Three Houses

by Nola Garrett 

For my birthday last month, my brother, Jerry, and his wife, Lisa, gave me a small acrylic painting they had bought a short walk from their home in Kensington, MD, at my favorite store, The Society for the Prevention of Blindness Thrift Shoppe.  They explained that they chose it because of the huge rough frame painted with a single coat of flat green porch paint which they thought I would hang in my green and white office. I really appreciated their thoughtfulness, but I found myself disliking the subject of the painting, the color of the frame, and even the placement of it within my writing space.

After their visit, I carried the painting into every room of my condo, all the while puzzling why I was resisting this gift. I set the painting near the door of my office, so that every time I passed or entered my office I would see it. Days slipped by. I considered changing out the painting or even keeping the frame empty though I still didn’t know where I would hang it. Gradually, I began to look more closely at the painting and to wonder what the artist, Madigal, saw in that small scene that I couldn’t or didn’t want to see. At first I had quickly rejected the scene because it reminded me of the tropics and of the fifteen years I had recently spent living in Florida before I thankfully returned to my family and my beloved Western Pennsylvania hills and river valleys I see every day from my condo’s windows.

As I began to look more carefully into the painting, I saw a much walked dirt path leading from two house corners on the left and on the right side a high solid blue concrete wall partially covered with red flowers. Next, I wondered about the absence of people. Maybe, the people really were there represented by the path’s foot prints? And, probably there was a third house hidden by the wall covered by what I now recognized was a hemorrhage of red bougainvillea dripping over the wall and onto the path. Of the two pictured houses, the white walled, red tiled roofed one closest to the viewer had a large window, a welcoming lantern style light, and two large clay pots overflowing with flowers. The farther yellow house presented a windowless facade, a shadowed, tan closed door, and an unkempt tiled roof with what appeared to be mildew seeping from under its eaves.

Three houses! Suddenly, I understood my resistance. This was a portrait of loss, of grief, of denial, of coming back too late.

More than eight years ago, my Macedonian daughter-in-law, Natasha and I translated a 1991 book of Macedonian poetry, Radovan Pavlovski’s GOD OF THE MORNING. It was a short book of only 42 poems that we worked through via email and lots of phone calls during a summer I still lived in Palm Harbor, Florida and she lived with my son, Chan, in Pittsburgh. Neither of us had ever translated poetry, but we both had a wonderful time with each other learning how. Natasha chose the order of poems she sent me, based on their linguistic difficulty from easy to complex. The last poem we translated was “Three Houses,” a brief poem neither of us has ever truly understood.
 

Three Houses

The leaf yellowed,
winter whitened,
and I told you
to wait for me;
now the rains pour,
and I’ve returned
with a scrap of gold
for a red apple:
one woman
alone
in three
black houses.

 

Of course, there are a lot of ways to read this poem, one being political since Macedonians always read and argue and live their lives firmly and loudly believing “the personal is political.” Some Macedonians interpret the three houses to be the three states comprising the newly formed nation of Macedonia after the fall of Yugoslavia. Another, more private way to read this poem might be to hear the speaker as a lover or even a son who has returned home too late a year after a death either of a person or of a relationship. I don’t know. I’m not sure I have to or even want to know the meaning of this intense sad poem, but somehow now that I own the gift of Madrigal’s painting I understand some of my resistance to both the painting and the poem.

A few days later I again carried my painting into every room and nook of my condo, this time even into the closets and the bathrooms. Then, I realized there was still a ghost of my husband, who divorced me, in what used to be his bathroom and now has become my guest bath. Part of the reason that bathroom had been his was that it had a stall shower that was safer for him to use than the master bath with a tub/shower. Also, his bathroom had an extra glass shelf that allowed him extra space for his toiletries that he could see and remember more easily. However, now that he has moved out, if that shelf were removed there would be enough room to hang my painting over the guest toilet which has a black seat. What if the huge green frame were black?

My entire life, I’ve repainted lots of things: once a Florida living room, 15 foot high, popcorn, cathedral ceiling that I roller painted light pink before I knew it was considered by experts to be an impossible task. So, my real problem with painting the gift frame, other than defeating the original reason for the gift, was that when it came to painting frames, I had always masked and spray painted them. There was no place here in or out of my condo to carry out spray painting, especially what this frame and painting needed to become—black for grief, black for bringing out the shadows and the mildew and even the black outlines of the welcoming lantern light. Luckily, RiteAid was having a sale on Wet n Wild nail polish, so I bought 4 bottles of black and 4 bottles of clear; and on my dining room table over the next three days with 3 bottles of the clear I sealed the thin coat of green house paint on the raw wood frame and used the black nail polish to give the frame two coats to bring out the shine. With the last bottle of the clear I sealed and shined the thin, green inner frame next to the canvas, emphasizing the lush tropical foliage in the background and of the now symbolic bougainvillea.

One of those days while I waited for my polish/paint to dry I walked up to Market Square to the local Farmer’s Market for my usual purchases of flowers and fresh vegetables. I was surprised to find a beekeeper selling various kinds of honey, including not only the usual clover and wildflower flavors, but also buckwheat honey that is so dark it’s almost black. It’s hard to find, and I adore its deep flavor. I chatted a bit with the beekeeper, and I told him about my experience as a beekeeper decades ago when my husband and I had lived in Saegertown and had won first prize at the Crawford County Fair for our comb honey.

Carrying my produce on my walk back to my condo, I remembered the morning when together we had requeened one of our two hives of gentle Midnite bees. How the small wire cage about the size of three stacked candy bars was delivered to our back door, first thing that morning by the nervous, local postmaster. How an hour later sitting at the picnic table near one of our opened hives, the two of us, dressed in our white, beekeeper overhauls, bent over the small wire cage containing the long slender queen bee walled off with sugar candy from the half dozen smaller worker bees who would eat their way through the wall to free their queen to replenish eventually the entire population of the hive several times over the next three years. While admiring her, I noticed that her wings weren’t clipped, even though I had specified that service in my order and had paid extra. We knew that if one of her wings wasn’t clipped, when she was released inside the hive that she would be able fly away taking with her half of the bees from that hive. With that kind of population loss our hive wouldn’t be able to make enough honey to survive.

I ran inside for a pair of manicure scissors, and my husband and I carefully removed the tiny cork from her end of the cage. I gently grasped her thorax under her wings, but before I could clip one her wings, somehow she flew straight up, circling into the morning sky. We sat there sadly amazed and almost stunned. Gone forever. We knew the waiting open hive was weak, because the present queen was old and that we had just moments ago found her and killed her to ready the hive to receive a new queen. Would the hive make a new queen before we could order and receive a new queen? Would the newly hatched queen be a gentle or fierce hybrid? Would the entire hive of bees up and leave in search of a new queen? We just sat there. Unmoving. And, then the queen returned, landed on my white overhaul arm! My husband cupped his bare hand over her. I slid my hand under his, and this time I was able to grasp her a bit tighter, clip one of her wings, and we placed her back in her candy cage just as my husband replaced the cork.

All those years of working together gone. How could he have forgotten? Three houses. One woman alone. That’s what I was resisting.

I rarely use my condo’s guest bathroom, but now that I’ve hung my refurbished birthday gift in there, I find myself stopping and turning on the light to see how far I’ve come; how somehow everything takes on meaning and reveals its beauty, if one is willing to carefully observe.


 

Book Review: Blackbird by Caitlin Galway

 photo 62055be0-8901-4d1b-a798-d9aaf2505021_zpsa7ff2455.jpg Blackbird
by Caitlin Galway
Aqueous Books, 2013
$14.00

 

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Blackbird, the debut novel from Toronto-based author Caitlin Galway, is a complex work that displays the writer’s unique and fresh voice. In the book, Galway explores the dark corners of a young girl’s mind, Gwyneth Avery, as she tries to make sense of her world and the many odd characters she meets at Abbot House, an asylum. The story may remind some readers of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; however, Galway is subtler than Plath and instead of traveling down dark hallways to death and despair, we meander through dimly lit rooms filled with often poetic musings about their contents.

The novel opens with Gwyn depicting the disappearance of her home. She does not do this objectively, but in a complicated, hypnotic manner that immediately draws readers into the world Galway has crafted around Gwyn’s mind. Gwyn says of the event, “If only they all had seen it, I could have explained everything. I could have made the world make sense, with cool air ruffling the water, a white country house disappearing.” And in the next paragraph, she is elsewhere, engaging with the girls of Abbot House. This moment offers a peek into the why of the novel. Why is Gwyn at Abbot House? Why is she troubled? Why do we take an interest in this journey? At this early stage, it because Galway creates dense emotions and images with complex meanings, all while using so few words. She writes:

I paid closer attention to an attic curtain blowing through a hole in the roof. I knew its face, of was and had been. That remarkable clean, uncomplicated silence. Then the house disappeared. As though swallowing a tossed stone, the lake closed over it. Yet the film began again, no beat in between, and the house drifted back into view, continuing its grave avenue down the coast. I watched the film until it became terrifying, until I felt it watching back.

This rich paragraph describes Gwyn’s journey through one specific memory, but we as readers are unsure if the sinking house did indeed disappear or if this is a metaphor constructed by Gwyn’s imagination. In either case, this allows us readers a small glimpse into her mind, how she builds her thoughts somewhat abstractly, but in ways that still make sense. It is complex, but not confusing, and I found its intrigue a powerful draw into the rest of the novel.

Gwyn’s path to discovery and recovery is understated and seems to take place between the lines. After seeing Gone with the Wind for the first time, she wants to know why Melanie had to die giving birth. She questions the fairness, asking, “…what had women done? Of course there was the story of Satan’s apple, but I wasn’t so sure about that. There must have been a sin so damnable that it continued on in our collective unconscious, marking its X in our chromosomes.” Here she’s not simply questioning why it’s so common for women to die during childbirth, but the uncertain truth of what she’s learned in Sunday school. She questions what constitutes a sin and why they carry such heavy punishments. In doing so, she is discovering what she believes and ultimately, herself.

Such realizations continue throughout the novel to its end, where Gwyn must cope with the death of a fellow Abbot House girl. She thinks, “I didn’t want to say what I was thinking. I tried to feel otherwise, as it went sagging through my feet, through ground and root, where Eve might have heard it… But she had thrown away her whole stupid life.” Even as she continues to push through drug abuse and daydreams of how she herself would “do it,” she comes to a single thought—to make “[her] own constellation from this collection of broken stars”— an ending readers desperately want for her after coming so far on their walk through her life.

This is Galway’s Blackbird, a headlong trek through Gwyn’s past, present, and future prospects as she sees them. It’s full of questions, uncertainty, poetry, darkness, and enlightenment. As one who enjoyed The Bell Jar, I can safely recommend this to fellow fans as well as those who did not have a taste for Plath’s harsher realities and gothic tone. Galway is subtle and alluring, a brilliant new author for both leisurely and literary readers.


 

A New Left?

By John Samuel Tieman

I asked a buddy, a fellow social science teacher, his opinion about joining a third party. “Is there a reason for joining any party?” I’m not quite that skeptical, but I get it. I generally vote Democrat, but, were I a card carrying member, I’d resign.

Folks call Barrack Obama “a socialist.” I want to hand such folks a dictionary. The president isn’t a socialist. He isn’t even a liberal. That’s the problem.

We no longer have a liberal party and a conservative party. We have a conservative party, a more conservative party, and a far right. Which leaves leftists where? It leaves most of us unrepresented.

I’m a leftist. I am also an historian. I don’t have great hope for a third party. I also don’t have great hope for the Democrats to incorporate the views of the left. The recent election of Pope Francis makes us painfully aware of just how long it has been since America had a leader who speaks for the poor. Which brings me back to the need for a leftist party.

What would a truly leftist party look like? I think the platform of such a party would have, as its ideological basis, something like this:

A mixed economy, one that consists of private enterprise and publicly owned or subsidized programs for universal health care, child care, elder care, veterans’ benefits, and education;

An extensive system of social security that counteracts poverty, and insures the citizens against destitution due to unemployment, retirement, injury or illness;

A government that supports trade unions, consumer protections, and that regulates private enterprise by ensuring labor rights and fair market competition;

The unequivocal and unwavering support of a woman’s right to choose;

Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to immediately combat global warming;

The elimination of the death penalty;

A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;

Fair trade, not free trade;

Strict gun control;

Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;

The rejection of predatory plutocracy;

A foreign policy that supports the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;

Campaign reform which promotes public financing, and restricts private donations;

The advocacy of social justice, civil rights and civil liberties.

These leftist views promote initiatives that range from the progressive to the center left to the democratic socialist. And, yes, democratic socialist. The Cold War is over. Joseph McCarthy is disgraced and, for that matter, dead. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was George Bush’s best-est buddy. There is nothing radical about the British Labour Party. Nor is there is anything radical about the now pulseless progressive wing of the Democratic Party or, lest we forget, progressive Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt to Lowell Weicker.

Is the formation of such a party possible? I don’t feel any urgency on the part of the electorate or the elected. What is clear is that, with the exception of a Senator Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.) here and there, there is almost a vacuum on the left. A democracy is predicated upon a dialogue, a dialectic if you will, between opposing forces that form opposite and competing poles of loyal opposition. We don’t have that. In this country, we have the right wing. That’s it. There’s no left wing. There is no loyal opposition. There is no dialogue left and right.

There is much debate about the future of the Republican Party. As well there should be. I think, however, that there should be a shift in this debate. Often, reform within a party originates in criticism from the outside. But, to shift the focus slightly, there is no serious ideological debate left versus right. The anxieties of Jack Danforth and David Brooks notwithstanding, to the extent that there is a debate among Republicans, the debate tends to be concerned with electoral method. How does a moderate Republican keep from getting “primaried” by the Tea Party? Democrats offer no ideological challenge to Republicans.

For that matter, the Democrats offer no serious challenge to Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street called for a rethinking of how we do business. For all the scandal of the 2008 financial meltdown, not one C. E. O. has been jailed. But we don’t just need a new way of doing business.

We need a new way of doing democracy.


 

Book Review: Little Heretic by Gerry LaFemina

 photo a39964f9-26c8-4266-a137-be56844b36bf_zpsb59de7a0.jpg Little Heretic
Poems by Gerry LaFemina
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

 

Oh how desire can make us feel/ like gods and beasts both…

—“Papyrus”

I think it’s generally true that good poetry is born of obsession: an unavoidable exploration of those subjects, people, and memories that we writers can’t turn away from. If poetry is, at least sometimes, an exploration of the self, then obsession is that concentrated site where the self most exists to be interpreted. In Little Heretic, Gerry LaFemina’s speaker has more than enough obsessions to go around: latent Catholicism, time and history, past lovers, punk rock, New York City. LaFemina plumbs the depths of these essential ingredients to find what’s really lurking underneath—morality, mortality and (just maybe) forgiveness.

What I love most about this collection is that it doesn’t let up. No matter where the reader turns, Catholicism, or religion in general, is waiting. It’s found in all the obvious places: the churchyard, the confessional, a bar called St. Dymphna’s. But LaFemina’s New York City is also one where “the honking taxis cry Ho- / sana! Hosana!” and a booth at the adult video arcade is a “little cubicle… the size of a confessional.” LaFemina’s organic comparisons, his inability to turn from worship as a broader point of reference, highlight this speaker’s obsessive tendencies—in fact, all of our obsessive tendencies. Punk rock gets worshipped, too, (think of the pigeons “like rock kids/ before the stage, [bustling]/ with avian wisdom”) along with youth and old lovers. As a former Catholic, this deifying of the everyday makes total sense to me. Spend your formative years with all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Mass and everything from then on seems instilled with that same gravity.

But Little Heretic isn’t just for lapsed Catholics and those who remember CBGB (I don’t, and I still “got” these poems). LaFemina’s ruminations bridge gaps in content knowledge by employing familiar patterns of thought. “So much of Manhattan/ remains the same despite what’s changed,” the speaker tells us in “Another Blues in E Minor.” Who among us doesn’t live in this dual world of memory and The Now, constantly orienting and re-orienting ourselves against our surroundings both immediate and remembered?

So many mornings I re-entered the world
as sunlight filled the filthy windows, & watched
dust motes swirl
                              like poltergeists of longing.
Nothing will drive them away.

—“On Hearing David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’”

Hearing a Bowie song immediately plunges the speaker into memory, eventually bringing him to this thought of a common past experience. But note the verbs. For four lines we’re situated firmly, or so we think, in the past. Then, suddenly, those dust motes are still in the room before us, choking the air. And are the dust motes the “them,” really, or does “them” refer to the poltergeists of longing? Or memories? Obsessions? For LaFemina, as for most of us, time is one big simultaneous experience—memory is evoked in the present and every moment is already the past. This reality of the nature of time is what allows LaFemina to bring in icons of our collective and his personal history, whether rain dancers from the Reconstruction or high school friends, without jarring his reader.

Alongside memory enters another human constant: guilt. Or, the way LaFemina spins it (which I prefer), the desire for penance. Even LaFemina’s skeptical speaker who often speaks against the idea of penance is aware of some social cost, even one that’s self-inflicted, assigned to bad behavior:

I place a ten dollar bill in the mission box
a homeless friar holds out. Brother, can you ….
Like a pigeon, he rocks his head & bestows
a blessing on me

so I give him another ten bucks, unworthy.
This is the cost to walk with one’s sins
even among the city’s blessed anonymity.

—“Dim Sum”

LaFemina’s speaker isn’t afraid to have complicated feelings about his own self-worth throughout these poems. Some days he wants to be a superhero, others he’s sure he is utterly depraved. But all in all, he’s working toward acceptance. Sound familiar?

One thing that seems to make that acceptance easier is the speaker’s (arguably impossible) striving for objectivity. He almost apologizes in “The Poet at 37,” admitting, “such melodrama was never a strength of mine.” Despite the constant overlay of God and punk, there are moments when this voice tries to articulate its experiences in only the realest way possible.

I wasn’t a new man, not even close,
wasn’t in love, wasn’t anything special—all us pedestrians
trying in vain to shelter ourselves from the gossip wind,
from the tendrils of precipitation, from the inevitable
walk back to apartments that waited like the dull expressions of parents
we’d escaped. She didn’t change my life & I didn’t change hers.
It took only 17 years to figure this out, but it’s one thing I’m certain of.

—“The Inherent Shortcomings of Metaphor”

Such simple declarations, but so much weight. I’d be remiss in not adding that the oomph here is in part due to the fact that LaFemina has planted his flag, in this poem especially, as King of Enjambment. Regardless, in this moment the speaker finally sloughs off that coat of drama his obsessions wear so comfortably for the feeling of skin on skin. The ability to truly appreciate past experience, to really move toward forgiving ourselves, seems to come with the stripping away of nostalgia. The lessons emerge only when we see things as they truly were.

Despite that, LaFemina chooses to end the collection with a quiet poem admitting that even the simplest of our experiences can be interpreted in countless ways. His list poem, “Daybreak,” characterizes light with a shifting series of labels and qualities, all of which seem wholly accurate. Light is sacred, we think, but yes, also, light is quotidian. We are all simultaneously zealots and heretics, concurrently gods and beasts. And maybe we’ll never understand it all. Or maybe we will. But probably all that’s guaranteed is that we’ll keep trying. Maybe all life of life is just “light [we’d] walk into if [we] could.” If that’s the case, I’d hope to have Gerry LaFemina as a companion on that bustling sidewalk.


Dance Review: being Here…/this time
by Marjani Forté

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

New York choreographer, Marjani Forté, brought the newest version of her three-year work to the Alloy Studios Friday night. Being Here…/this time investigated mental illness, addiction, and poverty in America. Forté was initially inspired by an experience she had on the subway train with a “symptomatic” woman in crisis. That led her to various conversations with peers and ultimately to six women in Connecticut, all of whom shared their personal traumas.

The sixty-minute show was split into four installments. Audience members were free to watch the first three sections in whatever order they chose. To conclude the show, everyone came together for the final trio.

Two installments took place in the main studio. A diagonal row of chairs cut the space in half, creating two intimate places for solos and duets to occur. In the first section I watched, the audience was given earplugs to drown out any background noise. Alice Sheppard performed a solo bound by a wheelchair. She began with rigid gestures as local dancer, Jasmine Hearn, entered from the side and pressed herself against the back wall.

Sheppard quickly pushed her chair toward the audience, stopping within inches of one man. She stared at him intensely; her energy and movement became more heated. Hearn disappeared as Sheppard fell off the wheelchair smiling maniacally then gasping, twitching and even sucking her own toe. The effect of the section was almost frightening, certainly powerful and thought-provoking.

In the next installment, we were given headphones to listen to accompaniment for another studio duet. Tendayi Kuumba entered the space backwards from the far wall. The sound of kids playing flooded our ears, but quickly turned to cries of sadness and a voice layered over top insisting, “We’re okay.”

Kuumba’s movement was equally as severe as Sheppard’s, but the dynamic of her solo felt much more laden with grief. Perhaps it was the lullaby that morphed out of the sound and text. Or Kuumba’s delicate lift of an arm after pointing fiercely and directly. She, too, stared straight into an audience member’s eyes. Her gaze was notably different, though. We could feel her struggle, see her anguish.

Hearn weaved her way into this installment as well, alternating between laughing and crying, all while stumbling in a seemingly aimless pattern. Although she had moments of bigger, technical phrases, most impressive was the expression in her eyes. She searched the room with a lost but determined gaze.

Forté performed her installation in a small corner of the lobby. The audience sat all around her; she was perched slightly above us with a blurred video image projected on the wall to her right. Forté said the image was taken from a rehearsal, but represented angels or communication with others.

To start, Forté closed her eyes as if to center herself. She then pulled up a gospel song on her iPhone, called “I Won’t Complain.” The movement she used was subtle compared to the others’. Her gestures were sparse, held back in emotion as the lyrics suggested. She rubbed her knuckles with anxiety, pulled her fist to her mouth in frustration, and hid her face in shame. Eventually she teetered on the edge of her chair and fell off with open arms. The most powerful part of the section was when she walked away. The music remained for what felt like several minutes. Her absence was visceral.

Back in the main studio, Sheppard, Hearn, and Kuumba performed the final installment. Forté’s lack of presence was still notable, but we were hopeful her character had moved forward. The three others came together in a unison phrase that combined gestures from the earlier sections. They frantically counted down from ten as the movement escalated, then broke into their individual motifs.

The movement slowed, and Hearn spun in dizzying circles, arms wide in surrender to her experience. I got the sense that these women were doing the best they could with the lives they’d been given. I thought of my own experiences with strangers and people close to me who have suffered from mental illness and addiction. The piece drew out a sense of compassion for what Kuumba poignantly described as “the beast” inside us all.


 

Erecting Stones, Part Five

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Outside my once destroyed home, my son continues to carve away the trees I planted in my younger days when he was only a toddler. He’s clearing some to make room for light. He’s attempting to smooth the rugged ground, to build a fence, to renovate our war-damaged home. Maybe he will succeed, I think as I climb onto his Nissan Xterra to depart Liberia and return to my comfortable America. Jestina, my adoptive daughter, is already in the car. She’s all dressed  to send me off. I turn to look in the back, and a small boy, about nine years old is sitting in the corner. He’s attempting to hide from me, but it’s me he’s taking to the airport. “Where are you going, Papeh?” I ask.

“I taking you to the airfield,” the child stammers.

“Why? Where is your mother? How can she let you go so far with us?”

“She say I can go with you, Grandma,” the child says, and tears rush to my eyes.

“With me to America?” I ask, confused.

“To the airfield.”

“But why, Papeh?”

“Because I will miss you, Grandma,” the child interrupts me. He’s sitting tightly in the corner, afraid I may throw him out, begging with his eyes. The child that I only got to know during my brief stay next door is escorting me to the airport? I sigh to myself. Of course, I’d taken time every so often to visit his family in their yard, to sit and talk to his parents about sending him and his siblings to school. I even took time to help discipline them over some mischief they’d gotten themselves into, begging his parents to take good care of them despite their extreme poverty. His mother rose early and went to work, cleaning house and cooking for Lebanese people for sixty dollars a month, leaving home at 10 am and returning home at midnight. Her children aimlessly roamed the neighborhood after school. Many days, they did not go to school from lack of tuition money; many days, they had almost nothing to eat; many days, I gave them food when I learned they had not eaten all day; many days, Jestina fed them. Some days, Papeh and his friends would stop by and ask if they could bring me water from the well, and I’d cook them a meal just seeing how hungry they looked. Many days they lived on mangoes shaken down from the trees in my yard.

So when the neighborhood children around my yard learned I was not here to stay, they came to my door, in small groups and one by one, “Grandma, we will miss you—oh,”

“Grandma, why you have to go back to America?”

“Grandma, why?”

“Grandma, when you coming back ’gain?”

I stare now at Papeh, his skin glowing from too much grease, his shirt and shorts, clean, and his usual unkempt hair, combed out. He wants me to know that he is clean enough to go with his American Grandma to the airport. Tears fill my eyes. “It’s okay if your Ma says it’s okay, Papeh,” I say, hugging him. Around the car, the neighborhood children line up, watching, waving. Jestina, sitting next to Papeh, is also smiling. Yes, his mother told her this morning that Papeh could go with us to the airport, she confirms. I jump down to hug each child goodbye. I get back into the car, next to MT. The children step away, waving as the car climbs up the rugged terrain.

There is hope, I tell myself over and over, completely turned as I stare back at what used to be my home. Facing backward, I’m looking afar at what was once lost and the efforts to rebuild. I’m also reminded that if we don’t take care, we might raise up the angry ghosts of all the people we lost in the war, ghosts of some of the most beautiful people our country ever knew. Hours later as the plane takes off, I clutch my seat because somehow, I’m trying to convince myself that there is still hope for Liberia. There is hope because some of us are still hopeful.

 

To read the entire piece, ERECTING STONES, please click here.


 

 

Erecting Stones, Part Four

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

A week later, I’m sitting at the wedding of a young couple in Paynesville. There is hope. The young are still getting married. Flowers everywhere, the bride is late as always in Liberia. Before arriving at the church, some of us closest to the family, gather at the home where the bride is being readied for the wedding. When I arrive, I am given a chair to sit on. The bride, dressed in a lovely laced dress, sits on the bed, her iPad in hand, going over emails and photos of her life awaiting her in England. Then in come a group of dancing women. They are dressed in the fashion of Bassa women dancers in celebration, according to their Bassa Ethnic tradition, in black Western coats and Liberian lappas, chalked faces painted in black, red and white, loud red lipstick, large false teeth, palm leaves strung around their heads. Three women are dancing around the small room while another two beat on tin cans, iron rods and a drum. Their songs are in Bassa.

Right there, at my feet, one woman, in a large maternity dress, her fake pregnancy, falls to the floor to perform a ritual dance of the Bassa expectation for this young bride. I grab my camera phone and turn it on quickly, videotaping the traditional dance unknown to my Grebo culture. The songs are beautiful and the dancing women are good. They are joined by friends of the bride and groom, the mother of the bride and her relatives. The room is hot. The bride’s mother is my newest friend, a woman who lived some of the war years in England, raised her daughter partly in England, and now was visiting our homeland to support her daughter’s wedding. The daughter will take her new husband back to England someday, we are told.

We make way for the performance.

I capture the whole story on camera. The woman on the floor is rolling around now, faking labor pains, and then, the drums get louder with singing, and the mother-of-the-bride dances on. But the bride is too shy of this strange culture to care. She continues to stare at her iPad. I take her photos on and off. I’m interested in where the story is going, so I keep my focus on the woman who is now wriggling on the floor as if in a trance. A couple women stand over her like they do when a woman is in labor. They’re pretending to be helping the woman, “struggling” with the birth. They hold out their hands as if for the baby’s head. Then suddenly, the baby is delivered as the laboring woman rises. Someone next to me hands her a small child, and the dancing is once more lively with jubilation and shouts, a story that this child in her bridal gown, all beautifully attired in western traditional dress, one of the finest brides you’ll ever meet, must take in. It is clear from this drama that she is expected to begin planning on a baby as soon as possible, even in her cold new homeland of England. I smile, pitying her.

Even then she continues to ignore the dancing women.

At the church, which is filled to capacity, the bride marches to meet her husband. We are at least two hours behind schedule, but this is not a country where time matters. There is hope, I smile. There will be children born abroad, children who might someday come home to their parents’ homeland, second generation Diaspora Liberians, to fix this still broken country, to erect their own stones or the stones their grandparents broke down.

 

Part five, the final installment of Patricia’s piece, will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/15/14


 

Erecting Stones, Part Three

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

This evening, March 31, three months into my stay, my brother, Norris, and I are at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, not to visit a sick relative, but to arrange medical care for our sister in-law who is dying. I’m scared that she will die if we don’t help. She’s been ill so long that no one could say when she actually took ill. As we’re making arrangements with a nurse, my phone rings. It’s MT. He has had a minor accident. But it is more than that. The accident was a fender bender with a taxi driver. But it is more than that. I begin to shake all over. First, it was my sister-in-law, Wortor, lying on the bare floor of a shack church where a spiritualist preacher told her to wait for healing from God, to wait forever as her body is sapped by disease, to wait on God, who would not want anyone waiting on a cold, damp and dirty floor with no medication. She lies there, waiting, the sound of pounding ocean waves around her, the powerful Atlantic, against the zinc shack of a make-shift church along the shores of Corner West, Point Four, an area of Monrovia, almost forgotten by God.“She will die, I tell you, if we do not take her from here,” I said to my brother as the ailing woman wailed my name that afternoon, begging me, her “Sister,” to rescue her from the church. Now we are at JFK in an attempt to save her life in a country with almost no adequate hospitals or doctors.

But there has been an accident. We rush through our meeting with the nurse in charge and drive fast to one of Paynesville City’s Police Depots. There, we discover MT’s damaged car, he and his friends talking to the police, who come in and out of the small depot, claiming to know nothing about the whereabouts of the driver that has caused the mob to smash up his car. The mob, which nearly stoned MT to death, but they could not open the door to get at him. I stare in awe at the car, glass splinters falling off the back and the side windows, the door handle on the driver side, twisted off as the mob attempted to yank the doors open and pull MT out. And this was only for a fender bender near a UN post that was supposed to be one of the safest areas of Paynesville? And this is the new Liberia? I stand in awe, questioning my mind.

My son, the son of Liberian immigrants to America, returning home like many of the children we fled with to America, seeking to rediscover or discover their parents’ lost homeland, is attempting to tell us his side of the story. He is shocked that a mass of more than a hundred were called just because he brushed against a taxi driver’s beat-up car, despite his decision to repair the damage. But the policeman from the scene of the accident claims that it was the taxi driver who incited the mob to attack MT. From their investigation they learned that  the taxi driver told a group of bystanders that an American man had killed a little girl with his car, a lie usually told to get mob anger on an innocent person. And, as the crowd rushed toward MT to execute mob justice, the kind common in Monrovia these days, the taxi driver fled the scene. The policeman also fled, afraid for his own safety. Now, he is telling us why he ran, and he wants us to trust him, that he fled only after he’d warned MT to get back into his car and to lock the doors because “that crowd moving toward them was coming for him.”

We stand before the small police depot, damaged vehicles everywhere, the sandy Paynesville soil still hot from the day’s heat. We’re trying to figure out how to get justice, how to have the taxi driver arrested, how to get the police officer investigated. But justice is a complicated word in Monrovia. The police have already proven in a few minutes of their investigation only from behind their drab wooden desk that they are going to be useless in this case just as in all of the hundreds of other cases that come to them. Glass falling off, I rub my palm along the sides of my son’s beautiful SUV he’d paid so much money to bring into the country. My heart sinks for him. After all, this is the country I gave him at birth. After an hour of confusion at the depot, someone writes up a permit to allow us take the car away.

There is no hope for justice. There will be no investigation despite the deceptive words from the police depot chief that they would search for and capture that driver and all those who committed this crime. Laughable matter, I say to myself about the police capturing anyone. The sound of falling glass follows us down to Pagos Island, and into our garage as MT parks the car. We are comforted that the mob did not pull him out, did not break any of the windows on the front of the car, where he and his friend were seated, did not break the doors through to him and his friend, did not hit their rocks on my son’s head, did not pull him out or drag him away. This is our consolation, my consolation, as I fall asleep in the dark, the sounds of crickets in the backyard. The air is so humid; you can almost cut through it with a knife.

In the morning, Norris rushes to the J. F. K. Memorial Hospital to meet up with the ailing Worter, who is too paralyzed with Diabetes to stand. She’s carried on the arms of her two older children from a taxi. She will be seen through the outpatient wards. Inside and around the hospital, a more important emergency is at hand. The former Vice President or warrior-turned-Vice President with Charles Taylor, Mr. Moses Zeh Blah, has just died. Blah was one of Taylor’s generals who trained with him in Libya in order to launch their bloody civil war more than twenty years earlier. It is April Fool’s Day, so I’m wondering. But my sister-in-law is more important to me than any Vice President. I will visit her this afternoon when she is admitted, I tell myself. But on the radio, there is news that the hospital compound is filled with pressmen and controversy, a chaotic atmosphere.

This now dead man served as president of Liberia for only two months during the interim before the installation of Gyude Bryant’s transitional government in 2003, the first interim president after the fourteen-year-war. The vacuum between Taylor’s departure and the institution of the first civilian rule at the end of the war brought the former warrior, Mr. Blah, a brief presidential stardom. So, as Wortor, the unknown Liberian woman, was sitting on a crowded bench with hundreds of other unknown people that would not be seen today, the confusion of the death of Mr. Blah took over the country. Many still thought of him as the former president while others thought of him as one of the most brutal of Taylor’s warriors during their invasion of and long struggle for Liberia, the one that killed their father, mother or relative during NPFL’s capture of the first suburb in Monrovia.

Wortor would only live a few hours in that hospital, where she was admitted into the emergency room quarters instead of the ICU ward. Late into the night of April 1, Wortor would die, an irony in itself, a simple, poor, unknown woman who had almost no means to medical care, dying the same day as the once two-month President, warrior, rebel, whatever you wish. Irony of ironies, I thought, waking up on April 2 to the radio blaring with politicians shouting at one another about what the government did or did not do to help an ailing former president. I wept loud and hard, not for their lost “hero,” but for Wortor, who arrived at the hospital too ill to survive. Wortor, who died after diagnosis from lack of care and medical supplies amidst the discordance in a country still at war with itself. I had already buried three relatives when Wortor died, and as sad as that was, the rate at which people were dying convinced me that I would be burying many more family members in my short stay in Monrovia.

Her funeral day is hot and rainy, her young daughters fainting all over the crowded church floor and at the gravesite as we scramble in the rain to awake them. But before Wortor, we had buried my brother, Jacob Tugba Jabbeh, my Aunty Julia Nyemade Jabbeh, my cousin, Rose, Mama’s first cousin and many others. By the end of April, I am convinced that this is a country of lost ghosts, trying to return to life.

Sadly fascinating is the powerless presence of the poor that quickly overwhelms the visitor. They still roam the streets despite years since the institution of peace and the election of Africa’s first female president and her reelection to a second term. The massive poverty against and the rampant corruption could kill the newcomer.

Outside my window this Saturday morning, the neighbors are rising from sleep. The national radio station plays on and off, African music, Liberian indigenous music and talk show arguments about nothing significant. Here, everyone plays their radio without consideration for their neighbors, so who cares? I rise, and go outside to chat with the neighbors on one side of my house. This is now my adoptive family, Jestina and her small children, who call me Grandma. Many days, I feed them. I give them money for food, to go to the doctor, for clothing. But this is not your family to complain about their poverty. Instead, Jestina had been saving up her pennies to put together a small business. Today, we’re talking about my contribution so she can begin. “How much money do you have now?” I ask her.

“Mommie, I have two hundred dollars and fifty. I need only fifty more to begin. I already pay for my market table, Mommie,” the thirty-two-year-old woman tells me. Sweat pours down her cheeks, her lappa strapped tightly against her chest, her one-year-old son, Gift, on her lap. She’s smiling, happy to know she may get my help.

“I’ll give you one hundred,” I say, and she jumps up, dancing, the ground hard, rugged, and uneven. You could compare this soil to the country. “Thank you—oh, Mommie, I love you so much.”

 

Part four of Patricia’s piece will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/14/14


 

Erecting Stones, Part Two

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

Outside, the neighborhood is alive with noisy children, the new children of the new Liberia. They will not go to school tomorrow. They will not eat tomorrow. They will never know what life used to be before the war. Why did we go to war, I keep asking myself as I walk around Pagos Island, a hilly place that has been taken over by abandoned, unfinished homes, abandoned dreams and hopes for a better future. My old neighborhood is now filled with a new group of residents too weary of caring for the abandoned properties of us runaways to care. The big houses are now either crumbling or have been taken over by termites, wild bush and termite hills. The new Liberia, despite efforts to restore the country, still resembles a lost country.

I am here on my sabbatical, to work on and edit my memoir whose title keeps changing. But one day soon, it will be published. There will be one title that finally sticks, I tell myself. The stories in the memoir seek to tell my side of the Liberian civil war story, the story of my sufferings and my losses, the deaths of my family and the stories of hundreds of thousands of us scarred people. So, every morning, I pack up my laptop and sit next to my son who takes me to town for my writing day. Sometimes, my brother, Norris Tweah drives down the rugged road from the main highway on his way to work to give me a ride to town where I can write in a cool restaurant. There’s no electricity or water throughout much of the country. So, my son and I spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline and diesel each month to power up his generator for a few hours of electricity every night. A few hours after we turn off the generator, my laptop dies. We also spend hundreds on drinking water every month, like everyone else. This is a country where you are almost your own government.

On days when I cannot get a ride, I walk up a mile or more of the huge hill from Pagos Island to the Palm Springs hotel across Tubman Boulevard to write. I utilize their cool air conditioning and electricity. Funny, how difficult it is to accomplish what I came here for, I tell myself every now and then. In America, in the comfort of my home, I’d have to walk across from my bedroom upstairs to what used to be MT’s bedroom, now turned into my office, to write. And even that was difficult. Now, I have to walk more than a mile up a steep hill, breathing hard, passing by poor swamp people who have dried up the half-river, half-swampland to build their mud shacks, greeting them as they smile up at me, this new Liberian who looks American. “Hello, Book woman,” an aging woman says.

“Hello, Ma,” I stand and make small conversation for two minutes and be on my way. Up, puffing and breathing, I climb, running across the busy highway, my laptop in hand, sweating, the world already over 98 degrees. Then I walk past the hotel security guards with their respectful greetings, bowing and shaking my hand and smiling, recognizing me as one of the elites, a woman who seem so educated, you knew it by just meeting her. They step aside to let me into the gates that keep the poor and lowly outside. In the hotel, everyone notices me, so I find a small corner where I can ignore diners coming and going. I write for hours, almost unnoticed, purchasing small unwanted food, sometimes a $5 plate of fried plantain and a Coke. Writing and talking to the young attendants who work for pennies on the dollar, cautioning them to go to school, knowing how much easier that was to say than to do. The ocean waves at the back of the hotel, my solace. I cannot really ignore the expatriates coming and going, smoking, talking in low tones. I write, lifting my head every few minutes to stare in awe at these expats who have taken over my country like termites, plotting our fate for tomorrow’s wars.

 

Part three of Patricia’s piece will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/13/14


 

Erecting Stones, Part One

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

There’s a huge box of books leaning against a corner of the living room wall. Outside, the day is bright and humid. It is the Dry Season in Liberia. Everything here in Congo Town feels like hot plastic, as if it will soon melt. The coconut and mango trees cast shades here and there, across our yard, the afternoon shadows of a dying day. Breadnut trees lean as if to fall. Next to the box of books, the sunlight draws lines against overcast shadows on the floor. I’m sitting on a futon couch that Mlen-Too II, my son, who we call MT, has tossed in the middle of what used to be our living room.

He’s still sorting out where everything belongs, having just moved into the Congo Town home from an overpriced apartment. Two years ago, MT moved back to our homeland as if to sort out himself or the past or something we forgot to take along when we immigrated to America. He’s restoring our war-ravaged home to make it habitable again. As if erecting stones or uncovering old stones, buried over the decades, MT who was only five when we fled, is digging up the past we cannot dig up for ourselves, the past we almost forgot to return to or we were too afraid to confront. This was our home where my mother took refuge until she died, and then other family members took over the nearly demolished property, hiding here from the bombings and gunfire in Liberia’s fourteen year civil war, as if hiding was something anyone could do.

When I arrived yesterday I was afraid of moving into a place with so many painful memories.  I feared walking firmly upon this rugged ground would crack some egg beneath my feet, as if some unmarked grave would tumble. This is my first real visit here, the first time that I’ve been in this house for more than thirty minutes since 1991. All around is debris from what we lost to the war. My mother lived here until she died thirteen years earlier, in 2000, as the war was waged, while my family and I lived in America. This was my first night sleeping in my master bedroom after nearly twenty-two years of running. When I decided to move in with MT, I did not calculate that Mama’s ghost would be waiting to welcome me back home.

I lay in bed, cold, even as the heat penetrating makeshift curtains MT had put up filled the room. This was where I used to wake up every morning to bombings, where I stayed up many nights, listening to the sounds of missile attacks banging and to the news of government executions of whole families in the city.

Last night, I thought I saw my dead mother standing at the doorway, smiling, as I tried to sleep. “So you came back after all these years, my daughter?” She said, in the dark, leaning against the shut door, her six foot stoutness looming. I rose quickly, my heart pounding hard. How did she know I had returned? I rushed to the door, the room pitch dark, and my feet shaky. I wanted to greet Mama like a true Grebo daughter, to feel that image of my tall, funny mother, but there was only emptiness at the door.

I turned on the light, but she was not there. I returned to bed, wetting the pillows with the tears I’d held back over the last five years of my short trips back home. This was Mama’s room for years as the war rocked the house and the country. During the long war, I used to be terrified of a bomb landing on the house and killing her. But a bomb was not big enough to kill my mother who was bigger than any bomb. She died nine years after my family left her here, after her six month visit with us in Byron Center, Michigan, where she shockingly convinced us that she belonged in Liberia, amidst the war and bombings. America was not for her, she said.

So, we packed her up and sent her back home where her three other children and dozens of family still lived, clinging on to life. But years of war wore out her aging body, sapped her health away, and one day, she fell and died suddenly at 63. Not in this house, but in her small little shack home. As if to make a point, Mama died in her own home, away from the house I’d left in her care. Despite her death, she was everywhere still.

Now, the box of books is daring me to come close. So I rise to the challenge. I begin sorting, sitting flat on the terrazzo tiled floor. I am saddened to discover that they are books from our home library collection from twenty-two years prior. Dark and faded from dust and exploding concrete, after splinters from the bombings pierced through our home that first year of the war, the books smelled old. Several have been partly chewed up over the years by mice and termites. I draw a chair closer and begin tossing them out all over the floor. My treasures, I sigh, old textbooks from college days, books from teaching English and Literature as a young college instructor, my husband’s books about Business Education and Theology. I pick up textbooks from my graduate school days at Indiana University-Bloomington. I hold on to the hardback, now without its photo leaf wrapping, Reynolds Price’s The Source of Light and Mustian: Two Novels and A Story, novels I read for my “Writing About Literature” class in 1984. Sitting very still, reading a few pages, teary, and recalling Price’s visit with our class and how, the sassy woman that I was, questioned his writing style, my Liberian accent distinguishable against a roomful of all white creative writing graduate students. The hardback books are still priceless today; I swallow hard. I spend the day on the floor, sorting, amazed at how everything else we owned had been looted, how our past here has been reduced to this partially shredded box of books, brown from smoke and the years.

 

Part two of Patricia’s piece will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/12/14


 

Bonsai Garden

By Karen Zhang

On a recent weekend I visited the national arboretum in Washington and marveled at the exquisite bonsai trees on display. The Bonsai Garden inside the arboretum—a huge botanical garden containing a variety of woody plants intended partly for scientific study—is divided into three parts: the Chinese pavilion, the Japanese pavilion and the North American pavilion.

Greeting by a zigzagging stone path lined by Asian plants, such as needle pine, willows and bamboos, I entered the Bonsai Garden with continuous wows. I couldn’t believe that in North America I could find something resembling the essence of a Chinese classical garden. The swallow-tailed roof, stone wall, red-wood furniture, reflection pond and above all, the miniature trees in pots, some of them aged a hundred years old.

Bonsai, literally meaning plantings in a pot, is considered a refined garden art in China. Traditionally, one would find Chinese scholars’ homes with bonsais for interior and exterior decoration — a symbol of elite status. Wandering around the Chinese pavilion made me feel as if were in Suzhou, an eastern Chinese city renowned for its classical gardens. There were illustrations on display telling visitors how Bonsai was made by the delicate hands of masters. But after seeing that, you may want to think twice about “torturing” a plant to satisfy your perfection toward beauty. For a modern sensibility, there are too many manipultaitons– wiring, twisting and replanting — for us to feel the the beauty of the bonsais is worth it.

The North American pavilion exhibits a number of bonsai done by American masters, some of whom are Chinese by ethnicity. The trees are slightly bigger and their style is wilder. I guess that gives credit to the American no-strings-attached free spirit. American masters prefer to use bulky tree trunks like bald cypress and juniper. One bonsai was so upright that it reminded me of a strong silver sword piercing the sky.

I saw in the arboretum brochures a few names of Westerners who were introduced as the Bonsai Garden keepers. Some of the bonsai trees in the North American pavilion were created by them. I understand this is how Americans present what they learn about the traditional Asian culture, and how they incorporate the Chinese bonsai planting skills with American aesthetics. As a Chinese, I think it’s great to see East Asian culture presented so beautifully in America.

_____

Book Review: Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

 photo 3c434ab7-0f32-411e-805a-29c21c9013b9_zps383c1206.jpg Sorrow
by Catherine Gammon
Braddock Avenue Books, 2013
$16.00

 

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

For years she had kept herself alive by working out the details. What was left to imagine? She knew everything except which of them it would be. Necessity was what she understood: When? Now. Why? Because. But Who? always eluded her. Choose me, the little voice said.

In Sorrow, by Catherine Gammon, readers are immediately thrown into the mind of Anita Palatino, a seemingly competent woman who works in New York City and lives with her mother. Yet, Anita is secretly haunted by memories of her childhood of sexual abuse; as a result, she creates an outer shell to ensure that she will not suffer again. However, when she reviews the above questions and finally determines whom she will murder, the actually act of killing her mother sends her into a tailspin and she spends the rest of the novel fighting to reconcile.

Told in three separate parts, Gammon explores themes of abuse, guilt, love, repression, faith, and the undeniable desire to be a whole, unified person. Throughout each section, Anita’s walls start to come down, exposing more of her torrid past and a circle of unrepentant abusers. Surrounded by neighbors and a young nun who all believe she’s innocent, Anita struggles to keep her secret from those closest to her and find a way to make peace with her past transgressions. All the while, the reader is left wondering if Anita will ever be exposed for her crime.

Gammon uses third person point of view to examine Cruz Garcia, Tomas, Sister Monica Luz, and Magda Ramirez. These characters allow new insight into Anita and permit Gammon to weave a more complicated narrative filled with pain and uneasiness. In only a sentence or two, Gammon manages to reveal each character’s feelings in a way that resonates with the reader. For example:

When [Sister Monica] proposed to Cruz that Anita should leave with her and make a retreat with the sisters, the look of alarm passed so quickly across his face that Sister Monica must have been unsure whether she had seen it until his eyes began to glisten and he agreed that it was the right place for Anita to go.

Not only are these character shown as complicated individuals and their desires are illuminated to ensure that the reader understands the dynamic relationship between Anita, Sister Monica, and Cruz Garcia. Gammon further illustrates this by detailing small gestures that creates a tension and a desire to find out what else Sister Monica and Cruz Garcia are hiding.

On the other side of the friend spectrum, Tomas — a young man who escapes illegally to the United States — is caught between his own need to work at the grocery store for money, his love for Anita, and a desire to return to El Salvador where his family resides. Then there’s Magda Ramirez who uses Anita’s crime as a way to examine her own tangled past with her husband and a desire to earn more than just a steady paycheck. Together these characters get the chance to really live for the first time in years as they make an irreversible decision to either continue to stand with Anita or allow their own needs for love and desire to come first.

Unfortunately in Anita’s story, she’s forced to encounter one of her past abusers with or without her friends. During these intimate and awkward moments, she becomes even more fragmented. Using long sentences, Gammon exposes Anita’s true thoughts:

Anita in the darkness by herself hears the breathing in the darkness hears the breathing by herself Anita hears her name in the breathing in the darkness her name Anita in the name her life her heart her dying hears the flow of blood and the pulse and in her heart the heart of living[…]

Here, the lack of punctuation continues for four pages, until the end of the chapter. While there are other spots that Gammon uses long, twisting sentences, filled with commas to expose Anita’s rambling mindset, this chapter highlights the darkness within her and the deeply rooted explanation for her crime.

Only when Anita finally defeats her past, lays herself completely bare, and turns to her friends for help does she think, “So much of my life was made up of these moments of mixed knowledge, of delayed recognition, of discovering again what she already knew.” This idea explains Anita’s character transformation and throws the reader directly into the thrilling climax where Anita’s true character is tested.

Once Gammon illustrates the importance of exposure, the reader can see the true effects of abuse and the need for escape that Anita so desires. Sorrow makes one last impression when the book ends with the chilling idea of “love” as a motivator for Anita’s crimes. One that shows that if she had not been so blind to the affection of her friends and neighbors, then she never would have been forced to relive her past, kill her mother, or experience the rippling effects of her crime.


 

Erecting Stones

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

There’s a huge box of books leaning against a corner of the living room wall. Outside, the day is bright and humid. It is the Dry Season in Liberia. Everything here in Congo Town feels like hot plastic. The coconut and mango trees cast shades here and there, across our yard, the afternoon shadows of a dying day. Breadnut trees lean as if to fall. Next to the box of books, the sunlight draws lines against overcast shadows on the floor. I’m sitting on a futon couch that Mlen-Too II, my son, who we call MT, has tossed in the middle of what used to be our living room.

He’s still sorting out where everything belongs, having just moved into the Congo Town home from an overpriced apartment. Two years ago, MT moved back to our homeland as if to sort out himself or the past or something we forgot to take along when we immigrated to America. He’s restoring our war-ravaged home to make it habitable again. As if erecting stones or uncovering old stones, buried over the decades, MT who was only five when we fled, is digging up the past we could not dig up for ourselves, the past we almost forgot to return to or were too afraid to confront. This was our home where my mother took refuge until she died. And then other family members took over the nearly demolished property, hiding here from the bombings and gunfire in Liberia’s fourteen year civil war, as if hiding was something anyone could do.

When I arrived yesterday I was afraid of moving into a place with so many painful memories.  I feared walking firmly upon this rugged ground would crack some egg beneath my feet. I felt like some unmarked grave would tumble. This was my first real visit here, my first time here for more than thirty minutes since 1991. All around is debris from what we lost to the war. My mother lived here until she died thirteen years earlier, in 2000, as the war was waged, while my family and I lived in America. This was my first night sleeping in my master bedroom after nearly twenty-two years of running. When I decided to move in with MT, I did not calculate that Mama’s ghost would be waiting to welcome me back home.

I lay in bed, cold, as the heat, penetrating makeshift curtains MT had put up filled the room. This was where I used to wake up every morning to bombings, where I stayed up many nights, listening to the sounds of missile attacks banging and to the news of government executions of whole families in the city.

Last night, I thought I saw my dead mother standing at the doorway, smiling, as I tried to sleep. “So you came back after all these years, my daughter?” She said, in the dark, leaning against the shut door, her six foot stoutness looming. I rose quickly, my heart pounding hard. How did she know I had returned? I rushed to the door, the room pitch dark, and my feet shaky. I wanted to greet Mama like a true Grebo daughter, to feel that image of my tall, funny mother, but there was only emptiness at the door.

I turned on the light, but she was not there. I returned to bed, wetting the pillows with the tears I’d held back over the last five years of my short trips back home. This was Mama’s room for years as the war rocked the house and the country. During the long war, I used to be terrified of a bomb landing on the house and killing her. But a bomb was not big enough to kill my mother who was bigger than any bomb. She died nine years after my family left her here, after her six month visit with us in Byron Center, Michigan, where she shockingly convinced us that she belonged in Liberia amidst the war and bombings. America was not for her, she said.

So, we packed her up and sent her back home where her three other children and dozens of family still lived, clinging on to life. But years of war wore out her aging body, sapped her health away, and one day, she fell and died suddenly at 63. Not in this house, but in her small little shack home. As if to make a point, Mama died in her own home, away from the house I’d left in her care. Despite her death, she was everywhere still.

Now, the box of books is daring me to come close. So I rise to the challenge. I begin sorting, sitting flat on the terrazzo tiled floor. I am saddened to discover that they are books from our home library collection from twenty-two years prior. Dark and faded from dust and exploding concrete, after splinters from the bombings pierced through our home that first year of the war, the books smelled old. Several have been partly chewed up by mice and termites over the years. I draw a chair closer and begin tossing the books out all over the floor. My treasures, I sigh, old textbooks from college days, books from teaching English and Literature as a young college instructor, my husband’s books about Business Education and Theology. I pick up textbooks from my graduate school days at Indiana University-Bloomington. I hold on to the hardback, now without its photo leaf wrapping, Reynolds Price’s The Source of Light and Mustian: Two Novels and A Story, novels I read for my “Writing About Literature” class in 1984. Sitting very still, reading a few pages, teary, and recalling Price’s visit with our class and how, the sassy woman that I was, questioned his writing style, my Liberian accent distinguishable against a roomful of all white creative writing graduate students. The hardback books are still priceless today, I swallow hard. I spend the day on the floor, sorting, amazed at how everything else we owned had been looted, how our past here has been reduced to this partially shredded box of books, brown from smoke and the years.

*

Outside, the neighborhood is alive with noisy children, the new children of the new Liberia. They will not go to school tomorrow. They will not eat tomorrow. They will never know what life used to be before the war. Why did we go to war, I keep asking myself as I walk around Pagos Island, a hilly place that has been taken over by abandoned, unfinished homes, abandoned dreams and hopes for a better future. My old neighborhood is now filled with a new group of residents too weary of caring for the abandoned properties of us runaways to care. The big houses are now either crumbling or have been taken over by termites, wild bush and termite hills. The new Liberia, despite efforts to restore the country, still resembles a lost country.

I am here on my sabbatical, to work on and edit my memoir whose title keeps changing. But one day soon, it will be published. There will be one title that finally sticks, I tell myself. The stories in the memoir seek to tell my side of the Liberian civil war story, the story of my suffering and my losses, the deaths of my family and the stories of hundreds of thousands of us scarred people. So, every morning, I pack up my laptop and sit next to my son who takes me to town for my writing day. Sometimes, my brother, Norris Tweah drives down the rugged road from the main highway on his way to work to give me a ride to town where I can write in a cool restaurant. There’s no electricity or water throughout much of the country. So, my son and I spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline and diesel each month to power up his generator for a few hours of electricity every night. A few hours after we turn off the generator, my laptop dies. We also spend hundreds on drinking water every month, like everyone else. This is a country where you are almost your own government.

On days when I cannot get a ride, I walk up a mile or more of the huge hill from Pagos Island to the Palm Springs hotel across Tubman Boulevard to write. I utilize their cool air conditioning and electricity. Funny, how difficult it is to accomplish what I came here for, I tell myself every now and then. In America, in the comfort of my home, I’d have to walk across from my bedroom upstairs to what used to be MT’s bedroom now turned into my office, to write. And even that was difficult. Now, I had to walk more than a mile up a steep hill, breathing hard, passing by poor swamp people who have dried up the half-river, half-swampland to build their mud shacks, greeting them as they smile up at me, this new Liberian who looks American. “Hello, Book woman,” an aging woman says.

“Hello, Ma,” I’d stand and make small conversation for two minutes and be on my way. Up, puffing and breathing, I climb, running across the busy highway, my laptop in hand, sweating, the world already over 98 degrees. Then I walk past the hotel security guards with their respectful greetings, bowing and shaking my hand and smiling, recognizing me as one of the elites, a woman who seemed so educated, yo­­u knew it by just meeting her. They step aside to let me into the gates that keep the poor and lowly outside. In the hotel, everyone notices me, so I find a small corner where I can ignore diners coming and going. I write for hours, almost unnoticed, purchasing small unwanted food, sometimes a $5 plate of fried plantain and a Coke. Writing and talking to the young attendants who work for pennies on the dollar, cautioning them to go to school, knowing how much easier that was to say than to do. The ocean waves at the back of the hotel, my solace. I cannot really ignore the expatriates coming and going, smoking, talking in low tones. I write, lifting my head every few minutes to stare in awe at these expats who have taken over my country like termites, plotting our fate for tomorrow’s wars.

*

This evening, March 31, three months into my stay, my brother, Norris, and I are at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, not to visit a sick relative, but to arrange medical care for our sister in-law who is dying. I’m scared that she will die if we don’t help. She’s been ill so long that no one could say when she actually took ill. As we’re making arrangements with a nurse, my phone rings. It’s MT. He has had a minor accident. But it is more than that. The accident was a fender bender with a taxi driver. But it is more than that. I begin to shake all over. First, it was my sister-in-law, Wortor, lying on the bare floor of a shack church where a spiritualist preacher told her to wait for healing from God, to wait forever as her body was sapped by disease, to wait on God, who would not want anyone waiting on a cold, damp and dirty floor with no medication. She lay there, waiting, the sound of pounding ocean waves around her, the powerful Atlantic, against the zinc shack of a make-shift church along the shores of Corner West, Point Four, an area of Monrovia, almost forgotten by God.“She will die, I tell you, if we do not take her from here,” I said to my brother as the ailing woman wailed my name that afternoon, begging me, her “Sister,” to rescue her from the church. Now we are at JFK in an attempt to save her life in a country with almost no adequate hospitals or doctors.

But there has been an accident. We rush through our meeting with the nurse in charge and drive fast to one of Paynesville City’s Police Depots. There, we discover MT’s damaged car, he and his friends talking to the police who come in and out of the small depot, claiming to know nothing about the whereabouts of the driver that incited the mob to smash up MT’s car. The mob would have stoned MT, but they could not open the door to get at him. I stare in awe at the car, glass splinters falling off the back and the side windows, the door handle on the driver side, twisted off as the mob attempted to yank the doors open to pull MT out. And this was only for a fender bender near a UN post that was supposed to be one of the safest areas of Paynesville? And this is the new Liberia? I stand in awe, questioning my mind.

MT, the son of Liberian immigrants to America, returning home like many of the children we fled with to America, seeking to rediscover or discover their parents’ lost homeland, is attempting to tell us his side of the story. He is shocked that a mass of more than a hundred were called just because he’d brushed against a taxi driver’s beat-up car, despite his decision to repair the damage. But the policeman from the scene of the accident claims that it was the taxi driver who incited the mob to attack MT. From their investigation they learned that the taxi driver told a group of bystanders that an American man had killed a little girl with his car, a lie usually told to get mob anger on an innocent person. And, as the crowd rushed toward MT to execute mob justice, the kind common in Monrovia these days, the taxi driver fled the scene. The policeman also fled, afraid for his own safety. Now, the same policeman wants us to trust him, to trust that he fled only after he’d warned MT to get back into his car and to lock the doors because “that crowd moving toward them was coming for him.”

We stand before the small police depot, damaged vehicles everywhere, the sandy Paynesville soil still hot from the day’s heat. We’re trying to figure out how to get justice, how to have the taxi driver arrested, how to get the police officer investigated. But justice is a complicated word in Monrovia. The police had already proven in a few minutes of their investigation only from behind their drab wooden desk that they are going to be useless in this case just as in all of the hundreds of other cases that come to them. Glass falling off, I rub my palm along the sides of my son’s beautiful SUV he’d paid so much money to bring into the country. My heart sinks for him. After all, this is the country I gave him at birth. After an hour of confusion at the depot, someone writes up a permit to allow us take the car away.

There is no hope for justice. There will be no investigation despite the deceptive words from the police depot chief that they would search for and capture that driver and all those who committed this crime. Laughable matter, I say to myself about the police capturing anyone. The sound of falling glass follows us down to Pagos Island, and into our garage as MT parks the car. We are comforted that the mob did not pull him out, did not break any of the windows on the front of the car, where he and his friend were seated, did not break the doors through to him and his friend, did not hit their rocks on my son’s head, did not pull him out or drag him away. This is our consolation, my consolation, as I fall asleep in the dark, the sounds of crickets in the backyard. The air is so humid, you can almost cut through it with a knife.

In the morning, Norris rushes to J. F. K. Memorial Hospital to meet up with my ailing sister-in-in-law, who is too paralyzed with Diabetes to stand. She’s carried on the arms of her two older children from a taxi. She will be seen through the outpatient wards. Inside and around the hospital, a more important emergency is at hand. The former Vice President or warrior-turned-Vice President with Charles Taylor, Mr. Moses Zeh Blah, has just died. Blah was one of Taylor’s generals who trained with him in Libya in order to launch their bloody civil war more than twenty years earlier. It is April fool’s Day, so I’m wondering. But my sister-in-law is more important to me than any Vice President. I will visit her this afternoon when she is admitted, I tell myself. On the radio, there is news that the hospital compound is filled with pressmen and controversy, a chaotic atmosphere.

This now dead man, served as president of Liberia for only two months during the interim before the installation of Gyude Bryant’s transitional government in 2003, the first interim president after the fourteen-year-war. The vacuum between Taylor’s departure and the institution of the first civilian rule at the end of the war brought the former warrior, Mr. Blah, a brief presidential stardom. So, as Wortor, the unknown Liberian woman was sitting on a crowded bench with hundreds of other unknown people that would not be seen today, the confusion of the death of Mr. Blah took over the country. Many still thought of him as the former president while others thought of him as one of the most brutal of Taylor’s warriors during their invasion of and long struggle for Liberia. Many thought of him as the one that killed their father, mother or relative during NPFL’s capture of the first suburb in Monrovia.

Wortor would only live a few hours in that hospital, where she was admitted into the emergency room quarters instead of the ICU ward. Late into the night of April 1, Wortor would die, an irony in itself, a simple, poor, unknown woman who had almost no means to medical care, dying the same day as the once two-month President, warrior, rebel, whatever you wish. Irony of ironies, I thought, waking up on April 2 to the radio blaring with politicians shouting at one another about what the government did or did not do to help an ailing former president. I wept loud and hard, not for their lost “hero,” but for Wortor, who arrived at the hospital too ill to survive, for Wortor, who died after diagnosis from lack of care and medical supplies amidst the discordance in a country still at war with itself. I had already buried three relatives when Wortor died, and as sad as that was, the rate at which people were dying convinced me that I would be burying many more family members in my short stay in Monrovia.

Her funeral day is hot and rainy, her young daughters fainting all over the crowded church floor and at the gravesite as we scrambled in the rain to awake them. But before Wortor, we had buried my brother, Jacob Tugba Jabbeh, my Aunty Julia Nyemade Jabbeh, my cousin, Rose, Mama’s first cousin and many others. By the end of April, I am convinced that this is a country of lost ghosts, trying to return to life.

Sadly fascinating however, is the powerless presence of the poor that quickly overwhelms the visitor. They still roamed the streets despite years since the institution of peace and the election of Africa’s first female president and her reelection to a second term. The massive poverty against and the rampant corruption could kill the newcomer.

Outside my window this Saturday morning, the neighbors are rising from sleep. The national radio station plays on and off, African music, Liberian indigenous music and talk show arguments about nothing significant. Here, everyone plays their radio without consideration for their neighbors, so who cares? I rise, and go outside to chat with the neighbors on one side of my house. This is now my adoptive family, Jestina and her small children, who call me Grandma. Many days, I feed them. I give them money for food, to go to the doctor, for clothing. But this is not your family to complain about their poverty. Instead, Jestina had been saving up her pennies to put together a small business. Today, we’re talking about my contribution so she would begin. “How much money do you have now?” I ask her.

“Mommie, I have two hundred dollars and fifty. I need only fifty more to start. I already pay for my market table, Mommie,” the thirty-two-year-old woman tells me. Sweat pours down her face, her lappa strapped tightly against her chest, Gift, her one-year-old son, on her lap. She’s smiling, happy to know that she may get my help.

“I’ll give you one hundred,” I say, and she jumps up, dancing, the ground hard, rugged, and uneven. You could compare this soil to the country.

“Thank you—oh, Mommie, I love you so much.”

*

A week later, I’m sitting at the wedding of a young couple in Paynesville. There is hope. The young are still getting married. Flowers everywhere, the bride is late as always in Liberia. Before arriving at the church, some of us closest to the family gather at the home where the bride is being readied for the wedding. When I arrive, I am given the best chair to sit on. The bride, dressed in a lovely laced dress, is sitting on a bed, her iPad in hand, going over emails and photos of her life awaiting her in England. Then in come a group of dancing women. They are dressed in the fashion of Bassa women dancers in celebration, according to their Bassa Ethnic tradition, in black western coats and Liberian lappas, chalked faces painted in black, red and white, loud red lipstick, large false teeth, palm leaves strung around their heads. Three women are dancing around the small room while another two beat on tin cans, iron rods and a drum. Their songs are in Bassa.

Right there, at my feet, one woman, in a large maternity dress, her fake pregnancy, falls to the floor to perform a ritual dance of the Bassa expectation for this young bride. I grab my camera phone and turn it on quickly, videotaping the traditional dance unknown to my Grebo culture. The songs are beautiful and the dancing women are good. They are joined by friends of the bride and groom, the mother of the bride and her relatives. The room is hot. The bride’s mother is my newest friend, a woman who lived some of the war years in England, raised her daughter partly in England, and now was visiting our homeland to support her daughter’s wedding. The daughter will take her new husband back to England someday, we are told.

We make way for the performance.

I capture the whole story on camera. The woman on the floor is rolling around now, faking labor pains, and then, the drums get louder with singing, and the mother-of-the-bride dances on. But the bride is too shy of this strange culture to care. She continues to stare at her iPad. I take her photos on and off. I’m interested in where the story is going, so I keep my focus on the woman who is now wriggling on the floor as if in a trance. A couple women stand over her like they do when a woman is in labor. They’re pretending to be helping the woman, “struggling” with the birth. They hold out their hands as if for the baby’s head. Then suddenly, the baby is delivered as the laboring woman rises. Someone next to me hands her a small child, and the dancing is once more lively with jubilation and shouts, a story that this child in her bridal gown, all beautifully attired in western traditional dress, one of the finest brides you’ll ever meet, must take in. It is clear from this drama that she is expected to begin planning on a baby as soon as possible, even in her cold new homeland of England. I smile, pitying her.

Even then she continues to ignore the dancing women.

At the church, which is filled to capacity, the bride marches down the aisles to meet her husband. We are at least two hours behind schedule, but this is not a country where time matters. There is hope, I smile. There will be children born abroad, children who might someday come home to their parents’ homeland, second generation Diaspora Liberians, to fix this still broken country, to erect their own stones or the stones their grandparents broke down.

*

Outside my once destroyed home, my son continues to carve away the trees I planted in my younger days when he was only a toddler. He’s clearing some to make room for light. He’s attempting to smooth the rugged ground, to build a fence, to renovate our war-damaged home. Maybe he will succeed, I think as I climb onto his Nissan Xterra to depart Liberia and return to my comfortable America. Jestina, my adoptive daughter, is already in the car. She’s all dressed  to send me off. I turn to look in the back, and a small boy, about nine years old is sitting in the corner. He’s attempting to hide from me, but it’s me he’s taking to the airport. “Where are you going, Papeh?” I ask.

“I taking you to the airfield,” the child stammers.

“Why? Where is your mother? How can she let you go so far with us?”

“She say I can go with you, Grandma,” the child says, and tears rush to my eyes.

“With me to America?” I ask, confused.

“To the airfield.”

“But why, Papeh?”

“Because I will miss you, Grandma,” the child interrupts me. He’s sitting tightly in the corner, afraid I may throw him out, begging with his eyes. The child that I only got to know during my brief stay next door is escorting me to the airport? I sigh to myself. Of course, I’d taken time every so often to visit his family in their yard, to sit and talk to his parents about sending him and his siblings to school. I even took time to help discipline them over some mischief they’d gotten themselves into, begging his parents to take good care of them despite their extreme poverty. His mother rose early and went to work, cleaning house and cooking for Lebanese people for sixty dollars a month, leaving home at 10 am and returning home at midnight. Her children aimlessly roamed the neighborhood after school. Many days, they did not go to school from lack of tuition money; many days, they had almost nothing to eat; many days, I gave them food when I learned they had not eaten all day; many days, Jestina fed them. Some days, Papeh and his friends would stop by and ask if they could bring me water from the well, and I’d cook them a meal just seeing how hungry they looked. Many days they lived on mangoes shaken down from the trees in my yard.

So when the neighborhood children around my yard learned I was not here to stay, they came to my door, in small groups and one by one, “Grandma, we will miss you—oh,”

“Grandma, why you have to go back to America?”

“Grandma, why?”

“Grandma, when you coming back ’gain?”

I stare now at Papeh, his skin glowing from too much grease, his shirt and shorts, clean, and his usual unkempt hair, combed out. He wants me to know that he is clean enough to go with his American Grandma to the airport. Tears fill my eyes. “It’s okay if your Ma says it’s okay, Papeh,” I say, hugging him. Around the car, the neighborhood children line up, watching, waving. Jestina, sitting next to Papeh, is also smiling. Yes, his mother told her this morning that Papeh could go with us to the airport, she confirms. I jump down to hug each child goodbye. I get back into the car, next to MT. The children step away, waving as the car climbs up the rugged terrain.

There is hope, I tell myself over and over, completely turned as I stare back at what used to be my home. Facing backward, I’m looking afar at what was once lost and the efforts to rebuild. I’m also reminded that if we don’t take care, we might raise up the angry ghosts of all the people we lost in the war, ghosts of some of the most beautiful people our country ever knew. Hours later as the plane takes off, I clutch my seat because somehow, I’m trying to convince myself that there is still hope for Liberia. There is hope because some of us are still hopeful.


 

Memo (I Couldn’t Make This Up)

by Publius

 

Dear Colleagues,

Please note that, for the rest of the academic year, if you need anything printed, you need to go to the men’s bathroom.

As you know, our departmental printer broke. And, as you may also know, as a cost-cutting measure, the district fired all but one printer repair person. Which means he can only get to one school at a time, which also pretty much means he only gets to each school once a year.

Unfortunately, this year his manifest read “Room 125,” the men’s bathroom, rather than “Room 215,” our work room. Thus was the new printer installed in the men’s bathroom.

For the sake of the ladies in the department, in order to pick-up and distribute copies, I would like to suggest that the gentlemen start rotating their bathroom breaks on an hourly basis. I’ll post a schedule in the bathroom/printer room.