The First Time I Heard Fiona Apple

Man, I’ve sure got a lot of things to get off my chest.

I think

distracted at 6 a.m.

on a cat hair yoga mat

digging through old notebooks

instead of sun salutations.

Mom got rid of MTV

when I was a kid

after she saw me

through a crack in the bathroom door

exposing myself in the mirror

and singing Madonna songs.

Later I would see her do things

outside my bedroom window

through a hole in the blinds,

but getting rid of MTV

wouldn’t make those things go away.

I buried them.

We buried my pap

on a quiet cemetery hill.

Pale September.

His urn next to grandma’s urn.

Only five people were there.

I dug my fingers in the earth.

Dirt under my nails.

Buried.

I heard Fiona Apple for the first time

curled up on the carpet

on his apartment floor

and felt invigorated.

Sleep to Dream on an old tube TV.

The first time I had seen MTV in years.

I was a teenager,

eager to expose myself

to more than just a bathroom mirror.

“Don’t look, Rod!”

A few days before he died,

Pap instructed my dad to avert his eyes

as the nursing home resident down the hall

raised her shirt over her head

exposing a weathered and sagging chest.

6 a.m. notebook in my lap

cringing at a buried me.

Man, I’ve sure got a lot of things to get off my chest.

But not today.

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Things We Tuck Away

The following creative nonfiction essay was voted the second place winner in the Ohio Valley Writers contest in April 2018:

As a young girl, I had an imaginary friend named Glue that lived in the Dogwood tree outside my parent’s bedroom window. On warm, sunny days after school, I perched on the picnic table and talked quietly to a tree about my day. A tree is a great friend to a child with a troubled home life. A tree is rooted, predictable, and a superb listener. When the delicate, white flowers started to drip, I convinced myself that Glue was trying to escape and would wait day after day for her to show me her true form. Really, the tree was dying. Glue, brittle and dehydrated, was cut down and thrown onto my dad’s burn pile. Then, even at my age, I felt nothing but inevitably as I watched her limbs crack and split. In a week I was eating a burnt marshmallow over her ashes. Change can be unceremonious when you know it’s coming. We instinctively put those things in a box and move on. Years after something, or someone, you love dies, memories tend to only sift through like a few flakes of gold from a pan, and even then bits of dirt and rock cloud them.

Today I’m driving back roads to go hiking with my husband and eight-year-old son, Pearl Jam is blaring on the local radio station, clouds are brushed like watercolor on a bright, blue canvas, and the wind blows in the strangely comforting smell of manure. The scene conjures a form of astral projection—my foot still braking around each winding turn, my brain back to the time when I was eight in the passenger seat of my sister’s car.

Amy and I are cruising similar, likely the same, country roads in her red Ford Festiva, the same piece of shit she would floor through an underpass or tunnel just to get it to obnoxiously backfire while she cackled like an old crow. My window is cracked for fresh air so I don’t get motion sick, but I can still smell the exhaust so it isn’t really working. I’m watching the road straight ahead like my grandma had always taught me, but I occasionally break the rules to glance at the rolling, grassy hills that weren’t yet disrupted by pipelines, vinyl-sided homes, or backyard trampolines my tethered body is passing in present day.

When Amy came around for a visit, it was usually to help me escape. We’d take these long, aimless country drives with no motive other than overcoming inertia. She moved out of the cramped trailer myself and two other siblings called home shortly after she turned 18. She jumped around different run-down apartments in town, and sometimes stayed with one of her many abusive boyfriends. Sometimes we’d go to the movies hiding snacks rather conspicuously in the pocket of her oversized Tweety Bird sweatshirt, ushers shaking their heads at us as they dumped discarded popcorn in large bags for resale. Often we’d settle in to a booth at Elby’s, always a booth, and she’d order a club sandwich hastily held together with a toothpick that had a red plastic tip. She’d tell me edited tales about the terrible-boyfriend-of-the-month as I picked at bland pasta or a burger thinking about how lucky I was to have such a generous and amazing big sister. More often than I care to admit, she hugged me, crying, telling me it’s wasn’t my fault when my dad, belligerent and drunk, shamed me for being too chubby, too loud, or too much.

It’s March 1999 and Amy’s no longer driving. She can’t keep much food down. She’s 27 with aggressive colon cancer. All her guts are gone, so she has to shit and piss in a bag. My hand is resting on her knee as other visiting relatives run off to a complex across the highway to go shopping. We’re sitting together in this dank Florida hospital watching Ricki Lake as she lies wasting away and weak in stale, papery sheets. Her frail hands barely gripping the sterile and beige hospital phone, we dial home to sing our mom happy birthday, a tradition Amy alone began after getting married and retreating south years before. As we sing, gripped by inevitability, my mom sobs quietly on the other line.

What’s left of Amy’s body was ground into a fine powder and now sits displayed in a small, decorative box. I take off my glasses and bravely stand up next to a photo of her face in front of a room filled with blurry, grieving shapes. Starting to sing one of our favorite songs, I instead crack and topple over just like my favorite childhood Dogwood tree.

Muscle memory guides my foot on the accelerator, whipping around another turn, my consciousness still with Amy. She and I are pulling over into the dirt and gravel on the side of the road so we can feed tufts of grass to a small herd of cows. As they lumber over to us, flies buzzing, I notice tags on their ears.

I point to the tags, “Why are those there, Ames? What do they mean?”

“That’s too heavy to explain to you yet, Nat.”

“I can handle it.”

“Nah. Maybe when you’re older,” she says as we walk back to the car.

Amy fiddles with the tape deck, Pearl Jam queued up. She puts the car in drive and sings along loudly to “Alive” leaving behind only a cloud of dirt and some faint tire marks.

Dust kicks up on the gravel road as my family and I slowly pull up to the trail head.

I wish I had been more hospitable.

Mid-July 2011—having a yard sale. Our asses are starting to hurt from sitting on the concrete stoop most of the morning and being forced into large-scale interaction with a wide array of folks Joe and I are simply not built for. We are always kind and open, but those who frequent yard sales are often times exhausting, chatty, eccentric, or, at times, rude. It can be a lot for a couple of introverts (apologies for using that word, I find it quite overused; regardless, it is apt). There are times, however, when you meet someone and it feels like you are talking to an old friend. That old friend’s name was Faith.

She was an older woman, perhaps in her late 50s. It’s hard to tell sometimes given not knowing someone’s history or life experience, so she could’ve been any age. My point being, with the utmost respect, she looked to have lived a tough life and was clearly a lot older and more experienced than me or my husband at the time. I often find myself making connections with women older than me. I am a seeker and I like to learn. Older women always have something to teach…whether or not they realize that is irrelevant, I think. It’s just a fact.

She purchased some old CDs. I remember one of them being a Taylor Dayne album we had acquired from a random (obviously) wholesale CD order experiment years before Joe got obsessed with vinyl. I almost kept that one, truth be told, because Taylor Dayne reminded me of my sister, but it didn’t have that one good song on it (“Tell It To My Heart”…it’s in your head now, huh?), so I put it out for sale. Next to the CDs, we had a small stack of vinyl for sale and that got her talking: “I’ve got some really good shit at my house. You guys buy?” And, well, that’s the magic question for my husband, so naturally a conversation sparked and numbers were exchanged.

A week later, Joe and I are traveling on a country road past our house—a beautiful area not too far from us that we had shamefully never been out to explore—on our way to her place to pick up this old record collection she was ready to unload. We pulled up to her property and saw two rather run-down, small homes and a hitch trailer with a makeshift white picket fence out front. She crawled down from the trailer, her hair in a long braid, and greeted us, motioning toward one of the dilapidated homes.

The house had fallen into disrepair and she was getting rid of most her possessions to live even more modestly in the hitch trailer. She didn’t have a record player any longer and had collected most of her vinyl through her travels all over the states and overseas. Everything had a story and I’d be lying if I said I remember them all. She wanted CDs now so she could still “get lost in the music” and preferred mostly pop and classical. She had an intense and rather intimidating knowledge of classical composers. The records we obtained had obviously been exposed to the elements, but there were some absolute classics like Sabbath in the lot. And of course all the stories. The stories were the best takeaway. We gave her money and she didn’t want to accept it. I think she was just happy to talk to somebody that gave a fuck.

Months later, I got a knock on the door. It was her. She was on her way home from a housekeeping gig at one the new hotels that opened up nearby because of the influx of oil and gas workers into the area. I talked to her briefly on the front porch about how I missed cleaning hotel rooms before I became a proofreader. She insisted I wasn’t missing anything and to “keep using my brain.” Before leaving, she insisted I come back over to pick up some corn stocks from her garden for Halloween decorations.

I told her I would try to make it down, but I never did. I also never let her in for coffee. Never offered her something to eat. I feel like a completely daft asshole for that. I haven’t spoken to her since. I no longer have her phone number, and I feel strange driving to her trailer not knowing if she is still there. Years later, I realize she taught me some important lessons about myself despite only having three interactions with her. She also taught me the importance of connection. Connecting to people…all kinds of people. Staying connected to the moment. And, for fuck’s sake, invite someone in for coffee.

Be fucking resilient.

Up until about a month ago, I’ve been getting up around 5:30 a.m. on most weekdays to exercise. Since the weather has gotten colder, I’ve haven’t been heading to the gym. I recognize that things are frozen outside right now, and I am feeling super Hermit and that is OK and I give myself grace.

In the morning when I am not exercising, I’ve been exercising my braaaaain. Every morning I have coffee. I choose a tarot deck. I put on some music. I read a paragraph or a chapter from a book. I might light candles or incense or I might just go at it dirty (heeey ohhh).

This morning I knew I wanted to honor MLK, Jr. Day. I read his letter from Birmingham jail in its entirety. I had never done that before. While I’ve been honoring the freeze outside, feeling in tune with my body needs, I knew I should honor this, too. It ain’t always about me, me, me, motherfuckers! The day exists for reverence, for reflection, for understanding. Before I pulled two cards for today’s intention, those words—so relevant today and some likely uncomfortable for a lot of people—were informing the entire intuitive process of reading my cards for the day.

First position (What’s today’s intention?): The Wheel of Fortune  /  Second position (How can I honor that?): Seven of Pentacles

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Interpretation: Despite “fate,” you hold the power and fire inside to fight for what is right. To deny what seems to be imposed. The cycle for justice will continue because life moves in circles /// Honor accomplishments, celebrate small victories, and try not to get down when it feels like all the work is in vain. Give yourself credit.

In my (written) journal I realized that this is a matter of RESILIENCY. Today’s intention ended up as: BE RESILIENT.

And check how interconnected this shit is, y’all (WOO WOO HIPPIE SHIT)! But, the ground is covered in snow and ice. It’s really cold. But there’s seeds in the ground, is there not? Those seeds have an urge to GROW despite adversity. The deep freeze, the daunting motherfucking challenges are inevitable, but they are not impossibilities. They are not deal breakers. That snow will fucking melt. Those seeds will grow—maybe into a flower. Those challenges made the urge to grow stronger. RESILIENT. BE RESILIENT.

Developing the shadows.

Been on a deep dive lately. Have come to tarot very seriously as a tool to explore my psyche…especially the parts I am not super comfortable with. I’ve been into witchcraft and fringe expression since I was an ill-adjusted teenager. I know that’s not entirely abnormal, particularly for someone in my 30-something demographic. Regardless, it has always had a pull. At that time, I realize in retrospect, I was using it not only as a means to bond on a deeper level with my best friend, but to also escape the massive trauma I was experiencing through most of my pre-teen/teen years. It was a form of strength, power, and internal fire that had been so dimmed and snuffed by my environment and circumstances. I felt like I held the power to make shit happen. Of course, I had watched The Craft a whole bunch, so it was a naive power—but a power nonetheless. It was an outlet.

I wasn’t good at sports. I wanted to be, but I just fucking wasn’t. My family couldn’t afford most things and I couldn’t attend regular practices because I was playing mother to my severely autistic, non-verbal older brother after school while both my parents worked. The two of us would fight because neither of us were equipped to communicate properly. It’s a wonder no one got physically hurt, honestly. When I was 14, my sister died of colon cancer. My brother was in federal prison for things that, later, none of the family could even begin to wrap our heads around (we all came out on the other side of that, but at the time it was yet another log on the fire of my adolescence). My dad was a horrible alcoholic and my parents had succumb to infidelity and abuse.

Magic saved me then and it’s saving me now.

Magic saved me then and it’s saving me now.

As the current state of the union shines a light on the darkness that has always been festering beneath the surface, and exposes what some of us have known about humanity and the capacity for darkness for our entire lives, magic feels like another way to escape again. But it’s different this time, at least for me…

It’s forcing me inward. It’s forcing me to shine that light into the corners of my dirty, not-so-ideal patterns and default behavior. It’s giving me a strength (and that’s the card I keep drawing with almost every personal tarot spread I do lately) to persevere. To continue wading my way through the shit just like I always have. And to make me more connected to a world that I once thought only existed as hostile. It’s not all hostile. It’s starts inside. It starts when you harnass your shadows and recognize they are inside everyone.

Anxiety + Creativity

A bulleted list as it appeared in my phone notes; brought to you unedited to further that closed-in anxious vibe.

  • The curse of social media—mostly Instagram. Comparison. Seeing other artists create and “succeed” making things you know you should be making or better by this point.
  • Comparing years of experience and dormant plans to others that seem…yes seem…to have it all together in a year. 50K followers. Admiration, steady income. Good lighting and a highlight reel that you just don’t have.
  • But, your brain, oh your brain is a virtual feast of creativity. The ideas you’ve never realized are so much better than theirs. But the thought doesn’t count, motherfucker. Make. That’s what counts.
  • Too many ideas resulting in paralysis.
  • The time though? When is there the time when you must focus on your health and your shitty guts and packing school lunches and going to teacher meetings and vacuuming the floor and finally maybe considering fixing the windows or the siding or the many crumbling parts of your house. Or spending a grand on your elderly dog that you love too much. Or going to concerts and relaxing and feeling ok about relaxing instead of guilty.
  • Having writing ideas and sitting down and producing nothing.
  • Or getting sick in the midst of research and a surge of creative juices only to spend the rest of the day vomiting and woozy wondering what you ate and sleeping the day and evening away instead.
  • Going back to work and being so overloaded with the work of others that takes priority because it pays your bills (when you remember to) and keeps food in your mouth.
  • The anxiety of not even remembering to frantically type this into the notepad of your phone in time before the big fish swims away to the sea and the thought is lost forever.
  • Not being able to celebrate the small victories when they do come.
  • The anxiety that writing this as a blog post on a blog that barely anyone reads is a waste of time when it could be energy expended on producing those ideas that are beating the back of our eyes with a shovel day after day.