“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

Grief that results from the loss of a loved one is something we all experience at some point. Experiencing death as a teenager or young adult is especially painful, however, because these are formative years when having your loved ones around is crucial. In Ashley Woodfolk’s 2018 book The Beauty That Remains, Autumn, Shay, and Logan gradually learn to cope with their grief and become connected by their mutual love for the band Unraveling Lovely.

Told through the viewpoints of the aforementioned characters, The Beauty That Remains provides a strong, intricate narrative about grief that is very notable. In the initial aftermath of their losses, each of the characters copes differently. Autumn tries to go about her daily life as it was before the death of her friend Tavia but soon finds herself sending emails to Tavia and pushing away Tavia’s brother, Dante. After her twin sister, Sasha, dies, Shay attempts to run away from her grief. Finally, Logan deals with the death of his ex-boyfriend Bram through self-destructive behaviors such as drinking.

In addition to the leads, their lost loved ones are fully fleshed out characters who have a presence in their lives even after their passing. Tavia, aka Octavia, is boisterous, loving, and inspirational; she is a nice foil to the quiet, introverted Korean artist Autumn. Sasha’s enthusiasm about music is both painful and comforting to Shay, a Black indie rock music blogger. Bram’s troubled and gregarious nature haunts gay red-headed musician Logan to the point where he can’t write songs, but he can watch his ex-boyfriend’s old YouTube videos.

Not only do the lead characters cope with their grief differently, they also get help for it in different ways. Logan is forced to see a psychiatrist by his parents after he gets caught with his father’s liquor. Following an emotional breakdown, Autumn slowly learns to open up to Dante, her older sister Willow, and Tavia’s ex-boyfriend Perry. Meanwhile, Shay gets an unexpected intervention that leads her and her mother to different support groups. It is moving to watch each character find solace in someone or something they didn’t think would help them process their grief.

All of the characters show how complicated and messy grief can be. Sometimes, grief will make you lash out at loved ones, avoid them, or self-destruct. These responses are neither healthy nor excusable, but they happen. Grief can also result in strong physical reactions, such as the panic attacks that Shay has. Autumn’s sister Willow sums up the situation well when she says that Dante and Autumn have suffered “a great trauma.” Given that some people think grief is a temporary mood, like anger or sadness, it is gratifying to see grief depicted as something that strongly impacts mental, physical, and emotional health.

As a result of coming to terms with their grief, each of the lead characters is able to see “the beauty that remains,” which can be understood as the good things they still have despite who they have lost. Not only do they have loving friends and family who are still alive, they also have small and big things in their lives that they can enjoy. For Autumn, it’s drawing and reading books. For Shay, it’s running track. And for Logan, it’s writing songs. Yet the common love they all share is music, especially the band Unraveling Lovely.

Most of us know that music can be a powerful way to soothe and convey feelings that are otherwise difficult to express. When seen through the lens of grief, music can be both painful and wonderful. This is demonstrated when Shay walks out on a live performance of an Unraveling Lovely song that was sung to Sasha before she died. Music is a coping mechanism for all the characters, but they engage with it in different ways. Shay is a music blogger for her and Sasha’s website BAMF (Badass Music Fanatics), Logan is the former vocalist and songwriter for the band Unraveling Lovely, and Autumn listens to music, watches music-inspired films, and has Unraveling Lovely’s former guitarist Dante as her love interest.

While there was much about The Beauty That Remains that I enjoyed, I would point out that the book’s huge cast is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the characters are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and orientation, and almost every character plays a role in the healing the lead characters undergo. On the other hand, there were times I mixed up the characters or forgot who certain ones were, especially those who were in different bands. However, this did not ruin my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, The Beauty That Remains is a raw and liberating meditation on grief and music. Grief is a traumatic experience that everyone deals with differently, but this book shows that with help, you can still have wonderful things in your life despite the loss you’ve experienced. With music as their common thread, the characters blog, sing, and listen to words that bring them solace and keep the memory of their lost loved ones alive.

Top photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

So Much of a Mother Is Liquid

In the second poem of Callista Buchen’s new collection from Black Lawrence press, the phrase “clouds made of mouths” reminds me why I love poetry—why I can’t help but read it aloud, repeating moments like that over and over.

It first happened with the phrase “a caught moth” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live with Her Faulty Heart.” I’m a sucker for assonance, the soft echo of vowels that expand on the tongue, weighting the palate. A few pages later in Buchen’s book, I’m reminded why I love prose poetry. In the densely stacked paragraphs, images and lines swim up out of some ether for the reader to find. Without the neutral space of the page as guide, readers themselves are searchers, seekers. I find “this grounding in proximity”—in Part I of a book that traces a story of mothers: daughters-who-become-mothers, mothers-who-grieve, mothers-who-become-mothers-again-but-carry-their-grief-with-them-as-they-mother.

The structure and language of Buchen’s collection establishes both a chronology of a specific story and a tangling of this chronology. Recurring metaphors include liquid (water, milk), construction (road, cement), and various threats. The second poem in each section has the same title, “Flashes,” and its own particular form—discrete lines separated by plenty of white space. The first few iterations of this poem note dangers and potential safe spaces—like a description of a basement during a weather drill, or a mother’s worries and her constant vigil. Pronouns lace throughout the collection, an ever-present “you” that can mean any mother. Woman is italicized: Woman. Mother is too. There is an imperative voice addressing readers.

Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them…” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle…” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. 

The poem “Storytelling” makes this conflation of mothers explicit through the children’s book Blueberries for Sal. Who else remembers this book? Is it just me?—I read it to the children I cared for year after year, can picture it now. “Always the same story, the single color illustrations, me reading, my mother reading, her mother reading. What it means to be innocent.” Innocence can mean so many things, but here, at this moment in the collection, the poem appears amid poems about the loss of a baby, a birth. In the poem “Loss,” one of the mothers (I think of all the speakers as mothers by now) says, “I am grief. I am double and half [ . . .] I can be a coffin.” Immediately following that poem is “Kinds of Trucks,” which trucks in construction metaphors (hard hats and steel-toed boots and cement—all about building and safety and protection), and the mother writes, “Somewhere, a woman plans an arboretum, thinks, this morning I am domestic, this afternoon I am wild.”

One of the central poems in Look Look Look is “Metaphysics”—a short poem that encapsulates much of the poems’ multilayered depictions of motherhood. Aside from the second poem of each section, it’s also one of the few lineated poems. Because it so deftly captures the conflict at the center of the collection, it’s worth quoting in full:

Our most ambitious work: mother as birthplace, where woman becomes location.

Someone singing: rejoice! A body in service, a graft here, a graft there.

Call and response: how she (nearly) disappears inside ritual and imprint.

Let’s situate: Where were you born?

In a (nearly) different life, the child stands between her parents: a record, a stain, a

            photograph of the future.

Contextualize: There, says the child, pointing toward her mother, home.

Later, how (nearly) altered: child becomes mother, the X on a map.

Call and response: why didn’t you warn me?

A prayer: but who would believe it? says the mother, and turns on the music.

To cast out from this poem, mother(ing) as work/location/disappearance figures heavily. Mother as seen by child, as connected to child, as once-child. The call and response sings throughout Buchen’s poems: the daughter becomes a mother and has a daughter. How much should she tell and when? And would she have listened anyway?

Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them . . .” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle . . .” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. You understand the story begun from this early scene: when “women sit in a circle, nursing. They could be knitting, could be planning a war.” As a not-mother, though, there were many things here I did not know—and for me, poetry has always been one of the ways I come to know things: through its sounds, and uncommon language, and juxtaposition of raw and lush. In “Remnants,” the mother tells how when filling out forms “even at the optometrist’s,” the number of pregnancies and the number of live births don’t match. “The third child that is the second child, any day now. She smiles like people do when they say that.”

If the collection has a kind of dénouement, it is the mapping of the mother’s body after the birth of the third-child-who-is-the-second-child, the way the title poem, “Look Look Look,” invokes this body:

Later, I read that the cells of children move through the placenta, latch on to the mother’s

lungs, liver, brain, her skin. The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells

of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body. A fissure leads to fog.

In “Quick Change,” the mother writes about stored bodies she keeps around the house—in the coat closet, under the bed, in the garage. She calls them “the spares” and declares it “better this way.” In poems in the last section, the mother writes about the dark line down her belly, how it doesn’t fade, separated muscles, “the distance between wrecked and whole.” The poem goes meta, referencing itself, what will and won’t work as a metaphor. It ends with “The body as a poem, what won’t grow back.”

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About the Author

Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016) and The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest. She teaches at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the visiting writers reading series and advises the student literary journal.

Top photo by Becky Phan on Unsplash

Animal Rescue

My position as liaison between the open-admissions city animal shelter and almost four hundred rescue partners skews mostly toward crisis management. An injured gannet arrives, stunned and unable to fly. A shedding python someone tried to mail to California, a neonate squirrel drinking Pedialyte from a syringe, a red dog with matted fur and a mammary tumor—my department rushes them to rehabbers or twenty-four-hour vet hospitals.

I do not think about poetry during my day job, unless coaxing moms away from their two-day-old kittens long enough to gently place the whole family in a crate counts as building a poem. I only write on my days off, in slices between laundry and the long walks I take to process the worst of what I’ve seen during the week. I struggled last year when it became impossible for writing to be my whole world, or even a large part of it. I thought in terms of survival and the next therapy session, the minutes when my ideation quieted as I led a dainty pit mix through the rain.

But reconnecting with animals, my first love, has driven me back to poetry. Caring about the survival of others helps me (most days) to see the value of my own.  

I wanted to share a few drafts from #NaPoWriMo that touch on those feelings:

Draft 1:

I watched a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body. I watched a man caress a swan with a beak too cracked for panic. I tell him you make me that swan, cut my panic with tenderness. My co-worker sends an email titled “11 Rats, can you help?” with a photo of white rodents arranged in a loose braid of a nausea. Imagine they climb my shoulders, pepper my movements with their lozenge eyes. I’m so unlike the Black Swan I saw last Halloween, cloaked in enough tulle to choke a bigot politely. My rats will make me that polite, crown my body with their tails in the air.

Draft 2 (Radical Revision):

I watch a vet tech caress a swan down their neck, down the wing pulled tightly against his body.

I watch my friend hold a python   as close as she can to her chest, his shed flaking on her gloves.

The only children I love  stray far from what I could make: pinkie squirrels with dark nails,

small lizards in a cricket frenzy. I watch the accolades pile up  when a straight friend posts 

ultrasound pictures. Her fetus somersaults away from the camera.  My own uterus contracts,

the pain elegant and ribbed,  like the ribbon crack in that swan’s beak that made eating impossible.

Draft 3:

The further I get I am a gulper eel, I hope, a mouth like the black box in Are You Afraid of the Dark? I open this mouth and you fall inside. The further I get I am the Black Lodge, a row of tiles that kiss muddy feet, a thick curtain grazing your neck. I speak rewinding cassette, I speak marine snow as my eel body ribbons between water zones. It is effortless to be such a horror, and your clues dissolve like shrimp in my stomach acid, like a face blurred by a net of ink.

The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.
The Rise of Genderqueer is available for purchase directly from Brain Mill Press and from print and ebook vendors everywhere.

Tender and brutal, luminous and dark, raucous and gutting, Hanks’s poems are so alive that you can almost hear their heartbeat.—Foglifter

A truly incomparable collection, The Rise of Genderqueer constructs a voice with unmitigated and authentic yearning. Its poems soak ink into page from margin to margin, pressing into the reader’s assumptions about gender unmercifully. These poems demand, carry authentic wisdom, deliver keen argument, and disarm with sly wit. Wren Hanks challenges the status quo as neatly as a flower slid into the barrel of a rifle. These are utterly convincing prose forms studded with rhetoric he’s deftly remastered and sampled from our culture and conversations right now.

I’ll never be denatured, // I am nature,” Hanks’s poems insist, as the reader bears witness to a bigger world, light flooding into every corner, revealing what has always been true, vigorous, and expansive.

“We are witnessing the birth of an extraordinary voice in these poems.”
—Roy G. Guzmán

The Ghost Incites a Genderqueer Pledge of Allegiance

Wren Hanks

Deny girl and the blood galaxies trailing it; there is a ghost in me who loves each egg, who won’t let me throw up when I’m seasick from my period.

There is a ghost in me riffing on fertility & chocolate almonds. We grow organs in pig ribs, ghost. Surely swelling and blossoming are not the same.

Swelling’s for an injured brain, a uterus drunk on the repetition of cells. I place my hand on my bound chest, pledge allegiance to the rashes and the scales, the fold and petal.

It’s a mess inside me, ghost.

Wren Hanks is the author of The Rise of Genderqueer, a 2018 selection for Brain Mill Press’s Mineral Point Poetry Series and a finalist for Gold Line Press’s chapbook contest. A 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow, his poetry has been a finalist for Indiana Review‘s 1/2 K Prize and anthologized in Best New Poets. His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Waxwing, Foglifter, and elsewhere. He is also the author of Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press), an Elgin Award finalist. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a liaison for Animal Care Center of NY’s New Hope program, a proactive community initiative that finds homes for pets (and wildlife) in need. He lives in Brooklyn and tweets @suitofscales.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

Meatcage

The sunlight seeps soft through the womblike redness of my closed eyelids as I ease into consciousness.

Can I actually feel the crackling dislocations from my elbows to my fingertips, or is it simply familiarity, the recognition that the slabs of meat at the ends of my arms must somehow still belong to me, even if I can’t control them right now? I blink languorously, eyelids plinking together. How can I be more tired waking up than I was before I fell asleep?

I say the names of the bones to myself in a chanted catechism as I will myself to sit up. Lunate, scaphoid, triquetral. My tongue tap dances along the backs of my teeth and I wriggle against the pillow without using my hands. Capitate, pisiform, hamate. Once steady, I interlace my fingers, stabilize my left hand with my right, then pull and twist simultaneously. The movement is rote memory. Lightning bolt bright explosions implode within my hand every single goddamn time. There is a machine-gun chatter of bone against bone and I don’t realize I’m grinding my jaw and holding my breath with the hurt until I have to unclench and inhale. The sound of re-location echoes in my room — all of Oakland must be able hear it — before I switch, bracing right hand against left this time. I pull, twist, and my nerves scream in protest as the blood flows back into my hand. Each pale finger bursts into bright crimson bloom, tributaries abruptly flooded with color and the feeling that inevitably follows. There is an electric tingle like brushing wet skin against a light socket as I pop my thumbs back into place, then encircle my wrists and watch my ulna and radius forcibly realign. My elbows follow suit obediently, eventually, and I am grateful they don’t require more coaxing.

There is an electric tingle like brushing wet skin against a light socket as I pop my thumbs back into place, then encircle my wrists and watch my ulna and radius forcibly realign.

Breathe.

Once my hands are back together, I plant them on the sheets and twist my torso. Each vertebrae jumps back into place, an answering cacophony to the call of my hands. It feels like stacking books on a shelf until their spines are carefully aligned with the edge.

Eventually, slowly, surely, I sit up fully. I slip my fingertips beneath my scapula and crunch my ribs back in place. I roll my head in tiny circles until my neck no longer creaks. My ankles pop like bubble wrap and if there weren’t two screws in my left foot, anchoring my toes in place, they might add rifle-shot cracks to the discordant symphony of my skeleton. I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and shuffle into my slippers.

I keep the pain pills in the second drawer on the left-hand side of the bathroom sink, through the bedroom door and down the hall on the right. If they sat on my bedside table, right there beside me, within easy reach (once my hands were realigned), I might never make it off the mattress. The rattle of round pills against child-proof plastic is sweet harmony, a chorus of angels whispering against the seashell curve of my ear. They fall into the palm of my hand, sweet manna from heaven, and dissolve bitterly, beautifully beneath my tongue.

One of my earliest memories is as a toddler in the hospital, and the razorblade burn as they snaked a catheter up into me to help empty my bladder.

The pain of that urinary tract infection looks like bright, white, focused light and the weight of my Mama holding me as I screamed. The hospital is not an uncommon setting for my childhood memories, because there are so many other surgeries: a broken collarbone, stitches striped up my forehead in a scar that makes me self-conscious as a teenager, eye surgery after being declared legally blind. Scars remain in the places where my memory has evaporated like pools of rubbing alcohol. I am too young to have so many injuries, and the doctors label my mother negligent while the nurses cluck their tongues when she brings me in yet again. She is not a reckless parent; I am simply sick and undiagnosed. I will remain that way for decades.

Scars remain in the places where my memory has evaporated like pools of rubbing alcohol.

I grow older, and the hospitals are replaced by memories of rooms full of fellow elementary school students lined up in neat rows as we stood, backs against the walls, to be tested for scoliosis. I knew that my bones were curved, sinuous and slippery, because the doctors had already told us. I welcomed the escape from the tedium of our regular classroom routine and thought little more of a test that told me nothing new. It didn’t hurt yet — not more than anything else I’d been through, anyways — so I didn’t have to worry.

I grow older still, and my middle school years are defined by the hissing suck of the refrigerator’s rubber seal as I slip the protective plastic case containing the glass vial of human growth hormone and its syringe inside the artificial chill. Sleepovers meant an inescapable conversation with someone’s mom to explain why I was bringing needles over to spend the night. Sometimes I would sneak into the bathroom to inject the drug into my stomach or my hips; sometimes my friends watched the process, rapt and only slightly disgusted. The endocrinologist asked me questions about my absent period that made me squirm. His queries made me compare myself to friends who had already begun puberty, as if the flat line of my chest and tiny stature weren’t already stark reminder of how far behind my body lagged. Eventually, I refused to see him again, missing out on adding inches to my stature as the hormonal help ended.

In high school, I arch my back against the hard metal of the chair attached to the desks, feeling the deep ache in the curve of my spine. Some days I’d skip homeroom and drive my emerald minivan across the bridge until I found an expansive parking lot where I could sleep in the backseat without being noticed. Cool breezes fluttered in from the cracked back windows but none of it made the hurt go away. When I talk to a doctor about feeling so low, I don’t mention the pain — no one has connected any of the points into a cohesive constellation yet. He points out the pin on my lapel, a round button proclaiming my love of The Cure, and asks me if I take a lot of MDMA, listening to a band like that. I laugh in his face and never come back.

When I talk to a doctor about feeling so low, I don’t mention the pain — no one has connected any of the points into a cohesive constellation yet.

In college, the shame of calling out of work yet again burns bright. I wonder if the heavy plastic trays of food I hoist onto my shoulders were the reason why my whole body sometimes protested so vehemently I couldn’t even get out of bed. I feverishly save my tips, cycling through every brand of mattress topper available, but none seem to help. I email my professors to tell them I am unable to move from my pillows, much less sit up straight behind the wheel of a car, which means there’s no way I can drive to campus for class. Sometimes I drag myself to the doctor and beg for any kind of answer. Instead, they recommend I see a chiropractor and write me a note that excuses me from class.

After college, as a bonafide adult, I revisit my childhood spent in the emergency room. One night, I check myself in after two weeks of hitching gasps on dislocated ribs. I beg the intake nurse to help me slide them back into place, long enough so I can take a deep breath. Breathing feels like sucking oxygen through a blocked straw. Instead, two nurses and a doctor corner me. They proffer pamphlets that explain the link between narcotics and addiction; they encourage me to get myself clean. I tell them I don’t want narcotics, but they’re convinced they have me figured out. On the way out, one finally touches me and exclaims in surprise when he feels my rib cage shift. I sob painfully in the car as I drive home.

The diagnoses that came first were the ones that are always applied to young humans with uteruses who complain of inexplicable pain.

My medical record fills with words like conversion disorder, and hysteria, and hypochondria. Someone as young as me shouldn’t — realistically couldn’t — possibly hurt this much. The doctors can’t see my pain, which means they can’t measure it, either; obviously it must not actually exist at all. A primary care doctor finally refers me to a neurologist so he can wash his hands clean of me, and this doctor grants me the gift of a word that seems to fit: hypermobility. He shrugs, tells me there’s nothing else he can do for me. He doesn’t realize the benediction he has offered in the form of a diagnosis.

Someone as young as me shouldn’t — realistically couldn’t — possibly hurt this much. The doctors can’t see my pain, which means they can’t measure it, either; obviously it must not actually exist at all.

The salt of my tears cut channels through the foundation I patted on my cheeks to cover up the deep, dark half-moons of exhaustion beneath my eyes. I frantically search for more information in my ear, scrolling with one subluxed finger through pages describing collagen disorders. I see myself reflected in the words, each sentence strung together like pearls I could drape around myself to describe the mystery of my hurt. It is like that perfect, tiny moment of ecstasy when a word you couldn’t think of for days finally pops into your head unbidden. My heartbeat rings out like a hammer against steel, my bones reinforced with the titanium resolution of an almost-answer. I am suddenly dogged enough to fight harder, brighter, bolder for that which I now know to be true about myself and about my body. I am not quite there, but I am close.

I see myself reflected in the words, each sentence strung together like pearls I could drape around myself to describe the mystery of my hurt.

I am twenty-six years old and sitting in the bright primary colors of the pediatric ward in a hospital basement with no reception when a young geneticist with olive skin approaches. He wears a crisp white coat and I am distracted by the flickering sparkle of a tiny diamond in his earlobe as he diagnoses me, finally and conclusively, with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), a collagen disorder that can cause severe implications across the entire body and every system therein. He gives me a reason for my UTIs as a toddler, my eye surgery, the broken bones and random joint dislocations, the pituitary growth hormone deficiency, the unrelenting pain.

Along with the diagnosis comes the reality of my existence, combined with a slew of co-morbidities: dysautonomia, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, facet joint disease, endometriosis, fibroids, dysphagia. There is a fatal flaw in my DNA and no cure for any of it; there is barely medical recognition, much less functional literature approaching a fix. The hEDS comes with an inescapable promise of more surgeries, and unavoidable complications from those surgeries, too. My jaw dislocates and stays out for 16 weeks before I am wheeled into the cool brightness of an operating room. My big toe dislocates and is eventually forced back into place with two screws. We ablate my nerves with radiofrequencies to try and deaden the sensation of pain and inject lidocaine into my muscles to try and prevent their uncontrollable spasms.

There is a fatal flaw in my DNA and no cure for any of it; there is barely medical recognition, much less functional literature approaching a fix.

A golf-ball sized cyst encroaches onto my right ovary and a fibroid invades my fallopian tube. A surgeon removes my reproductive organs, accidentally perforating the thin and friable tissue of my damaged uterus during the procedure. Every time a surgeon operates on my body, I ask them to take pictures of the places inside me that are broken. I clutch the images of my snarled insides to my heart as if they were pages ripped from a holy book. After years of being told it was all in my head, concrete proof of my pain’s existence is precious and perfect and makes me cry.

I become someone who is hyper-aware of my existence as a human with a body in constant rebellion. My body may be myself, but it is not my own.

My diagnosis is new when a well-meaning, nondisabled friend tells me that I’m going to “think myself into a wheelchair” if I keep talking about eventually needing one, and I can’t stop imagining her face as I look my doctor in the eye and tell him I’m not leaving his office until he refers me to a specialist to be fitted for one.

I’ve been asking to see a specialist now for months, unable to visit art museums or see concerts without my hips and knees and ankles dislocating, or my eyes blurring with the grainy darkness of near-syncope. Even the stout wooden handle of my cane, adopted as near-permanent after foot surgery, cannot keep me upright. He tells me that he is concerned I will become “too reliant” on the wheelchair, but he finally stops arguing when he sees the resolute set of my jaw that day.

Six months later, I am gripping the handrims of my new wheelchair. My cheeks already hurt from the uncontrollable grin spread across my face, but I cannot stop smiling. Even in the small space of the specialist’s office, I zip from corner to corner and back again, learning to maneuver my body in its new vehicle. I gave up long distance running long ago, after finally accepting that my ankles would never stop dislocating with each slamming step on concrete or treadmill, but have craved the endorphin rush of a runner’s high ever since. The speed and sure agility of my wheelchair provide the surety of that high.

Even in the small space of the specialist’s office, I zip from corner to corner and back again, learning to maneuver my body in its new vehicle.

The inaccessibility of the world serves as a sobering reminder of my limitations, however. It is not moving through the world on wheels that slows me down; I am faster, spry and more lithesome perched in my seat than I have been for years on my feet. No, it is the world itself. It is the sidewalks without curb cuts, the doors without automatic openers, the bathroom stalls too small to fit my chair inside, the entrances with stairs and the ramps around back (if they exist at all). I go to the store and can’t navigate between the too-small aisles; I go to the movies and dislocate my neck in the accessible seating (after asking nondisabled people to move); I go to restaurants and stare at the wood of the bar as my friends tower on high-top tables above me.

I see the same inaccessibility reflected in the ableism of the sneering faces of people who tell me that requesting accessibility is asking for extra privileges, who illegally park in accessible spots and curse at me when I ask them to move, who laugh in my face and tell me my life isn’t worth living because I am diseased, disabled, and therefore somehow lesser, despite brokering a tentative peace with my unpredictable existence.

After the bitter, blissful pill melts beneath my tongue, my entire body is suffused with a gentle tamping down of the loud static screaming of nerves on fire and bones dislocated from the mere act of dreaming.

I step into the shower and turn away from the water, letting it run down my back until the bee sting prickling from my winged scapula dulls to a quiet roar.

I towel off, careful to dry my scarred left foot with only a featherlight patting of the towel, turning my face in the mirror to see the red scar that climbs up my jaw and into my hairline. So much of my body feels alien to me, like the swathes of skin that remain perpetually numb post-surgery, or a foot so painful that even a sheet resting on it is unbearable agony. My body, my diagnosis, means I am an intrepid adventurer exploring an undiscovered planet, with little warnings as to what local flora and fauna might hurt me — or how, but I am learning.

My body, my diagnosis, means I am an intrepid adventurer exploring an undiscovered planet, with little warnings as to what local flora and fauna might hurt me — or how, but I am learning.

I wing my eyeliner out from my eyes and darken my blonde eyelashes with mascara. I outline my lips in vibrant crimson, carefully tracing the jagged contours of my upper lip and the u-shaped curve swipe of my lower. I work carefully until I am fiercely plumed in war paint and warning signs, because makeup is one of the few ways I know to seize control of my mercurial meatcage. I pull on clothes and despite the siren-song calling of my bed, begging for my return, I head out into the world prepared to fight: the pain from my body; against a world demanding my erasure for the sin of not fitting in; and for accessibility, deserved, promised, but not yet guaranteed. I slip an extra pain pill into my purse and face the world, where every act of my existence becomes an act of resistance by simple virtue of being in my meatcage.

top photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Detached

People often talk about out-of-body experiences, usually during a dramatic scene on television or in a movie where someone is presumed dead but sees their life from the outside and fights to return.

I think this is a required scene for every season of Grey’s Anatomy, since someone on the brink of death gasps, choking in air, to symbolize the struggle it took for them to come back from the edge.

I’ve never experienced that. What I’ve processed is an inner-body experience. I understand both circumstances are the result of trauma, but one puts the victim on the outside, watching their person from above, whereas my inner turmoil is my body no longer recognizing myself. I’m internally and, perhaps, irreparably detached.

Were it not for the pain and the scars and the memory of stark white operating and exam rooms where I was told to just breathe, I’d believe all of this happened to someone else.

For the past three and a half years and seventy doctor appointments, I have undressed for an audience that poked, prodded, and studied me. The flesh on my chest has been cut into, pectoral muscles separated from my chest wall—and later, reattached—and tissue scraped from clavicle to midway down my ribs, implants placed inside, removed, then replaced, fat moved from my thighs and abdomen to my lean and delicate chest, and the same cuts stitched closed four times. My abdomen has been scanned and surveyed thirty times to watch follicles grow in my ovaries, monitor a spot on my uterus, and leave doctors in a state of confusion when my small intestine decided to choke itself one day. I’ve been strapped to a chair-like operating table and flipped to a forty-five-degree angle so a doctor could delicately insert a needle to extract nineteen of my eggs that were then frozen and sent a hundred miles away for safe-keeping.

Were it not for the pain and the scars and the memory of stark white operating and exam rooms where I was told to just breathe, I’d believe all of this happened to someone else. It couldn’t have been my body that survived each of these visits where I laid myself bare. Mine would have never survived this.

Growing up, the rules of my house were conservative. Not in the political sense but in the way we treated and displayed our bodies. As a teen in the aughts, low-riding jeans were bought in secret but were too revealing for me to feel confident wearing them. My bikini bottoms were what stores called “full-coverage” and slinky, low cut tops were a pipe-dream. School was no different; each day I wrapped a knee-length plaid skirt around my waist, pulling it low enough so only a sliver of my thigh and kneecaps could be seen once I slid into my dark-tone knee socks. My high-cut V-neck sweater allowed my neck just enough space to feel unrestricted but hung off my shoulders like a shroud of secrecy. You could not tell the size or shape of anything underneath.

Even if the rules permitted otherwise, I felt uncomfortable putting my body on display. I chose to lay myself bare in other ways.

Even if the rules permitted otherwise, I felt uncomfortable putting my body on display. I chose to lay myself bare in other ways. I was talkative—outspoken, and even noisy. I deliberately sat in the front row of classes so I could see my teachers react to my challenges. I tested my parents’ patience by tip-toeing through the front door at six in the morning because the sunrises on the beach were too good to miss, but so was the sand I tracked in behind me. But the teenage boys I was galivanting with never copped a feel under my shirt and attempts to unhook my bra were futile.

I was not prude, though. I was careful—selective of the parts I allowed people to see, in fear they would tarnish, rather than admire, it. It—I—was delicate; I thought in only revealing small parts of this body I carried that I could protect it from hurt.

I was careful—selective of the parts I allowed people to see, in fear they would tarnish, rather than admire, it. It—I—was delicate; I thought in only revealing small parts of this body I carried that I could protect it from hurt.

And then I learned the body I spent twenty-seven years protecting had been damaged since its conception. Inside, my DNA was flawed; I had a BRCA1 genetic mutation. What began as a blood test lead to me uncomfortably changing into countless seersucker robes, left open, so doctors and nurses could scan and swab my insides. Suddenly no amount of clothing could protect me from damage.

Since learning this mutation I inherited increased my risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and skin cancer, I’ve underwent five surgeries to remove and reconstruct my breasts. Every six months, a woman named Antonina, who is gentle and kind, inserts a probe that scans my uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. After she is done, I dress and then undress in a separate exam room, where a nurse-practitioner who has become a key part of my survival manually checks for abnormalities Antonina’s thorough scans might have missed. These women are looking for the start of ovarian cancer, often called a silent killer.

One minute of my life—the moment I learned my body was already damaged—changed how I show myself to the world. This new requirement—the discomfort of disrobing for perfect (but credentialed) strangers—forever altered my connection to my body, as well as what it’s capable of.

I had to let go the modesty I once clung to, removing my shroud and both the fear and reverence I carried underneath it.

Slowly chipping away at each doctor’s appointment and surgery was the body I knew as a thing of beauty, one that I revered, coddled, and protected, and transformed into an object of utility, a random piece of biology, a science experiment. I had to let go the modesty I once clung to, removing my shroud and both the fear and reverence I carried underneath it.

As I’ve peeled off the layers I’ve accumulated over the years, I’ve realized that our bodies carry more than they’re meant to, and I’ve been adding to that burden. Once I saw what my body can do, what it can recover from, the poking and prodding and nakedness unshackled me from the constraints I placed on myself.

Once I saw what my body can do, what it can recover from, the poking and prodding and nakedness unshackled me from the constraints I placed on myself.

For twenty-seven years, I coddled my body and underestimated its ability to endure, but the past three and a half years have taught me to give it freedom to pull me through raw, naked despair. But in this process, my body detached from my mind. I see the body I am attached to, but I’ve yet to make a connection to my new understanding of it. It remains foreign because it’s strength was something I never let it—or had to—put on display. When the nerves in my chest were severed during my mastectomy, my relationship to my body was severed as well. But nerves regenerate, slowly and not always along the same path. Perhaps the link between my mind and body I lost years ago will also grow anew.

top photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.

Forming out of the Void

At eight years old, I sat in church while the pastor informed the congregation that a wife’s body did not belong to her, that marriage meant that her husband owned her sexuality.

I doubt this was the first time I had heard this sermon, but it juts out in my memory. I sat stiffly in the pew, every inch of my skin hurting. It isn’t fair, I couldn’t say. I don’t want that, were forbidden words. The future I was being offered was the present: my body belonged to men now, and it would belong to men in the future.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all. The language of my Evangelical faith was, Less of me, more of Jesus, and, Not my will, but God’s. You surrendered to God, you died to self, you released all control and let God define you. And it was God that said that I would grow up to marry a man and give my body to my husband.

I was raised to love a God that asked me for everything. My life, my body, my wants, my desires, my goals, my dreams, everything a person could possibly call theirs, God wanted all.

There was no raging against this. As much as it hurt, as sick as I felt listening to those words, it was a sickness akin to grief: an acknowledgement, a resignation. This was the truth, commanded by God himself, and no small child had any power to change it.

I could only relinquish myself. This was the one line in the sand: obey God or rebel. One led to contentment, happiness, fulfillment. The other pain, destruction, and hell. All that was required of me as a child, the only thing I needed to learn was how to obey better. Obey the Lord. Obey my parents. Obey authority. And one day, my future husband. There was nothing else.

The sexual abuse took my body before I understood I had one. It was part of my formation of consciousness, how I categorized the world. What houses looked like houses where children were being hurt? What men looked like men who loved their daughters too much? Why did so many girls look like they deserved to be spared when I certainly didn’t? I made these assessments with the casualness of familiarity. By the time my parents were separated, and it was my second oldest brother leading me off to the bedroom, I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I had no sense that I could say no. It simply was. I’d trained myself into empty boredom. Bodies tune out consistent stimulus. I dissolved into nothing.

I was handcrafted by God to be a girl. It was my mother’s prayer. In the terror of an abusive husband and the chaos of two sons, she wanted the innocence of a girl, the quiet calm of a daughter, whole and set apart from the trauma of abuse. So God created me for her. I was an infant so beautifully still, so sweetly quiet, my mother could forget she was holding me in her arms. An answer to prayer.

But I was also girl; my mother put on me the predilections of what she saw as feminine traits. My emotions were suspect, held up to scrutiny to determine whether they were true or had hidden motivations. Spoiled, prone to dramatics, feigning illness and weakness. A cunning child, willingly provoking her brother to violence for the sheer delight of getting him in trouble. My anger was an intentional cruelty I inflicted on my family, my tears manipulative attempts to avoid punishment. When my mother reflected on my childhood, it was with the assurance of her parenting skills; I was bad, but she had made me better. I was lazy, rebellious, manipulative, and she taught me obedience.

I was not a teenager, my mother pointed out with pride. Teenager meant self-exploration, independence, rebellion—all things that contradicted the relinquishing of self. The only lesson on defying that God taught was how wrong it was to defy God. So why not skip all that? Why not jump ahead to the right conclusion and avoid the misery?

For once my mother was proud of me. I received praise from her when I scorned my childhood self and called her a spoiled brat. Who else but someone who loved truth, whose thinking wasn’t clouded with self-interest, would be willing to acknowledge how wicked they had once been? I was wise now, someone who cared about logic before emotion. I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night; these were facts. The body—the flesh, as our Christian faith called it, in all its carnality, only wanted to trick us, and I was not going to be tricked.

I disconnected so deeply from any felt experience that I insisted to myself that I was not hungry if I had just eaten, I was not tired if I’d slept through the night.

I had to rearrange my feelings to match what I was supposed to feel. The only trauma I was allowed was “a girl without her father,” and everything I experienced was assigned to it. Any other problem was merely physical. I was inexplicably sick a lot: headaches, stomachaches, allergies, and a chronic case of PMS my mother insisted could plague me all month long.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven. It’s not that I was entirely unaware that begging God to kill me had no spiritual motivation. But when I slipped up, when I admitted to myself what I really felt, I had to go back to the process of making my emotions line up correctly.

I was a girl. I wanted a boyfriend. There was no question. It was easy to be this way, to logically reverse emotions. What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys. There was no conscious effort on my part, no confusion or doubts. It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so. They were determined by God and I had no fight in me.

It is easy to feel afraid and call it being cold. Sadness simply becomes exhaustion. The wish for death a Christian’s desire to go home to heaven.

I was solidly an adult before I could finally tell others about the sexual abuse. I worried that my mother was right; I was manipulative. Because to talk about the abuse was to intentionally recall the trauma, to bring to mind the kinds of chronic pains our bodies let us forget about. I didn’t have to do this, so didn’t it, by definition, mean I was playing the victim? It felt less like I was tearing down the walls to find the fresh, real, spontaneous self underneath. I was making myself climb back into my body and teaching myself how to map those feelings into emotional expressions.

Abuse survivors are often handed a narrative that says: there is no such thing as the complete destruction of the human soul. No matter who hurts you, no matter how broken you might be, you can’t help who you are, the reality of you. There is always a before to get back to, a version of yourself that exists untraumatized that you merely need to find. If any part of you is still affected by the trauma, then you have not arrived at your real self.

What did I feel toward boys? Attraction. What was attraction? What I felt toward boys… It didn’t matter that I hated these things. They were so.

What of me was unaffected by the abuse? What self existed prior to it? No one cared if the trauma was what caused me to say, I am straight, I am a girl. No one asked me if I should separate myself into pieces to determine their uninfluenced truth.

I couldn’t tell you who I was, only what I wanted. When I said, I’m attracted to women, it’s because the idea sounded so good. I wanted to be; it was the first time I imagined love as good. Was that the abuse talking? Someone who runs into the arms of women to avoid their trauma with men?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space. Does it make too much traumatic sense, the chronically dissociated survivor, calling themselves non-binary? What proof can I offer anyone that this is my unchangeable soul?

When I said, I am non-binary, I did so because it felt right. It meant I could conceive of my body as a home, something I could change and transform into a livable space.

None. But I’m more inside my skin than I ever was before. I have dimension, solidity, a sharper sense of my skin. What more is there to owning your body other than finding what makes it easier to live in? I’d accepted for so long narratives that said that easier was cheating, that healing meant forcing yourself into what made you miserable or afraid because it was good for you, that who you are was somehow different than who you want to be. And yet I cannot deny how much easier it is for me to look in the mirror now and say, I am me.

I looked at God and said, I am mine. I take back everything. No more surrender, no more less of me, no more resignation to who I’m supposed to be, whether I like it or not. Obedience taught me how to surrender myself and rebellion is my refusal. There is nothing more rebellious than the word no. No, I did not deserve the abuse, no, I am not my mother’s daughter, no, I will not marry a man, no, I belong to me.

It is incremental. I spent so long comfortable with being uncomfortable, so used to contorting myself into obedience. But I am teaching myself to resist, shaping myself so that my body feels distinctly separate from others. I am no longer without form and void. I called myself into existence. And it was good.

top photo by Zac Frith on Pexels

You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.