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“Janice” by David Capps

Janice by David Capps

 

I

 

Janice’s bag seemed heavy, not that I would pick it up: a black trash bag sunk in the corner of her otherwise sparse apartment, spilling over with the contents of her life. Don’t touch it, she said like she was speaking to a child. A college student, in many ways I was still a child. She didn’t remember that she’d shown me a lot already: photos of her estranged kids, a mix tape she’d made from her days as a fitness instructor at the Y, newspaper clippings, some baby clothes, a small statue of a white horse. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the contents of seagulls’ stomachs: mixed plastics, cigarette butts, shards of driftwood, fishing line; it was like that, the same sort of diversity, disarray, the impossibility I projected onto her of organizing life into a single coherent whole. A coherence mirrored in the environment, how I imagined my neatly stacked bookshelf reflected a scholarly mind. She was a ‘townie’. I was a budding scholar, of course. The shelf had its order, just as the pages within a book had theirs, and the lines on a page, and finally that sublime set of correspondences between the author’s intent and their words which comes close enough to unity to annihilate all the local disorders, the chaos of the world’s exposed gut. It’s possible that I was reading too much Leibniz then, absorbing into myself whatever I thought were his views. In Leibniz’ Monadology there was a perfect structure. Everything that existed was composed of monads, indivisible spiritual bits that corresponded to appetites on the low end of the spectrum and rationality at the high end, dominating the spiritual landscape like a sparkling jewel. My universe was a kind of matrix of these points: each person was a windowless mirror reflecting every other without ever any genuine interaction. There couldn’t have been a more tempting or a more fragile theory than that. 

 

 

 

I used to imagine bringing her a giant pinecone every day, so that eventually the bag would fill up, overflow onto the carpet. There would be the soft needles of the forest floor, the smell of conifer in her bed, plumes whose pine resin between the blankets would consume her sweat-stained mattress, given enough time become the ancient forest whose vines would climb up the rickety fire escape out on the roof of the building overgrown with ivy; you could see from a distance the birdhouses in windows, the ground floor buckling, Janice’s apartment shot through with massive roots, mycelial layers between rotted studs. As the storm began to gather I would call down to her as she clawed her way through the garbage bag to join me. Then lightning would strike and it would be like in my dream, all the concrete would shatter into pieces and there would be no more regret. She did smile the time I brought her back a gigantic pinecone from the State Park. I believe it made it into the garbage bag. Perhaps she reminded me of my own grandmother in Michigan. Janice had the same spontaneity of spirit as my grandmother, who had begun to show signs of dementia after my grandfather’s passing. 

 

 

 

We first met on a winter afternoon; I was walking to campus when I saw this old lady romping and reeling in the snow, hurling snowballs at the brick exterior of an apartment building. She was more spirited than some older folks I knew in the small town that was Kirksville, Missouri. Plus she had electric eyes, and a shock of white hair that made it seem as if she had electrocuted herself. Perhaps she’d shown the same spontaneity I’d years later reject if I suspected it to be drug-induced and occurring on the New Haven green. But you can’t compare these things. Like when I asked her what her biggest regret was and she said it was that she didn’t have enough sex; I didn’t then think: “so you’re that kind of person, a hedonist”. I didn’t think anything at all, since I was simply taking in experiences at the time (that was my one imperative: Experience) although probably if the question had been raised I would have categorized Janice that way. The beer, the track marks on her arms, the bursts of laughter, the memories of flings all pointed towards ‘pleasure’ as a fundamental good. I would have been wrong since any viable hedonism requires some distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. 

 

 

 

Probably I’m not the first person to fantasize about being struck by lightning. Not that I would want to be killed, or suffer the nerve damage or recurring burning sensation, but to be gifted the Lichtenberg Figures aka ‘keraunographic mark’ aka ‘lightning flower’ or ‘lightning tree’ formed by the transmission of static electricity through blood vessels just under the skin, a bodily record of an event so unmistakable that I think it must be called a ‘memory’ in the old and now antiquated sense of the term, which is not ‘constructive’ within some narrow range of rewards to which its mental map applies, sensitive to saliences, etc. but is marked by truth, visited by nature’s inspiration, free of the pollution of human intent. Isn’t it Pliny The Elder who says that only a human being can survive being struck by lightning?  

 

 

 

If regret and hope were antonyms, their logical structure should mirror each other. You prepare for the slight stumble when climbing to the summit of a cathedral, the residue of moldy air your lungs at one particular step will expel; the smallness of the houses clustered so closely together that they make you pretend the city is a hamlet; that you call yourself by a different name and bask in the symmetry between being viewed from below and looking upon from above: such is part of the fullness of anticipation. Yet when you envision yourself in the future, looking back upon some personal failing—that you never married, perhaps, or didn’t have children, or didn’t finish In Search of Lost Time which lies forever open on your bookshelf, you don’t then imagine yourself regretting not having had the courage to cast your social net more widely, to have broken off a stagnant relationship, or devoted an hour before you slept each night to finishing what you would eventually leave unfinished. Regret seems directed at the single event with a hazy aura dancing around it, or like a cloud whose droplets are not pictured as ‘conditions to be met’ or requirements for some goal to be accomplished. They are accidental side-effects, ephemera of some event over which you have no control and, paradoxically, has already occurred. You become like the killer wasp that invades a honeycomb and is heat-smothered by gyrating worker bees who join in, one by one collecting around the stinger’s intent, at the center of a meleé of bodies heaped on bodies rising and steaming before you which leaves only an empty husk in its hive, so we are stifled to death by the swarming prospects of our fevered dreams.

 

       

 

Once I woke up in my room after she had burst in the door and immediately straddled on top of me. It was nothing like the sort of violence I had brushed up against before, like the time my friend Jimmy and I were surrounded in the parking lot of Leisure World by a bunch of guys who were irate at Jimmy for wearing a pink tank top to the bowling alley; nor was it like the time my friend Phil got cold-clocked by a frat guy for staying on too long at his party. Looking back, those were about the brusque enforcement of gender norms, social identities, none of which I had the categories to express. And it was a far cry from the sort of violence that requires the perpetrator to alienate their own humanity. I guess all it had was a feeling of violence. I had to politely tell her not to do that again. I’ve always been the sort of person who enjoys sleep, be it on the floor in the middle of the afternoon, or wherever. What beats a commune with lord Hypnos? Surely not waking life. For this my grandmother is partly to blame, having over-indulged me in daydreaming as a child. How the days would pass at my grandparents’ house, playing Tinkerbell while my brother was Peter Pan and we flew to Never-never Land on a ‘magic carpet’ that in reality was a dingy floor mat by the stove. Such is the downside of not taking myself seriously. Perhaps I have a certain admiration for people who don’t act their age; after all, seriousness ages you. ‘Oh, so Janice is a surrogate grandmother?’ No. But much as I barely knew her, and circumstances had not allowed my appreciation for my grandmother to deepen, I may have had some unconscious drive to precipitate the burdens of a friendship. 

 

II

 

Lucan said, “May it be sudden, whatever you plan for us; may man’s mind be blind to the future. Let him hope on in his fears.” Sometimes you scatter like repetitious moons through clouds, thoughts reduced to one cogent star receding with the long flood of night. A body turning between sheets, you cross over into that sublime recklessness where in your own reflection you see your grandmother mirroring your movements, her white hair pulled back, fleeing after the jade peacock which holds it together. If only your own green eyes were so unknowing they could fly opal-like into that disintegrating garden of curls, and time in indecisive strands chase down what is consumed in the clawing clarity of cause and effect.  

 

 

 

You find yourself at her bedside in a room of motionless: a desk, lamp, glass, letter-opener, old theatre program on the nightstand, your morbid identity staked to the glimmers of a personal history—things which come to settle in attic space, in nests of unhappy relatives, cast on the lawn amid items of a bloated yard sale—does that greatest of all monads create such types of things that organize the world, now taken from her even as she slaps her knee laughing at a joke she no longer understands? What becomes of this gesture, slapping a knee? She looks at you, then the spoon then you, you persist in this mimicry, this welt spinning, this hungerless signing. There is no greeting. A look from her wipes the language off your face. You move closer to wipe the drippings from her chin. Each of you is a windowless widow. “That way’s the door” she seems to want to say. The corners of her mouth speak otherwise, hover over signs of signs, breakages of age, timings of long dam-like looks, as when she was bedridden covered with poison ivy, silent to her family living in the sweltering boxcar of their first home, unwelcoming of her children’s kisses. 

 

 

 

Her foot is swollen but the pain is in the lamp. She says of a pot broken in a hundred pieces at her feet I’m trying to find an art. Her face belies such silly-talk, scarred from scolding. Her daughter is “the old lady who has come to take me away.” You wish you could have asked her: does it make a difference where pain is, whether pain moves, or resides in some distant cause? You also kicked through a door once when your brother locked you in the closet and there was a pair of cowboy boots. No shame in it. Sometimes arteries open and out fly hundreds of moths bent on taking advantage of the lord’s house. You agree the mice that slipped silently under the barn door carrying their white horse, their Christ, their crystalline monads in the free fall of predication. 

 

 

 

Lucan is right: may death come suddenly, at the urges of memory, as snakes having ceased writhing form a statue with which you end.  May someone never arrive whose face you do not recognize except through your skin’s galvanized lightning, whomever this never person is may take down the plastic star and pack it away with the rest. You whoever you are fall short of Who who falls short of who she was. That person. Janice of the same suddenness of spirit to escape from your house and walk through fields until darkness itself went walking in search of lost memory, whose suddenness replaces what we call memory with continuous moments of attention, which like the direction of light from the windows of others depend greatly upon the weight of your steps.

 

III

 

There are just memories now, vague impressions, not anything so dense and inexplicable as nostalgia or regret. The waves roll gently onto the sand, and the docks by the sound, deserted in winter, extend like fingertips that hope to caress the horizon. Salt-white hair. Smudged red lipstick. Footsy in the diner, her magically thinking we were on a date. The subway car rattling in her lungs. A lingering sense of propriety. My friends’ laughter at what we’re not. The apartment littered with sheet music and cans of Bud Light. Sea foam and the stomach’s black lining. Memory’s ghost throwing snowballs against a brick façade. Wonder at what the ocean can absorb. 

            

Absolve?  

            

“Years later I went back and visited her and she didn’t recognize me at first, and then she did after I explained myself, and then I never saw her again.” I suppose I could say that, or suggest it to you, or somehow imply it. This could also be some story I conclude by saying we had sex, or perhaps one of those heartfelt hugs you always remember because it marked a certain time in life after which you changed. But none of that would be true. It’s like this: the past exists, the present, and the future, equal parts of a road spread out, with broken cars abandoned in the forest long after the road is yielded back, posh new cars streaming on ahead shifting with their driver’s fanatical smile, then pumping the brakes to turn again along that tiny winding side street that led back to Missouri and down into the Ozarks and back to Michigan for your grandmother’s funeral, and then to the turtledoves necking on a park bench in New Haven where the leaning towers of sketches seem to fall for eternity, obliterated by the opioids in their systems calling them to Never-never Land, stunned by the lights from the giant Christmas tree on the green, the symbol of friendship and love and togetherness and everything that she may have felt, explaining in her fall-down drunkenness how as a single mom she taught her youngest boy to ‘hold it’ while using the toilet in her first apartment which was just as cramped as this one and we laughed together with brisk winter wind dawning through the open window. What after that I can’t say. Is it only because we live and forget the bulk of it? Is it because we don’t live and fabricate what possibly remains? 

 

 

 

In a dream my mother is emptying out her house of various objects, some of which we are loading onto a truck to be sold, others we are holding onto. We are sorting through them, and I am attempting to find a particular antique child’s sled, with a flat wood base and copper handles that have a greenish patina. The odd thing is that this same sled occurred in my previous dream, where it lay for sale on a long table amid a number of other antiques in the downstairs of a building that was simultaneously an art gallery and a psychiatric ward where I was staying. The price tag on the scratched out label read ‘regret’. Scratched out, meaning illegible, meaning abstract, meaning not particular, meaning: not salient to memory, meaning useless to the organism’s cognitive economy, to be discarded unless for some unknown reason we ourselves take an active role in maintaining it, layering and layering around that spark which had originally drawn us to it. 

 

Somewhere back in Kirksville, Janice tells me her father was a “dozerman,” and glittering with snow she draws her frail arm back. 

 


David Capps is a philosophy professor and poet who lives in New Haven, CT. He is the author of three chapbooks: Poems from the First Voyage (The Nasiona Press, 2019), A Non-Grecian Non-Urn (Yavanika Press, 2019), and Colossi (Kelsay Books, 2020)

“Fundamentally Flawed” by Bethany Jarmul

 

Fundamentally Flawed

by Bethany Jarmul

In my earliest memory, I was a five-year-old self-righteous ass. Maybe I was born that way—popped out of my mother’s vagina thinking that my cry was more euphonious than the Jupiter Symphony, that my poop smelled of freesia and honeysuckle, that I was the best nipple-sucker there ever was or ever will be. 

 

In a preschool classroom filled with colorful toys, alphabet posters, and tiny chairs, I stood next to my best friend, Kate. I wore a plaid skirt and collared shirt with two braids down my back. Kate had dark hair and eyes, a sweet smile. We played with Sky Dancers, pulled their strings, sending the pink-and-purple fairies floating through the air like helicopter seeds. I noticed a warning on their box: “For Ages 5 and Up Only.” Kate was four. 

 

“You can’t play with this toy. It’s not for four-year olds,” I said.  

 

“Yes, I can. I play with it all the time.” 

 

I marched over to Kate’s mom. “Kate can’t play with this toy. She’s only four.”

 

“It’s fine. Kate can play with it,” Kate’s mom said. 

 

“But, but… she’s not supposed to!”

 

“It’s fine, Bethany. Now, go play.” 

 

I stomped back over to Kate, cheeks and ears flushed.

 

In another memory, Kate told me that as a Catholic she prayed to Mary. “Well, you’re wrong,” I said. A few years later, she told me that her mother believed in evolution. I said, “What? Your mom is a lawyer. She’s smarter than that!” 

 

I’m amazed that Kate was friends with me, that anyone was. 

 

 

 

On Christmas morning 1998, when I was six, my family sat around our dining room table. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, then blew out the candles on our cinnamon rolls. Dad read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible, but I was restless. Presents waited beneath the tree, and I wanted a Barbie doll more than anything. 

 

When it was time, I bee-lined for a rectangular, Barbie-sized box. I tore off the paper and saw a doll inside. But she had dark brown hair, a plain blue dress, and a cloth on her head. The box said: “Mother Mary.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. 

 

A few days later, while my mom and I were grocery shopping, a gray-headed lady said to me, “What did Santa bring you, sweetie?” 

 

“Candy,” I said. 

 

The only Santa I knew rode through our neighborhood on a fire truck collecting canned goods for the food bank and handing out cinnamon hard tack candy.

 

 

 

According to Shahram Heshmat, an expert on behavioral economics, most people don’t choose their identities. Instead, they internalize the values of their parents or culture. Parents, peers, and other role models can be the sources of identity, and children often define themselves based on how they believe their parents view them.

 

 

 

My parents taught me that I was saved by faith, not by works—that God was gracious, forgiving. Yet my life was governed by rules. If being a Christian was about having a relationship with a loving God, then why did messing up feel like stepping on a booby trap? In addition to the sins listed in the Bible, my parents added a litany of “no-nos.” 

 

EXCERPT FROM THE “BAD THINGS LIST”

 

  •     Alcohol 
  •     Barbie
  •     Big bang theory
  •     Bikinis
  •     Britney Spears
  •     Christina Aguilera—all non-Christian music was banned, except James Taylor, my mom’s favorite. 
  •     Cursing
  •     Disney movies— “bippity, boppity, boo!” magic was unacceptable. 
  •     Evolution—even dinosaurs were suspect. 
  •     Global warming— “made up.” 
  •     Halloween
  •     Harry Potter—but Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’ novels were encouraged.  
  •     Liberals
  •     Miniskirts
  •     Other denominations
  •     Other religions
  •     Physicians and therapists—“untrustworthy.”
  •     Pokemon cards—at my Christian school, the boys collected and battled Redemption Cards, where the goal was to win “Lost Soul” cards. 
  •     Power Rangers—when pretending, we had to be “God Rangers.”
  •     Tampons—yes, tampons! 
  •     Thongs
  •     Tube tops
  •     Vaccines, most prescription medications
  •     Yoga

 

Following these rules was my way to prove my love for God, so I was like the little engine: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” 

 

 

 

In psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, identity versus confusion is the fifth stage of ego. This stage occurs during the teenage years, when teens develop a sense of self and explore their independence. Kids who are not allowed to test out different identities may be left with role confusion, which can result in being unsure of who they are, where they fit, or feeling confused about their place in life.

 

 

 

I sat by myself on the brown bleachers in the gym. I scanned the roaring crowd of several hundred middle schoolers talking, laughing, hugging binders to their chests or flicking paper footballs. My first day of 8th grade, my first time attending a public school after years at a Christian academy. I’d never seen so many kids my own age. My heart galloped as I waited for the bell. I fidgeted with my red mesh backpack, zipping and unzipping.

 

“Fuck!” said the guy sitting behind me. I jumped, then tried to relax, act normal. “Fuck that shit!” he said. I snuck a look behind me. The guy’s jeans were hanging low, red boxers exposed, and a gold chain hung around his neck. I tried not to stare. 

 

We lived in a small town in West Virginia with an undercurrent of poverty, racism, and drug abuse. Some students had no hot water, their body odor announcing their presence. Others tossed around the “n” word like a hacky sack. Fights broke out weekly and drug searches monthly. 

 

I could have adapted—cursed a little, tried some cigarettes, made out with boys under the bleachers. Instead I took advanced classes, escaped into novels, and clung to my upbringing like a blankie. Meanwhile, I learned about many new things—all of them belonged on the “bad list.”

 

 

 

I was a purity-ring-wearing 17-year old virgin when I watched porn for the first time, lounging in the dark in my childhood bedroom, laptop glowing on my thighs. I had never seen a penis before, not even in a photo, only drawings in health class.

 

In his memoir, Stephen King describes how, as a recovering alcoholic, he can’t understand social drinking. How could anyone have just one glass of wine? That’s how I felt about porn. It’s like I had grown up on a vegan, no-sugar diet, then been set loose in the world’s largest ice cream shop, all the flavors free for me to sample, stuffing my face until I hurled. 

 

While reading my Bible, going to youth group, and praying, I kept thinking: You’re a hypocrite, Bethany. You’re a filthy, dirty hypocrite. 

 

One day, when I was alone, I took a pair of scissors out of a kitchen drawer and walked down to the basement. I’d heard about cutting at school and wanted to try it. I sat on our army-green futon and held the blade to my wrist. My parents will see it if I cut myself here. I lifted my shirt and held the blade to my stomach, below my belly button. Maybe I can cut away some of this fat while I’m at it. I heard the front door opening, someone coming home. I hid the scissors behind the futon’s flower-print pillows. 

 

 

 

I first left my childhood home to attend a Christian college in rural Pennsylvania. I befriended others from a variety of denominations and backgrounds. We stayed up late, debating free will versus predestination, lamps glowing in our overstuffed dorm rooms. 

 

In a tiered classroom, surrounded by 30 of my peers, I watched as Dr. M. paced the floor, his bald head reflecting the fluorescent lights. This class was a required “Science, Faith, and Technology” course. I expected the same spiel I’d always heard about how evolution was fake. But instead Dr. M. said, “Evolution may be a method that God used, guiding the process… The Big Bang Theory allows for, even points to, a Creator. Someone had to cause the bang… The book of Genesis was written to teach us about God, not intended to be a science textbook.”

 

I sat up straight, my fingers flying over laptop keys, not wanting to miss a single word. I wasn’t necessarily convinced about the origins of the universe, but I mentally removed evolution from the “bad things” list.

 

 

 

Researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas found that the idea that “opposites attract” is untrue; rather, people seek similarity in relationships and are drawn to others who are like-minded. Interestingly, they also found that people in relationships do not change each other’s identities over time.

 

 

 

My sophomore year, I met Andrew— a homeschooled history major from Washington. He had pale skin, brown hair parted on the side. His oversized sweaters hung on his wiry frame, complete with mom jeans and off-brand tennis shoes. His animal magnetism was three-pronged—peculiarity, piousness, and pride. After consulting his father, a mentor, and God, Andrew agreed to be my boyfriend—my perfect, geeky Ken doll. 

 

I wonder if it’s not just that we choose partners that are similar to us, but also those who have attributes that we wish we had—identities that we want to claim for ourselves. Somehow I found a man whose upbringing was even more stringent than my own. For example, I believed in waiting until marriage to have sex. Andrew believed in waiting until marriage to kiss. 

 

One day, we were sitting at a table in the library. “Have you ever cursed before?” I asked. 

 

“One time I said the c-word,” he said. 

 

“The c-word! What word did you say?” 

 

“C-R-A-P,” he whispered. 

 

I laughed. Students at nearby tables gave me nasty looks. 

 

“That’s not a bad word. I say that all the time.” I looked down at my hands folded in my lap. 

 

Later, I told my roommate, “If I was the person that I want to be, then Andew would be my perfect match. But sometimes I feel I’m not good enough for him.”

 

Andrew broke up with me a few months later. 

 

 

 

My junior year, I joined a group of students who carpooled together to attend a church several miles from campus. They had an informal leader named Curtis. He was 22, with blue eyes and crooked teeth. 

 

During one meeting at the church, eight of us sat in folding chairs in a small classroom. Curtis stood behind a wooden podium with a well-worn Bible. He talked about God’s grace and the importance of confessing not just to God but to others. “Now, I’m going to open it up to anyone who has something they want to share,” Curtis said. 

 

I listened, eyes wide, as Rachel, Curtis’s girlfriend with long, silky brown hair, shared about her struggle with depression. Another girl talked about her battle with anxiety. One thin guy spoke, with wavering voice, about his pornography habit. I cleared my throat. My voice cracked as I said, “I’ve struggled with porn too.” 

 

As we packed up our belongings, Curtis and Rachel hugged me and prayed over me. Simple prayers like: “God, help Bethany to know how much you love her.” 

 

I wasn’t “cured” of my porn addiction overnight. But I finally experienced this grace that I’d heard so much about. Something unlocked inside of me. Slowly, I began admitting my imperfections, the messiness beneath my plastic facade. 

 

 

 

I was 22, a recent college graduate, working as a copywriter at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh. The agency employed about 35 people and was located in a two-story brick building. The decor inside included a foosball table, an aquarium of colorful fish, and a life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe. 

 

The agency threw a Halloween party during the work day, and our boss expected everyone to dress up. For the first time, I had to come up with a Halloween costume. Although I was too nervous to talk much about my faith, my coworkers knew I was a sheltered Christian. I decided to play up the irony and dress as a biker chick—leather jacket, dark eye makeup, red lipstick, and fake tattoos. I looked like Biker Barbie, but I felt like Mary in disguise.  

 

During the Halloween party, I drank two Angry Orchards and was feeling buzzed. I leaned against a co-worker’s desk. Scott was a spectacle-wearing, round-faced PR specialist in his late 30s, with a desk covered in Pittsburgh Pirates memorabilia. 

 

“You know, prayer really works,” I said. “Did I ever tell you about my car?” 

 

“I don’t think so,” Scott said, turning toward me in his wheely chair. 

 

“I heard a sermon about how when you pray specific prayers and God answers them, then it becomes a testimony. I needed a car, but I was a poor college kid. Instead of just praying for a car, I started praying for a red Ford Focus. A few months later, my parents surprised me with a used car. Guess what kind?” I was talking faster, louder than normal, thinking about how amusing it was that it was easier for me to talk about my faith after having a couple drinks. 

 

“A red Ford Focus.” Scott said, unimpressed. 

 

“Yep!” I grinned. 

 

“Well, you should pray for me.” 

 

“Oh, what do you need prayer for?” 

 

“Pray that I’ll win the lottery.” He turned back to his computer screen. 

 

 

 

At 24, I married a man who loved me—flaws, history and all. “It doesn’t matter what your parents think,” he said. “I’ll love and support you regardless.” I kissed his shaved head, the freckle on his lip. He’d never looked sexier. 

 

With his support, my view of God and faith continued to evolve, allowing me to break away from my parents’ impositions. I wore a flower-print bikini, just like Barbie. I enjoyed my first trick-or-treat experience. I said “Black Lives Matter.” My dad replied, “All Lives Matter.” Mom told me I was selfish when I took Zoloft during pregnancy, got a COVID vaccine while breastfeeding. I watched WandaVision. Dad sent me articles about its many evils.

 

Eventually, I realized that I was turning my back on more than just a few rules. When I became a mother at 27, it caused me to reevaluate my identity and to want to purposefully decide how to raise my children. As clinical psychologist Laura Markham explained, “The brain goes through all these changes when women are pregnant or postpartum…We develop new aspects of ourselves that ever after are a part of who we are.”

 

Before I could determine how to raise my kids, I had to identify this part of me that I was trying to reject. I didn’t have a name for it. It rolled around in my mind, kept me awake at night. Its voice was my inner dialogue that I constantly had to tell to “shut up!” 

 

 

 

At 29, shortly after my second child was born, I perused the shelves at a local thrift store, inhaling the intoxicating smell of old books. I selected Girl Meets GOD, a memoir by Lauren F. Winner. Later, I curled up with the book on my brown recliner. 

 

I learned that when preparing for his revivals, Billy Graham worked with Catholics, liberal Presbyterians, and others outside of the orthodox Protestant tradition. Powerful conservative Christians were outraged and denounced Graham. This created the split that still exists, between evangelicals, like Graham, and fundamentalists. 

 

As I read the next section, my hands shook. I read the paragraphs again, tracing the sentences with my right index finger as I mouthed the words:

 

“Fundamentalists, like those who tangled with Graham, tend more toward separation from the rest of American culture. They tend to be more suspicious of interfaith and cross-denominational conversations. Fundamentalist parents are likely to be more restrictive when it comes to what TV shows and rap songs their kids can be exposed to. There’s the matter of science. Not all fundamentalists read the first chapter of Genesis as a textbook scientific account of the planet’s origins, but almost all people who do read Genesis that way are fundamentalists.” 

 

Wow, I thought. My parents were fundamentalists. I was a fundamentalist, and I didn’t even know it! I like to imagine that at that moment I burst out of the fundamentalism box, singing Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” But it’s not that easy. 

 

Trying to extricate oneself from an identity, whether from birth or learned, is like trying to yank up a Shepherd’s tree, the roots of which can be 230 feet long. Not only is it difficult, but there will be dirt, large chunks of earth, clinging to those roots. 

 

 

 

A few weeks later, on a not-too-cold December day, I dressed Asher, my two-year old, in his puffy blue coat. We strolled through our neighborhood, pausing to pick up rocks and watch the neighbors’ dogs. Asher stopped in front of a yard decorated with Santa Claus and reindeer. He pointed to Santa and shouted, “Noah!” 

 

Teaching my kids that a fat man in a red suit squeezes down the chimney, delivers gifts on every continent all in one night—I can’t bring myself to do it. 

 

When Asher watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and the Halloween episode comes on, I have to leave the room to prevent myself from skipping it. I cringe when he says “crap!”—the strongest word I say around my kids. And I wonder—if he asked for a Barbie doll for Christmas, would I buy him one?

 

 

A few months before I read Girl Meets GOD, Asher and I were in our living room video chatting with my parents. I was sitting on our brown recliner, my laptop perched next to me on a side table. He ran over to me, “Mommy!” He kissed my arm, smiled at me with his round toddler face, then bit me hard. 

 

“Ouch! No, Asher!” I said, “Don’t bite.” 

 

He shook his little finger and said, “No, no, no,” then ran off to grab a toy car. 

 

“You need to spank him,” my dad said, squinting at me on my laptop screen. 

 

“No, Josh and I are in agreement. We aren’t going to spank our kids,” I said. 

 

“Not even a smack on the hand?” Mom asked, shaking her salt-and-pepper topped head. 

 

“No. How does hitting him teach him to stop biting or hitting?” 

 

“There’s a verse in Psalms that says ‘spare the rod, spoil the child,’” Dad said. 

 

“That’s referring to a shepherd’s staff. It’s talking about discipline. I do discipline him. It doesn’t mean you have to literally hit your child with a rod.”

 

“Where did you hear that?” Dad said. 

 

“Dad, I really don’t want to talk about this anymore.” I ran to grab the TV remote out of Asher’s hand.

 

 

 

Growing up, my parents hugged me and told me “I love you!” every day. They helped with homework and cheered me on at every musical. When I write “You’re the best mom!” on a Mother’s Day card, I mean it. And when I say, “I felt shame because of the way you raised me,” I mean that, too. 

 

When I opened that fundamentalism box, I wasn’t sure who I would find. Maybe I’m a Mary doll dressed up like Barbie, making a fool of myself. Maybe I’m a Frankensteined doll with Barbie’s brain and Mary’s heart. Is it possible to not be a doll at all?

 

I don’t know if I will ever shake off all of my fundamentalism. I’m not even sure if I want to. As humans, we are inherently shaped by things we cannot control—our DNA, our upbringing, the history of who we are, and of those who came before us. If I could instantly eliminate all fundamentalism in me, would I do it? If I did, would the person who was left still be me? 

 


 

Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and work-from-home mom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Scribes*MICRO*Fiction, Sky Island Journal, WOW! Women On Writing, and Allium, A Journal of Poetry & Prose. She grew up in the hills of West Virginia and lives outside of Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She enjoys drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

It’s Your Lucky Day: Fabulism and Speculative Fiction Contest extended until June 20

You know what’s cool about the summer solstice? It’s the longest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, and ancient folks – like the ones who built Stonehenge – would erect plinths and other kinds of monuments to track the sun and stars around days like these.

You know what else is cool about the summer solstice? It’s the extension date of our Fabulism and Speculative Fiction contest, judged by Christopher Barzak! Check out the entry guidelines here!

-Yours,
Rougarou Editors and Management

Message from Management: Submittable cap reached!

From the Editors and Staff of Rougarou:

We have reached our Submittable cap for submissions for our next issue, which is honestly astounding. Thank you to everyone who has submitted before today; while it is true that not every worthy poem, short story, essay, or visual piece can make it into our pages, we read and view each one of them, and we are grateful for the privilege to do so.

Fiction writers, take note! Our Fabulist and Speculative Fiction contest is still going strong, follow this link to get to our submission guidelines. We encourage any fiction writers to submit their work to our contest!

Thank you for your words and your art.

Fairy Tales with Teeth: A Review of Couri Johnson’s I’ll Tell You a Love Story

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Johnson, Couri. I’ll Tell You a Love Story. Bridge Eight Press

By Kym Cunningham

In the interest of full disclosure: this review does not pretend to be unbiased (as if writing can be), as Johnson is a colleague and friend of the writer as well as her Co-Editor-in-Chief.

It is not often that reading a book makes me feel like a kid again. But that’s exactly what Couri Johnson’s debut short story collection, I’ll Tell You a Love Story, manages to achieve: a suspension of belief, that hunger to consume—more and more—pages curled beneath a comforter with a flashlight in hand. Continue reading “Fairy Tales with Teeth: A Review of Couri Johnson’s I’ll Tell You a Love Story”

The Poetics of Working Corpus

By Kym Cunningham

We begin, like we always do, with the body—that occupation of space that separates I from us, the problematic corpus forever embalmed with liminality. I am nowhere but not nothing, just as the separation between us is nothing and yet it is not nowhere. And so we try to make something from this corporeal utopia: we fashion language as a means of apologizing for our bodies, for the space they take up and take away from others. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa—just a short step from corporeal to culpable, that indelible link between mind and body by way of confession. We are sorry for the manifestation of thoughts in bodies, and vice (versa): another act of contrition for the impurity of self.  It’s how we were taught to be polite—proper Catholic manners.

Continue reading “The Poetics of Working Corpus”

Melismas Review: Directly addressing the inadequacy of language

The cover of Melismas

By Hayden Bergman

Early in Marlon Hacla’s second chapbook, Melismas, this reader gets the sense that Hacla must speak, though for him, the stakes seem to be much higher than they are for most, and, perhaps, more violent. But maybe that’s too strong a word. The poet speaks of arrival in an inhospitable place, a place that’s both familiar and foreboding:

After I was returned to the primeval nature
of the ordinary, I felt as if an eruption
of words went off in my chest. I suspected
movement of the divide that stifles the articulation
of whatever it is I let roll across my tongue,
that night has fastidiously gathered from nearby places

Continue reading “Melismas Review: Directly addressing the inadequacy of language”

Important insights on translation work with Kristine Ong Muslim

By Jacob Richard Bergeron

Kristine Ong Muslim has authored nine books including The Drone Outside, Grim Series, and Night Fish. Some of her work has been translated into other languages. She has translated Three Books, Walang Halong Biro, and others. Melismas by Marlon Hacla is an upcoming work that she has translated which has a book review coming out this month on the blog. Kristine agreed to answer a few questions about her translation work.

Her work has been translated into French, Czech, Serbian, and Bulgarian. “The translators, who approached me and asked for permission to translate, just happened to be from places in Europe … Except for the Czech-language translation, the French, Serbian, and Bulgarian translators asked for permission to translate the same story,” she explained. Continue reading “Important insights on translation work with Kristine Ong Muslim”

Book Review: Someone You Love is Still Alive

Book Cover provided by Jacar Press

A geography of sex and violence permeates throughout Ephraim Sommers’s
Someone You Love is Still Alive. This energetic text presents readers with
contemporary insight into poetic archives that contort racial violence and love, shifting kisses amid murder reports that bend quietly under police badges. Sommers’s pragmatic aesthetic aligns with the vigor of Ai’s fairy-horror narratives in Dread and stands firmly with the dynasty-naming skills displayed in Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary. Throughout 69 dynamic poems, his use of documentary and investigative poetics incorporates intimate scenarios that engage current topics ripped from contemporary news headlines. Continue reading “Book Review: Someone You Love is Still Alive”