting a dry stretch of the San Diego River. I spent hours walking the arroyo with a wooden sword in hand and the family dog at my side, looking for ogres to slay.

 

Dear Lobbyist Bowles,

I recently read about the exciting new venture your organization is embarking on and am very interested in the Social Media position you are no doubt preparing to establish. Having just graduated from the number one party school in the entire southwest, I am eager for an opportunity to get my foot in the door and begin my life in the workforce. Making that happen with a well-established movement such as yours would be a bonus. (Everyone wants some job security these days, am I right?)

What do you do when your mother dies and you feel lost in the world, angry and hell-bent on self-destruction? You take a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Or at least, that’s what Cheryl Strayed did in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf). This is an epic journey across mountains and deserts—and along the way we are forced to endure snow and rain, intense heat and brutal cold—a passenger in the overloaded backpack that Cheryl Strayed calls “Monster.” While this is certainly a memoir—and we do spend time inside her head thinking about the death of her mother, her relationship with her family, and her troubled history with men—it is just as much a tale of wanderlust, the outdoors, and an education that only Mother Nature can provide.

Early on, Strayed (which later morphs into “Starved,” the letters on her necklace difficult to read at times) gives us a bit of backstory to help us understand why she is doing this:

On Monday, my friend Polly informed me, via Facebook wall post, that Sarah Palin would be co-hosting the Today Show the following morning.

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

My brother Greg has always been more daring than I am. When we were kids, he had no problem riding his bike up and down the highest hills, climbing trees nearly to the top, and taking the car out for a license-less spin at 14. But in many ways we’re alike. Shy, uncertain, afraid to try new things, afraid to fail.

Fighting Fear

By Cila Warncke

Essay

“The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear,” wrote Michel de Montaigne. Several centuries later Franklin Roosevelt rephrased the sentiment as: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

They lived in dangerous times. Montaigne’s contemporaries were lucky to reach the age of five-and-thirty. Roosevelt was speaking from the depths of the Great Depression. Fear, one could argue, was a legitimate emotion. Yet they diagnosed it as a greater threat than any material problems. Roosevelt condemned the, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While Montaigne observes that, “many people… impatient of the perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or drowned themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces, [giving] us sufficiently to understand that fear is more importunate and insupportable than death itself.” Look at it like that and fear diminishes from a bona fide ghost into a Scooby Doo baddy shaking his limbs beneath a threadbare white sheet. So why do we still hide under the bed when fear skulks into the room?

Fabian’s Note — Yes, it’s true! Mr. Dust will be giving a dramatic reading live and in person at TNB-San Diego, August 25, 2011. See all the details here. Can you believe it? No? Well, me neither. I am so damn excited! Oops, sorry for swearing, but I can’t help it! Fuck! This is going to be so fab! If you’re not down there, sister, waiting in line for an autograph, you crazy.

In a class full of oversexed boys, Willie was one of the most bizarre incarnations. He was on the smaller side, like me, scrawny, and usually clad in ill-fitting sweaters and corduroy pants. He wore his hair in a small, unkempt Afro, a stark contrast to the other black kids’ tight box cuts and fades. Willie talked and joked about sex even more than most of the other boys, but his role was more court jester and class clown than king and confident braggart.

His main act was “juggling [his] titties.” He’d cup his dark, spindly fingers under his chest and bounce them up and down slowly, as if each contained a huge overflowing breast that he could barely contain in his hand. Laughing uncontrollably, he’d cry out: “I’m juggling my titties, I’m juggling titties! Watch out, I’m juggling my titties!” Then he’d pantomime one of his “titties” coming off in his hand and pretend to throw it at the nearest kid. “Watch out, I’m going to hit you with my titties!” he’d yell as people screamed and dived away from him in every direction.

This joke never seemed to get old, to him or his victims. At lunchtime and recess, kids were often heard dashing down the hallway, their feet sliding as they careened around the corner, calling out desperate and giddy warnings to the others up ahead: “Watch out! Watch out! Willie’s juggling his titties again!”

Today, however, Willie’s titties were dormant under his lumpy gray sweater, at least for the moment. He sidled up to me where I sat, alone, at the lunch table. “Hey,” he said, “I got a question for you.” His eyes were hungry, his mouth a wide white grin.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t trust Willie. He had two other boys with him, who were both already on the verge of laughter.

“You ever had pussy around your neck?”

I squirmed on my stool—a sickly pale-green disk connected by a metal arm to the lunch table—and picked at a small piece of crud next to my tray. These kinds of questions always made me feel terribly small and uncomfortable. Around us was utter chaos, as usual, boys whooping and burping and punching each other, food flying, screaming, laughter. A combination of burnt pizza and cleaning solution hung in the air. My eyes rested on a large cherry pie stain on the lunchroom wall, and I thought about the question.

Pussy. The word offended me, and certainly made me nervous. Things I don’t understand often make me uncomfortable, especially if I sense they are important. At 11 years old, I didn’t understand “pussy” at all, although I could already tell it was tremendously important. I barely even knew what it was, and I was deeply aware and ashamed of my ignorance. All I knew was that it was a crude term for a woman’s private parts, but I had never seen one, let alone had one around my neck!

It didn’t sound possible. I had the impression that tightness was a virtue in a pussy, at least that’s what all the other boys were always saying. But all things sexual were very mysterious to me. My parents were both shy types who apparently thought sex was something magical, certainly not to be discussed. I gleaned what little understanding I could from the conversations I overheard at school, while trying desperately not to reveal my own ignorance, which I usually ended up doing anyway.

Where pussy was concerned, I knew you could stick fingers in it, or a penis, and probably a lot of other things too. But your whole head? That sounded absurd. And yet … I had also heard that you could “eat” a pussy, though there was fierce debate among the boys about whether one ought to or not. Some boys decried pussy-eating as disgusting or even “gay,” while others claimed it was a source of great pleasure and delight. I struggled with the terminology—surely they didn’t literally mean eating, did they? But at the very least I knew that “eating” a pussy involved the mouth. Perhaps then, I thought, as I wrestled with Willie’s question, if a person were to “eat” a pussy that was too “loose” (as I’d heard many, if not most, of the ones belonging to the girls in our class were), one’s whole head could somehow become lodged in there and one would actually have “pussy around [his] neck.” Still, it seemed unlikely.

“Well …” I said slowly, not wanting to commit myself either way. A small group of onlookers had formed around us. This was agony. What was the answer Willie was looking for? How I hated to be wrong! “No,” I said, “I never have.” It seemed to me that to say I’d ever had pussy around my neck would have been to admit being involved in some bizarre sexual act that I couldn’t even fathom. Since I had no idea what that might be, I couldn’t risk it.

“You haven’t?” Willie said theatrically, with mock surprise. For the benefit of his delighted audience, he repeated the question: “You’ve never had pussy around your neck? Are you sure?”

“No, I never have,” I asserted again, trying to sound more confident about my answer this time. “That’s nasty,” I added, as if to bolster my claim.

“Then how were you born?” Willie said. “What are you an alien or something?”

I still didn’t understand.

“Dummy, you came out of a pussy. Everybody has had pussy around their neck.” He looked smug. His two cohorts snickered at my stupidity. I was flabbergasted. He was right. I hadn’t even thought of that. Then he broke into a smile, cupped his hands under his chest and started bouncing them up and down impishly.

“Watch out!” he yelled, suddenly whirling around and charging toward the group of onlookers that had assembled to hear the answer to his strange and unsettling riddle. “I’m juggling my titties! I’m juggling my titties!”

And then, at last, I was alone again.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that wasn’t the whole story. When I was born, before I could be delivered, my umbilical cord had become twisted around my neck, and I’d actually been born by emergency C-section. I hate to think of my mother being sliced open like that, and part of me wishes Willie had been right, but he was wrong: In fact, I never have had pussy around my neck.

1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.