The Oak Tree

By Hannah Starobin

Recently, on Twisting The Plot Podcast, we spoke with photographer Jocelyn Lee about her new book, Sovereign. It is a collection of photographs of women fifty-five and older, naked, many in nature. There are also still life photos of flowers floating in water in various stages of decay. The photos are stunningly beautiful and thought-provoking. In looking through the book, I realized I had never really seen, other than myself, what an aging woman’s body looks like.

When I gave birth to my first child, I woke from my c-section and lifted the sheet to see my belly. I had never seen what a belly looked like after giving birth. Over the next few weeks, I watched as it slowly deflated like a balloon, returning to its pre-pregnancy shape but forever lined with stretch marks as a reminder. 

Yesterday, while walking Lily, I could not take my eyes off an old oak tree. I stood, tracing the twists and turns of the bark, mesmerized by the swells and bulges of the burls. Burls are formed due to stress on the tree. To some, they are considered ugly, a disfigurement. But, to those who know, they are highly sought after for the stunning patterns of color and grain that swirl under the bark. 

When I got home from my walk, I found myself thinking of my own “burls.” There are the stretch marks left behind by my pregnancies. The purple scar from my hip replacement, set in motion after a sledding accident twenty years earlier. When I look at it, I am once again on the sled, Sam squealing in my lap, saved by a last-minute swerve, my left leg acting like a spring as it took the impact with the tree. I look at the scar down my right knee, and I see an eighteen-year-old girl running each night, grieving Lee’s death and growing stronger. 

Our bodies are our vessel, our artwork, our strength, and our sensuality. I am grateful to Jocelyn for her vision and to the courageous women in Jocelyn’s book who share with us the power, grace, and sensuality of a woman’s body and a life lived.

Northeast by Southwest

By Susan Walton

Until last week, Artesia, N.M. was just a place on my birth certificate, a fragment of my origin story, told by my late parents and surviving cousin. I was there mainly in utero, plus a mere six weeks after birth, before my parents packed us up to return to Chicago and launch into the rest of our lives. It took me three-quarters of a century to spiral back.

Of course, the spiral is a universal symbol, shared by more than Anasazi and Pueblo peoples. Shells and nests evolve in spirals. Clouds, water and wind unfurl in spirals. Myths echo the spirals of life. Labyrinths invite us to embody them. To find myself pulled into a spiral of return, after decades of Eurocentric life, feels like destiny. I even dreamed in recent weeks that I found a big chunk of peridot, winking at me from the spiral stair of a big red London bus, as a little girl in the nineteen-fifties. As it turns out, peridot or chrysolite are mined in southern New Mexico and Arizona. It felt like a clue to a quest.

Visiting from the Northeast, just after Election Day, I obtained a state map from the visitor center in Santa Fe and was told that oil had been discovered in the Artesia region of southern New Mexico, that traffic and prices have surged there. As if on cue, towers and flames of refineries greeted me at the edge of town as I followed Mapquest to the current hospital, just two years old, which had replaced the one I was born in. The woman in reception at Artesia General, where the New Mexico flag waves beside the Stars and Stripes, wrote down an address for me to find the site of the old hospital, a few blocks away. A crisp new apartment building, Roselawn Manor, now rises where the nuns had been so kind to my lonely English war-bride mother. No vestige of the past remains. From Roselawn in Artesia, it was twenty miles in a straight line to drive west along US-82 to Hope, the struggling square-mile village with no railroad and a dried-up river, where my parents chose to settle for a few months until I was born. Yucca plants and Joshua Tree line the lonely route. Details of their stories fade, and I wonder why my parents chose Hope. Did my father’s ambitious plan to show his country to his bride peter out there? Was it the name that drew them? Surely not the now-abandoned general store, or trading post, which my white-collar dad ran for a while, nor the outdoor privy with tarantulas which so terrified my London mum. They had taken in my dad’s big sister and her family from Kansas City for a month, and my older cousin in the Northeast still recalls the thrill of freedom to play in the exotic Southwest.

Twenty-nine years ago, I brought my aging parents and a teenage son to explore New Mexico from a rented 37-foot RV, which I drove along winding roads in four states for two weeks, surprisingly unscathed. We could not risk the heat of a summer detour to Artesia, the septic system required daily interventions from my obliging son, and my dad was periodically disoriented, but we merrily played cards, told stories and sang as we lumbered in vague spirals through Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Shiprock, the Four Corners Monument, into Colorado to Mesa Verde, along the Million Dollar Highway from Durango to Silverton, up to Telluride, and back to Albuquerque through Utah and Arizona. It was an epic journey.
This time by car, I drove south and west in November to find the corrugated metal building labeled “Hope City Hall” with a marmalade cat on patrol outside. The welcoming clerk inside helped me locate the lot my dad used to own. At a tiny crossroads amidst bold cactus, sparse trees resembling acacia, a few trucks and small dwellings, not finding much that was tangible, I resolved to continue my quest, returning to Santa Fe via UFO-famous Roswell, with little green men on every corner. Where would my spiral journey lead?
Then, tears— which sprang to my eyes at sunset in Chimayo, the instinct I relied on to navigate on foot in Santa Fe, the pull of the labyrinth at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, the way my spirit embraced adobe architecture, curving red against blue sky… my jolt at the words and works of Georgia O’Keeffe, herself a seeker from New York… even the affinity I felt for that stubborn cactus in Hope—all felt like a homecoming.
Something whispers… let the spiral work its truth in me, let things evolve and stand, like the miraculous staircase at the Loretto.

My Private Toolbox

By Susan Hodara

I am lying flat on my back across the tiled floor in Carl Bindman’s downstairs bathroom. It’s not a large room; my head is beneath the porcelain toilet bowl, my feet under the sink. My eyes are shut. 

There is a party beyond the bathroom’s closed door – Carl’s Bar Mitzvah party, I think, which means I am probably wearing a nice dress and patent leather shoes. There are hamburgers and hotdogs. There is music – Beatles, Beach Boys – and the other kids are dancing the Pony and the 88. But I don’t care. My stomach is a knot of pain, and I need to make it stop. 

I know how to do this. I have to lie entirely flat – on either my back or my belly, arms by my sides – and will the ache to leave my body. It does so in a slow downward movement, stomach to bowels, urged by my silent focus. It doesn’t take too long – five or ten minutes – but I have to be patient; I can’t rush it. I lead the pain with my mind, usher it out. 

From my earliest years, I have concocted many ways of managing my body’s discomforts. I didn’t know what other people did in similar circumstances, and I didn’task. I developed my own techniques, and I kept them to myself: private solutions to personal challenges.

Like maneuvering my tongue to avoid the gag reflex that happened every time my mother brought me to the doctor and he needed to look down my throat. As a little girl, I had sore throats often enough that they considered taking out my tonsils, and each time the doctor examined me, he’d press down on the back of my tongue with a fat popsicle stick, and I would gag. That involuntary spasming, an unfulfilled retch that rose all the way up from my belly – I hated it. I gagged, but he’d leave the stick there, pushing down. 

So I learned how to depress my own tongue. I stood in front of the mirror in my bedroom and stretched my mouth open, and sure enough, the tongue that emergedcovered up everything behind it, tonsils included. But if I engaged the muscle at the back of my tongue and drew it downward, the whole thing curved itself into the space behind my lower teeth, and everything beyond was revealed: tonsils, uvula, the darkness into which I swallowed. I got good at it. So good that the doctor didn’t need the depressor anymore, and even when he did use it, I no longer gagged. 

Another solution: I found that tiny sips of water were the only way to quell a cough. I’m not talking about a phlegmy expulsion or a few loud hacks. I’m talking about those unprovoked but unrelenting fits of coughing that explode from your mouth if you try to suppress them. You’re going to have to just cough it out unless you can get to water. And so, rather than endure that humiliation, I would flee from classrooms and religious services and slumber parties to the nearest fountain or faucet. Just a few small sips would do. 

One of my most successful practices was getting myself to pee. I don’t know how I discovered the connection between my bladder and my words, but all I had to do wassay “wee wee wee wee wee,” and I would feel the tingle of an urge. Every time. It was a chant – “wee wee wee wee wee,” “wee wee wee wee wee,” “wee wee wee wee wee,” – whispered to myself in the bathroom stall at school or whenever my mother told me to “make a ‘wee-wee’” before bedtime or the start of a car trip. It worked so well that if I said it right after I peed, I could make myself pee again. 

On the flip side, I mastered (or I should say almost mastered) not peeing by adopting a walk that originated mid-thigh, with my upper legs clenched together to forestall that which was inevitable but which I could delay for unhealthy amounts of time. I’d jiggle my body and pace around in fast circles. Yes, there always came the point where I had no alternative but to sit on a toilet, but I could, usually, avoid disaster. 

A further triumph was dodging the braces I was threatened I’d need if I didn’t stop sucking my thumb (left thumb only). Thumb-sucking itself might be considered a self-devised means of easing my inner anxieties, but it was so intuitive, so unconscious, that I can’t take credit for coming up with it. As for evading its ill effects, I accomplished this by using the pad of my right thumb to push in against my upper front teeth, the same way I imagined braces would. I’d do it for 15 or 20 seconds after each bout of thumb-sucking. Additionally, I ensured no damage was being done by clenching my jaw and inserting my right index fingernail into the space between my upper and lower teeth to measure the distance, making sure it hadn’t grown. If it felt like it had, I’d press against my teeth for a little bit longer. 

As a young teen, I soothed myself by tearing off slivers of my toenails and the flecks of skin that surrounded them, and I taped my bangs to my forehead at night so they’d be straight in the morning. I found my father’s brass razor and shaved the black hairs off my legs so if I wore nylons, my legs wouldn’t look like there were frozen insectsbeneath the fabric. When I decided I was fat, I memorized calorie counts and calculatedmeals that would keep me below 800 a day. I stuck with it for months. 

Over the years, I accumulated a toolbox full of clandestine fixes, odd habits and coping mechanisms. By the time I became a mother to Sofie and her little sister, Ariel, the stomachaches of my childhood had subsided. But Ariel had lots of them, especially during elementary school, first thing in the morning when she lay groggy in her bed. “Just stay still and let it go,” I’d say, and I’d close my own eyes, as if I could do it for her. 

It never worked. She’d get up and head to school, leaving her pain behind or, who knows, bringing it with her. 

Susan Hodara is a memoirist, journalist and teacher. Her articles have appeared in publications including The New York Times and Communication Arts. Her short memoirs are published in a variety of anthologies and literary journals. Hodara is a co-author of the collaborative memoir “Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance With Our Mothers” (Big Table Publishing, 2013). She has taught memoir writing at the Hudson Valley Writers Center for more than a decade. She lives with her husband in Mount Kisco. More at www.susanhodara.com.

Bouts of polite anger under skin ( the kin of soft hatreds) dissolve

Laughing godlike comes the choir from a nearly abandoned well

The nameless ‘All’ vaguely felt, but only at the children’s’ table

Some notice gifts from wind; light from stars (perpetuating the moment)

Maybe find habitat, safe haven on breath, in lucid eyes

Yet before true self lets go of fear , it claims a righteous struggle

Earthly gains convinced it’s bloody freedom at cliff’s ledge

Hallelujah writes poet and artist while falling but not forsaken

By God nothing goes unnoticed; nothing remains unseen

We can be free of fear’s beautiful grip,

To come home