Fear and Doubt

When it comes to my writing I’m a coward. My reticence to share my deep dark secrets and feelings holds me back. I know that and I want it to be different but I am afraid. 

I’m afraid of a lot of things. If that box is opened I will never be able to close it again. If I share some of these things people that I love and who love me may be hurt or angry. No actually, will… Will be hurt and will be angry. I’m stronger now than I have ever been in the knowledge that I am, albeit flawed, a good and honest person. There are people who I’ve known for most of my life that do not believe this and never will. With a lot of self appraisal, therapy and private journaling I am learning to accept that I cannot change that and more importantly, as taught to me by one of those very people, it’s none of my business what they think of me. 

I listened to a podcast segment this morning from my favorite radio show called “This American Life”. The show was dedicated to telling the story of an eighteen year old girl named Marie. She had been a foster child and at eighteen was doing her very best to become an adult. She had a job, a subsidized apartment and family in the form of former foster mothers and friends. She was outgoing, silly, flirty, loud, obnoxious, attention seeking, inappropriate – all the things a teenage girl is. 

One night she left her patio door unlocked in her apartment and was tied up, blindfolded and raped by a masked intruder with a knife. He photographed her nude with her ID on her chest and told her he would publish the photos if she went to the police. She did call the police and two of her foster moms and told them what had happened. Long story short, her demeanor was so unexpectedly odd that the people she trusted came to believe that she had made the story up. Her caseworker at a local non-profit even went so far as to force her to stand in front of a group of young people like herself and tell them all that she had lied. The police charged her with filing a false police report after brow beating her into retracting the entire story. She was harassed on social media and in person. 

Like something out of an episode of Law and Order, a serial rapist was later arrested after raping numerous women with the same M.O. and they found those photographs! The people in her life who didn’t believe her and the police etc were mortified and remorseful and apologized to Marie. She has gracefully accepted these apologies and has moved on with her life, settling out of court with both the police and the non-profit. Her foster moms are still part of her life even though it could be argued that their disbelief, and their audacity in sharing their doubts with the police, may have been the catalyst. 

At the end of the interview one of the foster moms was recorded as saying that Marie should take some responsibility for the things that happened to her because of her odd behavior. I was furious! I literally had to pull off the road because I was shaking with anger at this woman for blaming this teenage girl – who incidentally it should be said was sexually assaulted as a child in her own mothers home – for her own rape and subsequent public humiliation. She was victimized countless times for something for which she had no responsibility. Her rapist even told her that she shouldn’t have left her patio door unlocked. 

When I had just turned fourteen and was a Freshman in high school I was ridiculous. I was loud and goofy and, like a lot of girls that age, trying to forage my way through a sea of awakening sexuality, confusion, frustration and fear. There were people my age and younger who were already way advanced. They were already well on their way to becoming young men and women and much more savvy than me and most of my friends. 

I was still kind of a tomboy, hadn’t gotten the hang of dressing like a girl yet and I wasn’t allowed to wear make up except for lip gloss. I was shy around boys I liked and rough and tumble with the boys I was friendly with. I don’t think at that point anyone saw me as anything but a silly immature girl. 

There was a boy. He was beautiful with long blonde wavy hair, a gorgeous mouth, tanned skin, long legs and fingers and the swagger boys then got from wearing big bell Levis and Colorados. He was my lab partner in Biology. He never spoke to me or acknowledged my existence outside of class and I was ok with that because I understood the social hierarchy that was our school. He was a popular kid and I was not. 

One day in the fall right after school had started he gave me a note in class asking me to meet him after school at Walker School. I was scared to death. I’d never been so nervous and excited in my entire life. This boy, a popular boy who I had a huge not so secret crush on m, wanted to see me outside of class. I lied to my mom and told her I was going to my friends around the corner and I dressed as girly as I could and went off. I think I even stole some of my moms eyeshadow and mascara. 

We met at 4:00 and it was sunny and warm. He took me to the side of the school that was hidden from the street and most of the classrooms and he sexually assaulted me. I was not raped but it was a non consensual sexual assault nonetheless. It actually took me many years to even recognize that. 

I was completely out of my element. I had no idea what to do. I mean I knew what was happening because I wasn’t an idiot but I didn’t know how to handle it. I tried to say no, I tried to push him away but he was persistent and I was … So many things … Scared, confused, hopeful and curious (I know those last two sound awful but I’m being honest here). I can tell you one thing I was absolutely not and that was sexually intrigued. I knew girls who were okay with this behavior and he kept telling me it was okay. At one point I saw two boys I’d known since kindergarten run by and I called out to them. These were athletes, another group I was not a part of so we didn’t interact at all. I was hoping that they would be curious enough when I called out to stop and walk over and discourage this boy from continuing. Instead they innocently teased me on the bus the next day for having a secret boyfriend. 

When it was over, rather quickly as these things tend to be, I ran home. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe and I just wanted to take a shower and get the smell of him and his cologne off of me. I can still smell his stench now. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to lay down on my bed and cry. There was another part of me though that still was hopeful and I wanted this boy to like me. I was confused about my role in this. I wanted to be  the girlfriend of a popular boy. I knew because I was not completely oblivious that this would probably never happen but with the optimism of youth I saw myself forgiving him and him professing his undying devotion and promising never to force me to do anything like that again. 

I told someone I trusted right away what had happened. The initial response I received was disbelief. I was asked if I was making it up so I wouldn’t get in trouble for being at the school when I wasn’t allowed or for being late for dinner but that changed fairly quickly when my behavior seemed appropriate to the situation. My father wanted me to report it to the police so I lied and told them I didn’t know the boys last name or where he lived. I begged them to let it go and they did, reluctantly. 

I was barely fourteen and had just started high school. I had to see this boy every weekday. He was my lab partner. More importantly he was smoking area royalty. He and his friends had a lot of power in my mind and I was very afraid of the ramifications if I told my story. Socially I would have become more of an outcast than I already was. A pariah. A prude. After all I was in high school so what’s the big deal right? Girls and boys had been doing what we did for centuries and we girls understood that boys couldn’t control themselves and if we let it get farther than we were comfortable with, well wasn’t that our fault after all? 

I could have kneed him in the groin or screamed bloody murder when I saw those boys I knew. I could have asked Mrs. Miriani to let me in when she spotted us from the school and opened a door to tell us to leave. I could have done a lot of things I didn’t do so didn’t that make me responsible for the outcome? Some of you even now are nodding your heads as you read this saying “shame on her”. 

Here’s the thing though. He wasn’t a boy with no control over his body and I wasn’t responsible for his behavior. I said no. Not just once but multiple times and he pushed himself on me and forced me. Do you know that even as I write this thirty years later I still hesitate?  

What happened to the boy? Exactly what you’d expect. He stayed my lab partner and acted as though the awkward situation had never occurred. He went on with his life ignoring me. I accepted that though because … High School … I went on with my life and wasn’t traumatized or anything I don’t think. I was pretty reticent and moved a bit slower than a lot of my friends when it came to relationships but I don’t know if that experience or that boy had anything to do with that. I mean I didn’t even have my first real kiss until my sixteenth birthday  (sorry Craig hehe) Mostly though my hesitation to go down that path was probably due to my lack of maturity, fear of reprisal from my parents and maybe wanting to stay a kid for just a little bit longer.

So I skipped my water aerobics class today to write this in a parking lot before I lost my nerve. I cracked open that box for just a moment. I don’t know if it feels good. Right now I just have a lump in my throat and my stomach is one big knot. Exposing myself like this is not easy and I don’t know whether it’s therapeutic or whatever because I reconciled myself to the bad shit in my life a long time ago. I guess maybe this is an exercise in bravery. 

Writing is among many other things a chance to share a piece of ourselves. It’s a way to be relevant, to feel alive or discover the meaning of things. Writing is a way to open up dialogue and maybe change the world or maybe just one person’s mind. We are a product of everything that ever happened to us and we can allow it to destroy us or make us stronger. Most days I choose the latter although it must be said that some days I feel the former. So this is all part of my journey I guess. Maybe I will share something else personal another time soon. Or maybe not. 

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The “Art” of Artisan Bread

I’m no chef nor am I a baker. Honestly. I’m learning as I go and I end up eating a lot of mistakes. I keep at it though because I like to get things right. I love the process so it’s not a hardship. Other members of my family are extraordinary cooks and phenomenal bakers and I can never compete with that so I just do it for the love of it. I didn’t always enjoy cooking and baking. It’s a fairly new development and one I am embracing wholeheartedly. Scratch cooking and baking is a somewhat new experience for me too. In my pursuit of 80/20 “clean eating” I am teaching myself how to do these things. It’s also a cost savings in most cases which is never a bad thing. 

Artisan bread baking though is about more than just clean eating and saving a few pennies. When I bake it’s a full sensory experience. The echoing splash in the dough bucket as the warm water hits the bottom. The shimmer as the salt pours from the measuring spoon and sinks into the warm water. The foaming sound as I stir in the yeast with the dough whisk. The soft texture and coolness of the flour as I scoop and sweep from the wide mouthed bowl into the dough bucket. The earthiness of the dough as I mix the ingredients, lowering my face to smell the sweet fermented yeast as it mixes with the flour and salt. The feel of the sticky dough as I immerse my dampened hands into it to combine the ingredients and complete the process before allowing it to proof. The excitement every time I check back and find the dough has risen another mark on the bucket. 

Each batch I make is slightly different in taste, texture or rise time. Baking artisan bread is more than just a recipe – it’s a science experiment wrapped up in that recipe with a beautiful artistic bow on top. It makes me happy giving me a solidity and a feeling of accomplishment as I watch these simple ingredients grow before my eyes as the yeast devours the sugars and metabolizes them into carbon dioxide. 

After the first rise the dough is soft and stretchy and still very sticky with bubbles on top and holes where the gasses have escaped. I dig my hand in and break off a grapefruit sized hunk, stretching it in my hands to make a “window pane” before pulling it all together into a tight rounded ball. Creating a gluten cloak, I lay the newly formed ball of dough onto the parchment paper and let it rest for a while for the second rise. 

Once the ball of dough has proofed and it bounces back when I push at the side gently, I can slide it into a warm oven and I know in 35 minutes I will have a stunning, oven risen, golden brown, crackling loaf. Pulling it from the oven using my new beautifully simple wooden bread peel I slide the loaf onto the cooling rack and breathe deeply smelling the fresh baked bread and feeling the moisture on my face as it finishes baking on the rack. I know that inside that beautiful dome is a gorgeous open crumb and when the serrated blade slices through the crunchy outer layer the inside will be soft and slightly chewy. 

Finally, after it has cooled I can take that loaf and wrap it carefully in a brown paper bag and a tea towel and present it as a gift to friends, family or neighbors. When I give someone a loaf of my bread it’s not just sustenance but a piece of me – of my heart – a small offering of my affection and appreciation of you. 

Now I can add memories of the first time I saw someone try my bread and the look of surprise and pleasure at the complex flavors and textures that came from such a simple process. When I mix a batch of dough I can smile with memories of the first time I taught someone else the art of artisan bread baking and find joy in their shock at the simplicity and the goodness and the sense of accomplishment that comes from pulling out their own creation. 

All bread baking is an art form and I know I have just scratched the surface with these beautiful simple artisan loaves. I have so much more to learn and explore and I am excited for the experience. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, sink their hands into a fresh warm batch of bread dough, it might change your life. I know it has changed mine. 

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I miss my dad today

I miss my dad today. I mean I miss him every day and I think about him a lot but today sitting in my cozy living room listening to the wind blowing outside I find myself missing him in a very physical way. 

Most of the time when I get hit with these emotions I can pinpoint why. When I bought a new car, when I lost my job etc. Today though I don’t know why. I was just sitting here reading a somewhat depressing book and it hit me like a ton of bricks. 

He was a complicated guy. He’d had a rough start in life and just like all of us, those experiences shaped him into who he became. He was a solid presence, physically and emotionally, in everyone’s lives. He was a good man with solid beliefs and strength of character. He was my dad. 

He could work my last nerve and sometimes did it on purpose but I never doubted that he would be in my corner if I needed him. I was a challenge at times and I know I drove him crazy too. 

He was smart – much smarter than he gave himself credit for – and he was honest and forthright and stoic. I’m a person ruled by emotion and he was not. He didn’t get that about me and I was completely mystified by his ability to control his emotions the way he did. 

I think I might have just realized why I miss him so much today. I guess the why doesn’t matter so much as the remembering. He’s never far from my thoughts and always in my heart. He’s in my head when I make decisions, guiding me. He has instilled in me a sense of right from wrong and a well defined social conscience. He has taught me to think for myself and not be afraid to delve just a little deeper. 

I see him in my face, my nose, my red hair. I close my eyes and see the pride on his face when he talked about his grandchildren. I go back in my memory banks and I can hear his laugh and his voice. I can feel the calluses on his hands from a lifetime of hard work. I can see him sitting on his boat watching the river for logs and lecturing me on some thing or another. I’m so glad I can still hear his voice when I think about him. I’m so relieved I can see his beautiful blue eyes looking out from his tanned face when I imagine him here. I hope that never goes away. 

I miss my dad. 

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I see the changes. 

I feel the winds shifting

I look ahead and I can see the light 

I lift my hand and through my outspread fingers I see the glow in the distance coming closer by the second

 I embrace the power of that beacon

I feel the love and the warmth in the changes I see in the people around me

I have long coffee filled conversations with people I respect and we nod and say “yes that’s the way”

I leave these encounters feeling secure and happy with the knowledge that things are getting better

Then, I open my social media account 

I see jagged, angry slashes as if with a stiletto 

I watch as people I barely know or have loved all my life slide the sharp silver dagger blithely between the ribs of that hope

I see strangers deliberately and systematically annihilate other strangers with their sweaty nicotine stained fingers and glints of satisfaction on their anonymous faces

I sit – fighting tears of frustration – as I watch them steal peoples’ joy

I feel pain behind my eyes as the trolls continue to successfully eradicate peaceful and productive debate. 

I feel the sick in the pit of my stomach as I watch peoples’ angst and pain portrayed for others amusement in memes

I watch and I cry as people whore themselves for a “Like” or a šŸ‘šŸ»

I don’t pray but I hope

I feel my heart beating in my chest and my pulse race as I observe the slow destruction of grace and kindness

I want so much to believe in the innate goodness of people 

I need desperately to know that this is not the world we are leaving for our children and grandchildren

I close my eyes and I breathe and I tell myself that they just don’t know

I lower my head in my hands and I tell myself that things can change

I lay my head down on my pillow at night and I sigh because I know … I know that things won’t change. Not today

Before I fall asleep I tell myself the same thing. “If I can change one person’s mind today then I have changed the world for the better”

I remind myself to be brave and forthright and weather the storm as best I can. 

As I drift off to sleep I tell myself – no matter the consequences – I must do the right thing. Not for them, but for me 

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I remember

Standing in the crackling brown grass I lift my face to the gray-white sky, eyes closed I feel the tiny snowflakes as they fall on my face. I open my eyes and I can see my breath in the cold air. I hold my hand out and watch as the delicate lacy patterned flakes land and quickly disappear. 
In the distance I can hear a dog barking in short joyful yips. I imagine him playing in the snow, pawing the air as he jumps to catch the snowflakes in his mouth. 

There are two little girls making footprints in the sidewalk, spelling their names I think. They are bundled head to toe in matching pink and white winter wear. They stop and bend over making small snowballs with their vinyl mittens. One of them is eating her snowball. I smile with memories of a simpler time in my life. I’m a little jealous. 
I recall snow days and wrapping my sock feet in bread bags before stuffing them into boots. I remember cotton wool mittens frozen solid and covered with snow burrs. I remember snow angels and crooked snowmen. I remember snow forts and the feeling of falling into a huge snowbank. I remember the crunch of the snow in the trenches at the top of our street as we trudged knee deep. I remember sleds and slippery sidewalks. I remember coming home to a warm house and sitting on the floor in the hall taking off the layers. 

“Don’t track that snow on the carpet!” 

“Put your mittens on the heater vent and your boots on the step.” 
“It smells like snow” they used to say. I never really understood that. I also never could comprehend “It’s too cold to snow”. 

I shiver, pushing my fisted hands deep into my jacket pockets. I glance once more at the little girls, now sitting in the grass, contemplating life I suspect. My toes are frozen inside my shoes and my warm kitchen beckons. It’s time for fuzzy socks and a cup of hot tea. For just a moment I consider laying back on that fresh snow and making a snow angel or making a snowball and tossing it into the woods. 

Maybe tomorrow.  

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Rain or Shine

Every morning Iā€™d see her sitting on the stoop as I passed by on my way to the bus stop. She was very old with muffin crumbs in her whiskers and coffee stains down her front. She would never speak but just looked at me with small rat like lashless eyes skittering back and forth between me and the street as though afraid she might miss something. I would nod to her in a friendly manner but she never reciprocated. She actually terrified me.
 One day she was gone and never came back. I miss her.

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Stranger on the Train

She looked right through me as I sat on the cold plastic seat of the subway. Her elbows, encased in a carpetbagger cardigan with thick cuffs and a pointed raggedy corduroy collar, rested on the knees of her black pants. The pants looked new and a little like what you might see in an industrial kitchen. Dickies pants I think they call them. They had crisp creases in them that looked machine made as though they’d been put on directly from the store. 

Her eyes were brown with flecks of gold but they were tired rheumy eyes with thick yellow whites, wet and streaked with lines of red. Her makeup had left smudged smoky circles beneath each eye. Her face was haggard but surprisingly unlined, brown from the sun or maybe from birth. 

Her hair, what I could see of it was thick, coarse and mostly grey. She had it pulled tightly from her face into a bun that was mostly hidden under a voluminous black wool looking scarf that wrapped around her head and neck and still nearly dragged on the snow-dirty floor beneath her feet. 

Shifting in my seat I glanced at the station we were passing through to make sure I hadn’t missed my stop. The woman was mesmerizing but I didn’t know why. She looked like any of thousands of other people using public transit in this huge city. 

I didn’t want to stare but I couldn’t seem to help it and she seemed blissfully unaware of her surroundings, including or maybe especially me. 

She never moved and her eyes barely flickered as we traveled through the city’s tunnels on our way to our destinations. Was she heading home? From the tiredness that permeated from her every cell I certainly hoped that was the case. The lights from outside flickered across her face making her skin look amber. 

Looking down I smiled to myself as I did a classic double take. On the woman’s feet were the shiniest red snow boots and they were pristine which, in and of itself was a miracle in this city where snow turns black and sludgy even before it hits the pavement. 

The conductor announced something over the loudspeaker in a thick New York accent but despite living here for fifteen years I still couldn’t understand a word that came through them. I marveled at my friends who would come to visit and seemed to hear every syllable. They teased me about my abysmal hearing when it was simply more likely that my brain moved so slowly by the time it recognized there were words in the garbled crackly speaker noises it was too late. 

I’m a writer and as a result most of the time my mind is otherwise occupied. I’m the worst road trip partner because I can’t keep track of the conversation when my mind keeps drifting to the story in the tumble weeds- literal or literary -that I see out the passenger window. 

I felt drawn to this woman in this city full of cautious and suspicious strangers and I desperately wanted her to acknowledge me so I could talk to her. What did her voice sound like? Gravelly? Mellifluous? Was she a poet on a sojourn or a short order cook at a diner in Hell’s Kitchen?

I looked at her hands, gloveless when it was way too cold for that. They were folded together loosely and casually dipping slightly between her widespread knees. I’d noticed more and more women – mostly younger and more combative types – using the “man spreading” technique men and boys had been using on the subway to give themselves space. Subconsciously I slouched in my seat and spread my knees apart in a gesture of self protection. If she, a woman of indeterminate age, is man spreading then no self respecting nearly forty year old man should be sitting cross legged with his hat folded neatly in his lap. God when did I become that guy?

Her hands were brown like her face and appeared work worn but her nails were painted bright red with a shiny enamel. They didn’t look like salon nails for what I know of that mysterious world. My wife’s nails are from a salon and they have a perfect sexy curve and a squared top. The woman’s nails were rounded and flat and different lengths. 

Everything about her held secrets. I wanted to go through her pockets and ask her for her story. I wanted to touch her hands to see if they were warm or cold and if I had imagined the callouses based upon my own assumptions of her life?

In her serenity and poise I saw beauty. Not the typical glamour magazine beauty but an earthy beauty like Dian Fossey of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame. She was someone I’d want to be seated next to at a dinner party should she happen to run in my circles. It was a beauty borne of hardship and strength and salt of the earth upbringing. 

I imagined her as a hard working woman with teenage children, living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes struggling to put food on the table but managing as best she could. I looked for a ring on her finger and saw none, nor was there a mark where one might have been for a long time and thusly removed. 

I wanted to know her. I wanted to give her an “It has been so nice to meet you, do you mind if I give you a hug?” embrace and feel the nubs of her cardigan on my cheek. I imagined under that cardigan were more warming layers and beneath that even, a substantial woman with a strong back and wide shoulders to better carry her burden. 

Was I being classist in my assumptions? Maybe. Probably. But did it matter that I wanted it so badly and that – not for one moment – did I look upon her as anything less than magnificent? I didn’t see her as an object of pity but instead as a source of inspiration, a muse if you will. Were I a painter I would want to use her as a subject in my next great art exhibit. 

As the train pulled into my station I hesitated for just a moment. I should stay there and see where she lands. I should ride this out and maybe she will talk to me and tell me her story. Only for a moment though. I had things to do. My wife was waiting dinner and I had the wine and bread. 

I stood and moved quickly through the car to the door. As I stepped onto the platform I glanced back and watched as she and the car disappeared. Did she smile at me in that last moment? Did she give me a nod? I don’t really know for certain and I may never know but I prefer to believe that she did. I want to put my head on my pillow tonight after kissing my wife good night knowing that I made a connection today with a beautiful stranger on the train. 

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