Short Takes

I AM BRILLIANT, digital image by Janis Butler Holm

Shameless Self-Promotion: An Introduction

For a number of years, I taught a seminar on Gender and Law at the Florida International University law school. It was in a time before DeSantis, so the ideas and issues we covered were considerably broader than Florida teachers might be permitted today. However, most of my students had never encountered even the simplest of gender studies concepts – for example, the possibility that gender roles are not predetermined by the sex one is born into – so the class was quite a revelation to them. The message might not have made it through, however, without Ira Horowitz, a. brilliant, inventive, and compassionate scholar of gender studies, who joined me for a session or two early in each semester. Ira’s special contribution to this seminar was to pose this question: “What were you told when you were a kid—by your parents, your teachers, even more by the other kids—that persuaded you that you had to act in a certain way to be a real guy or a real girl?” 

 

That’s not the kind of question law students normally hear, and it silenced them, but only for a moment. When they started thinking about it, remembering, they had so much to say. It helped that part of Ira’s game plan for the seminar was to separate the class by gender for half an hour or so. Ira took the men, I the women—and we wrote everything they told us on big sheets of poster paper hung around the room. 

The men recalled being called sissies or girls or fags (they didn’t even know, they said, what that last word meant, except that it was clearly something one would not want to be) if they cried or wore pink or didn’t fight back. The women remembered being pushed to achieve at the same time they were told to hide their achievements, even to try to bring that embarrassing A down to a B, or, if they were, say, playing tennis against a guy, to lose the game. Or, better still, not to play at all. 

That is the background from which this issue’s Short Takes emerged. We all heard those messages when we were kids. They resonate still in our minds. Nor is the culture free of them today, even among supposed grownups. Women who run for political office or ask for a raise or a promotion can expect to be routinely labelled as too strident, too aggressive, too mean. Domestically, both partners might work outside the home, but women still have to tread lightly over the facts if they are more successful in their careers than their partners. And when it comes to the division of labor, they still must negotiate every small thing they’d like their partner to do around the house. 

It took courage for women to write the self-congratulating essays and poems we’ve gathered here. It took inner fortitude for them even to imagine themselves attaining the achievements they’ve chronicled for us. We’re grateful.

 

 

 

 

Strutting and Striding

This is for the mental health
guidance counselor co-worker 
who called me Marilyn 
because I have platinum hair 
who asked me if I thought I
was better than everyone else
because I wore ruffled high heels
 
Right now my yellow hair is 
shining in the light I just turned on
I am shaking my curly locks and
they are bouncing anywhere they
want to go and let me tell you 
 
when my students see me and
my ruffles coming they smile
they follow me
they know they are going to be
riding high in their saddles
because I know how to turn
their troubles and their blunders
into freaking swords and victory banners
 
my students know I know 
how to power them up 
how to fire up their want
to move every stone out of 
their own way all the way up
their glorious mountain
 
all the while
laughing and claiming their 
own unshakeable territory

 

 


Mural: Scarborough Rifle Company, 1991, by John Hood.
Painted on brick wall with latex primer and artists’ acrylics.
Restored in 2010, Blinc Studios. Location: Scarborough, Ontario.
Mural photographs by Karin Eaton. Learn more…

My Exhilarating Mural Routes Journey

The reenactment troop of the Queen’s York Rangers marched up the street and came to attention in front of the newly painted heritage mural. Cameras clicked. The chaplain blessed the wall. He had been invited by the Royal Canadian Legionnaires, who owned the building. 

The artist and I looked at each other, tears in our eyes. 

“He’s blessing the mural,” I mouthed. 

We stood in the crowd gathered to celebrate the unveiling of the mural that depicted a company of soldiers from the Scarborough Rifle Company marching to the Niagara Frontier in 1865. 

John was choked up with emotion. He had labored for eight weeks in the hot summer sun, on high scaffolding, transferring his design in bold colors onto the rough textured wall. As the days dragged on, I spent hours sitting with him to keep his spirits up. 

At the height of this daunting task, John asked “Does it really matter if I paint every one of the soldiers in the company?” 

“No one will know the difference if you miss a few,” 

“Ahh, but I will. These fellows volunteered to protect the country. Their ghosts are calling me. I can’t leave any of them out.” John was a perfectionist. 

The Rifle Company mural was the second of the heritage murals in an ambitious project that John and I conceived together. Our brainstorming over a hamburger lunch was exhilarating as we imagined outdoor murals snaking through the streets of Toronto’s east end. We toasted each other with milkshakes and called the project Mural Routes

That was the start of my exciting 25-year mural art journey. I was not alone. The project got started with the blessing of the local arts council. Volunteers and the media were captivated by the idea. Donors and funders followed. Incorporated as a nonprofit organization four years after the first mural was installed, Mural Routes came into its own with new murals each year, followed by a series of educational programs and international recognition. We became partners with local municipalities to encourage outdoor art, including a major breakthrough in the understanding of graffiti art.

I became known as the Mural Lady. Travelling across North America as well as in Europe, I was invited to present papers as a “mural expert” in such prestigious institutions as the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Valencia Polytechnic in Spain. Together with my artist colleagues, I trained emerging artists to develop their careers in mural art. But in all that time, I never touched paint brush to wall surface. I became superstitious about that.

At each mural unveiling and each graduation of our mural education programs, I felt a profound sense of pride in the achievements of the participants. I retired 24 years after the first mural was unveiled. The organization still thrives, with new innovative programs each year. 

I reflect sometimes that this all happened because of that brainstorming meeting I had with John, the artist, in a hamburger joint 25 years ago. I feel blessed to have been part of the journey.

 

 

 

 

A Dream That Believed in Me

When I was seven years old, I dreamed of becoming a writer. Forty-five years later, I entered a part-time Master of Fine Arts program at Northwestern University while working full-time, joining a cohort of students, some of whom were half my age. I graduated in 2017, at the age of 57, with the Distinguished Thesis Award for my novel-in-progress.

Last year, when I was 62, that novel—a mystery, The Secrets of Ohnita Harbor—was published. And that’s not all. This fall marks the publication of my second novel, The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm.

For more than 50 years, I have pushed through trial and error, false starts and failures, and sudden losses of confidence that, when I was younger, inevitably had to do with some boyfriend. Despite all that distraction, I did not give up. Or rather, and far more accurate to say, my dream never gave up on me. 

Over the years, my dream swelled inside me, like an extra pair of lungs that kept breathing when I held my breath. Looking back, I see I needed that life support to follow a labyrinth that sometimes took me farther away from my goal than toward it. 

My professional writing path started at 16, when to avoid a summer job on my father’s lettuce farm I rode my bicycle to the local newspaper office to be an intern. And so I became a journalist, from my hometown in northern New York State, to New York City, and then Chicago. Having always wanted to write books, I started with nonfiction; one on leadership during the financial crisis became a New York Times bestseller. I wrote short stories, won some minor awards, and nabbed a nomination for the Pushcart Prize.

But none of that compares with the heft of my novel held in my hands because this is what my seven-year-old self boldly dreamed about. This is what I accomplished without any role models and despite a mother who used to advise me to “expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.” Only after her death, when I was twenty-six, did I learn she had been proud of me, but also intimidated. We fear what we don’t understand.

There have been moments over the years when I thought Mother might have been right and giving up would have been so much easier. Yet even then I couldn’t betray my dream. For so long it encouraged me, sustained me, believed in me. That, beyond anything else, is the real victory. Now I can finally say that among the many things I have proudly become—journalist, writer, consultant, along with wife, mother, and now mother-in-law—I am also a novelist. My inner seven-year-old cannot stop smiling.

 

 

 

 

From a Blushing Girl to a Proud Braggart

I grew up in China, a country where culture exalts humbleness and shuns self-promotion. Traditional proverbs like “Talk is silver, silence is gold,” “Beware of fame like pigs fear growth,” “The showy bird gets shot,” and more served as guiding stars in my upbringing. These vibrant virtues painted a vivid, three-dimensional picture: boasting was akin to inviting calamity. As a natural-born introvert, I found solace in the fertile soil of ego-crushing. Silence became my shield, humility my armor. From grammar school to college, and even in a brief stint in the workforce, I moved through life like a nearly invisible wisp. The classroom was my battlefield; dread gripped me whenever teachers directed their questions my way. My face would blush, my heart would drum, my palms would moisten—I often wished I could vanish.

But fate had other designs, whisking me across the Pacific Ocean to the remote towns of the U.S. Deep South. As a poor graduate student, I suffered from reticence. When professors asked if there were questions, my tongue was too feeble to advocate for me, barely managing a whispered “yes.” Survival in the new landscape forced recalibration, urging me to vocalize and engage in a culture that prizes uttering words. 

Lady Liberty beckoned me to New York City; once more, foreign terrain awaited me. The rules of relentless engagement demanded a high level of self-promotion—a contrast to my roots and distinct from the customs I had grappled with in the slow pace of the South. 

The initial years felt like a grueling boot camp—a repeated cycle of falls, bruises, rises. Gradually, some thin veneers of my humble exterior chipped away, transforming me into a semi-braggart. Self-promotion wasn’t merely a virtue, but a survival skill. 

Over two decades into my university admissions career in the city, I could open my once-sheepish mouth to express myself, with only a hint of pink on my cheeks—occasionally. Amidst struggles, failures, resilience, and existence, I underwent countless highs and lows. My professional sphere played a pivotal role, almost erasing my shyness and infusing me with unapologetic boasting talent.

This special prowess stands steadfast by my side, ushering me into unexpected journeys. Three years ago, my participation in writing workshops amplified my voice, equipping me to combat the surge of Anti-Asian sentiments during the pandemic. Now, I project my thoughts and emotions with fervor, like a true-blue, yet humble, braggart.

I have traversed a lengthy road – from a shy and silent kid in a land of humility to a proud self-blower in the “arrogant” Big Apple. The city tested me, endorsed me, and has embraced me for more than three decades as a New Yorker. And for this, I ought to sound the horn for my accomplishments.

Two-thirds of my life later, as the iconic song “New York, New York” graces my ears, I tremble, feeling my personal path resonate through it, as if it were composed and sung exclusively for me.

 

 


Sally Hess and Darius Mosteika, CapitalDancesport Championship, 
August 2021, Ryan Kenner Photography

National Champion!

On Tuesday nights—I was eight years old, my sister five—my father turned on the radio for our special stay-up-late treat: the 8:30 pm Baby Snooks Show, whose star was Fanny Brice, famous Ziegfeld Follies comedienne of the 1940s. She had a squeaky-high voice that signaled childishness to adults, but to me sang of mature experience. 

One episode returns vividly, as memory and metaphor: Baby Snooks’ teacher gave the children an art assignment—draw a fish. The next morning, Baby Snooks brought in her drawing, but to her dismay, it was rejected. The teacher said, “There’s nothing here. You’ve given me a blank page.” Baby Snooks had drawn a fish! She explained: it was a white (as in gefilte) fish, served on a white plate on a white tablecloth and it was covered, she did not say “enrobed,” with sour cream. Silly teacher who couldn’t see the beautiful fish! Dear Readers, I saw it, warm, moist, ready for the eating. 

Twenty-first-century interpretation: self-erasure is pure survival strategy for those suffocating beneath the prevailing standards. Despite the teacher’s conditioned inability to see the poisson sous crème, I understood that Baby Snooks had indeed fulfilled the homework challenge, profoundly. She had illustrated the methodical, effective training that smothered the children’s curiosity and bleached away the wild talents of girls, and most distressingly, of the women they became. We were taught to be un-seen. 

Now, in my eightieth year and with bounding energy, I draw in color and invite all readers to a shared festivity: as an Open-Gold-level Ballroom Dancer on the competition circuit, I claim the truth of beauty and skill married to perseverance. I am dancing my life full-out. 

In September 2022 I traveled with my dance instructor Darius Mosteika to the Fred Astaire National Dance Championships. We competed in the American Smooth style, Senior Division (70+). I wore my midnight-blue-and-gold sequined gown and batted my false eyelashes flamboyantly at the judges as we moved ever-so-gracefully across the ballroom floor.  And yes, we won the eight Single Dances, placing first in waltz, tango, foxtrot and Viennese waltz! We also won the Scholarship Competition, placing first in all four dances, and I received the top prize of $500.00. Finally, we won the Championship, again placing first in all our dances. The head judge put the winner’s medal around my neck, and then Darius and I stepped ceremoniously onto the Winners’ Podium and glowed. National Champion! 

In the post-competition interview, I said how grateful I was (am) to my teachers and how delighted to represent, through my dance-form, the women of my generation in the youthful vigor of our old age. It is strange, too, and lovely to be, at last—proud of me.

The next day we flew home. We had been unexpectedly upgraded to first class. I sat in seat A-1, feeling both titled and entitled. When we landed in New Jersey, the flight crew gestured me off the plane with smiles! I’d requested this. I was the first person to walk, nay, waltz! off the airplane. Subtle, ordinary, blatant, musical: inside such grand assertion rests the peaceful mind. 

 

 

 

 

No Sweat

“I want to be running in my sixties, like you,” Jessica, my millennial friend, said during our Tuesday afternoon walk. “My doctor said I might be too old to run.”

“Too old!” I gasped. “Too old?”

1981: I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to become one of the first women to earn an MBA. Everywhere, people of Eugene jogged and ran, rain or not. At U of O’s then best-in-the-world track, you might catch a glimpse of running superstars Alberto Salazar or Mary Decker. 

In contrast, gym classes in 1970s suburban Wisconsin were by and for men. All sports were by and for men. Theirs was an alienating place, and my take-away was that I didn’t take to athletics.

I was bursting with energy. 

Immersed in the running culture of Eugene, my body awoke. Time for a re-education. For $35.99 I bought my first pair of Nikes.

At 22, I was beyond competitive athletics. Nonetheless, jogging felt fantastic in my body. It soothed me. 

At 30, I noticed muscle tone loss. Now a Californian, I shyly ventured into a woman’s gym. A trainer showed me the basics of weightlifting. I ran or lifted weights before work every morning. Soon I added yoga. I discovered the beauty of hiking mountain trails on weekends. At 32, I bought my first bike and took to the sunrise foothill roads.

My ex shared none of my passion, so one day he complained to a friend that I “overdid” it. 

Who gets to decide normal? Men? Elite athletes spend hours a day exercising; I spent two, always feeling great in my body. 

My ex’s childhood friend, a man who never exercised, asked me how fast I ran. How fast did I run? I don’t know, I said. As fast as I can, I thought.

There is always someone ready to judge. 

In the A-Z puppy book, breeds are evaluated by high-to-low exercise needs. I adopted a high-exercise dog to replace my ex. 

I added Pilates in my fifties. Aging, I needed more guidance with my weightlifting, and found a fitness trainer, Danielle. In a group of six women meeting bi-weekly in Danielle’s garage-converted gym, the ladies called me Wendy the Wonder Woman. It embarrassed me, drawing that kind of attention to myself. I didn’t work out to impress others. 

I’ve had to work through two phases of injury, and I came out the other end smarter and stronger.

To celebrate 60, I backpacked the Grand Canyon.

When the pandemic shut down the world, my now-Zooming Pilates teacher gave me three private lessons combining Pilates and weights, recorded on my phone. I’ve practiced weekly ever since. My second husband and I took longer urban hikes and, as before, we ran the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. 

Monday yoga meets on Zoom still. 

I’m stronger at 64 than I was at 20. I think I run slower now, there’s some arthritis in my knees, but I still come out ahead.

 

 


Mural: Remembering Spiritual Ancestry, 2000, by Randy Knott, assisted by Tommy Matejka.
Painted on concrete block wall, latex primer and artists’ acrylics.
Location: Scarborough, Ontario. Removed in 2012. Learn more…

Hiking at a High Altitude with the Right Attitude at Age 72: Everest Base Camp, Nepal

My guide, Bishnu Bhatta, always began the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trekking day with the greeting, “Apui, Thik Cha?” Grandma, are you well?

I always admire the mountaineers who conquered the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest. I considered myself too old and lacking mountaineering skills, so trekking to EBC was the next best thing. 

The spring of 2023 brought me to Kathmandu. The age limit for trekking to EBC was 65 years. I am a septuagenarian. 

Fog delayed the flight to Lukla, the starting point for EBC trekkers and Mt. Everest mountaineers. From Lukla, it was an eight-day trek through Phakding, Namche Bazar, Tengboche, Dingboche, Lobuche, and Gorak Shep to EBC. 

At the Sagarmatha National Park in Namche Bazar, the statue of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who reached the peak of Everest with Hillary 70 years ago, stood tall and proud.

Each day, we trekked for six or seven hours up relentless, steep slopes on rugged stone steps and dirt paths, over boulders and rocks left by the glaciers, and over several suspension bridges, including the Hillary Suspension Bridge. Interspersed with these were the Nepali Flats—a euphemistic term, for they, too, had their ups and downs. 

From Dingboche to Lobuche, we trekked along the Khumbu Glacier moraine, crossed the Kumbu River of melting glaciers to Memorial Hill where over a hundred perished Everest mountaineers were buried. Breathtaking views of the Himalayas—Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and Island Peak—loomed in the background.

Many hikers, after learning about my age, expressed their admiration for my spirit and determination to reach EBC. Bishnu said that in his 25 years of guiding, the oldest person he guided was a 64-year-old man. Even the yaks carrying huge burdens walked faster than me.

On April 27, 2023, we reached EBC at 17,598 ft. The overcast sky obscured the mountain ranges. We retraced our long journey back to Gorak Shep. 

A cough with thick, tenacious sputum began to trouble me. The next three days of descent to Pangboche, Namche Bazar, and Lukla were long and arduous. I struggled with every step.

I stopped to turn a prayer drum, wishing for good luck. Upon reaching the gate commemorating the first Nepali woman conquering Everest, I knew I had reached Lukla at last. 

 

 

 

 

Ode to Demolition

Joy to removing, with abandon (and a crowbar), plaster affixed to peeling wallpaper in my 1890 house. To the squeaky slide of the tacking nails wrested from lath and 2x4s. To sweeping loose cellulose insulation with my hands, clad in fuchsia to-the-elbow rubber gloves. To the red plastic snow shovel with which I scoop the mounds on the floor into bags. To the insulation that continues to fall idly like snowflakes for days after. And as an occasional clump. 

Gratitude to the inventor who thought of the protective suit—with hood—to keep the itchy insulation fibers off my clothes and out of my hair. And to whoever added the “Cool Flow” valve to N-95 mask, which keeps my goggles from fogging up. A nod to the red bandana that further shrouds my hair, adds a bit of fashion, and inspires a brief moment of kinship with motorcycle riders when I put it on.

Homage to my 65-year-old, now shrunk to five-foot-one-and-a-quarter-inch body, at discovering I can still demolish a bedroom. To my brain, on constant alert for headroom in closets and the number of steps I must descend from the ladder. To my eyes that can still see well enough through goggles without my eyeglasses. Admiration for my shoulders that can still support overhead reaching and pulling. Gratitude to my lower back that acquiesces to the project, and only occasionally sends shooting pain down my left leg, and only at day’s end, abating overnight. And, of course, thanks to my feet and weakened left ankle, who do not protest the hours standing on ladders’ rungs.

Tenderness for the beauty the shop vac reveals as I pass the nozzle over the timbers framing the walls, the three-foot slanted roof, and the ceiling. Measuring as true 2x4s, the luscious aged red of the wood gradually emerges from the dust. I rue the day it will again disappear behind walls.

Breathlessness at the treasures hidden in the plaster walls. A four-pane casement window of inexplicable origin. A red brick chimney. Piping for old gaslights. From the winged world, a beehive under the windows, a bird’s nest in the closet eaves. Reminders that we humans merely co-exist with other beings who have an older claim to be here.

 

 


Illusions I Recall: a copy of Connie Corcoran’s book takes pride of place on her hairdresser’s shelf.
Photograph by the author, Connie Corcoran.

I Am an Author

“You finished?!” squealed Debby, comb and scissors clattering to the counter. 

I had just presented my hairdresser with a signed copy of my book, embarrassed by how long I’d been telling her I was writing a novel. For years, she’d gushed over plot hints and character sketches, insisting, “It’s going to be great.” Now at last, it was real.

“I hope you like it,” I blushed.

In the following days, my phone pinged with Debby’s texts: “I couldn’t put it down.” “OMG, I read all night…”  “I need three for clients.” “Bring two more, everybody wants one.” My hairdresser quickly outsold Amazon and the local bookstore combined, which wasn’t a huge number, but made me feel like a bestselling author. 

When I showed up for my next appointment, I was greeted with hugs and exclamations from the other stylists, introduced to the salon like a celebrity, as, “Here’s the woman who wrote the book!” And there it was, propped on the counter amidst a snarl of electric cords and styling tools. 

This has been the proudest achievement of my life, surpassing college, though I was the first person in my family to go, and even went on to obtain my master’s degree in library science; surpassing the time I hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney and back in a single day, as a young woman who didn’t know to expect altitude sickness at 14,500-some feet; it surpassed my forty-year career as a librarian, vastly rewarding as it was, even award-winning at times. Publishing the novel was as fulfilling as the birth of my children—after all, I was gestating this story for more than five decades, collecting notes and ideas, nurturing them with life experience and changing perspectives, then laboring for five years in self-imposed solitude! Always, it had been my heart’s desire to join the ranks of those whose work I cherished. Publishing my novel, hearing the connection it’s made with readers, I have achieved a peak experience: at seventy-six years old, I am finally an author.

 

 

 

 

Wasn’t That a Time

Some tales are best told starting with a quick look at the end. Here, a simple coda: The Concord Feminist Health Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.

For several years before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, women in my hometown of Concord, New Hampshire, had been gathering in weekly consciousness-raising groups where we drank tea, talked about our lives, and developed shocking ideas about the roles women played—and were restricted from playing—in American culture. 

 Around the country, women’s centers advocating radical change were sprouting from the fresh ground consciousness-raising groups were tilling. 

Ours was a tiny room above a pizzeria at the corner of Main and Bridge Streets. Seating involved rickety chairs and someone’s discarded couch covered in an Indian-print drape. When we paced the room, the view gave us inspiration. The State House, full of men voting daily to keep us in our place, was across the street.

Soon after Roe v. Wade, one of our allies needed some help. He was Ken McKinney, a leading ob-gyn in town.

Concord Hospital was providing abortions, but something was bothering Ken. As a medical student, he had worked with the Vermont Women’s Health Center, a free-standing clinic where each patient spoke with a counselor prior to receiving an abortion. Ken was sold on the benefit of that woman-to-woman talk and wanted it for his patients. Could we organize a group of volunteer counselors?

We were intrigued.

But soon, some prickly thoughts surfaced.

At the hospital, a first-trimester abortion cost $375. That would be $2,400 today. This for one of the safest procedures medicine had to offer. Doctors and the hospital were making a bundle. And we’d be counseling women for free? Why?

Why did abortion services need a hospital? The Vermont women showed it could be done on an outpatient basis safely and at a much lower cost: $125.

 Before long, those prickly thoughts propelled us into action and we were organizing a free-standing clinic run by the people it would serve—that is, women. We were 14 feminists, in our mid-twenties to early thirties. If we’d been older, we’d have known it was impossible for our group, not a medical professional among us, to pull this off. But we were too young to know we couldn’t do it. Eighteen months later, the Concord Feminist Health Center opened. 

Today, it rolls on despite protests, arson, and the obstacles presented by our legislative, medical, and insurance industries. The mission has expanded to include health care for the LGBTQ community—and the center has a new name, Equality Health Center.

At the end of that opening day in October 1974, I thought, “I’m 26 years old and if I never do anything else in my life, I will have done this.”

Wasn’t that a time!
 
 

 


Photo collage by Jennifer O’Neill Pickering, author of the following essay.
The photographs depict the author at two different ages.

Renaissance

A little-known fact about me is that I once danced with Allen Ginsberg whilst he enthusiastically played his concertina. Looking back, I realize that I experienced a mini renaissance while living in Buffalo, New York. Besides meeting Allen Ginsberg through my teacher Allan DeLoach, also his friend and first publisher, I met and was introduced to many other poets and writers, including Margaret Atwood. In Buffalo I wrote the poem “Sock Relations” in a writing workshop at the university. The poem was published nationally in Heresies v.23 (New York City), in the same issue as work by poet Sharon Olds, playwright, Ntozake Shange, and artist May Stevens. Would I be famous? During this same period, I had the honor of interviewing U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks for the university magazine, The Current. Journalism was a possibility. I gave a speech to a crowd of 2,000 in Buffalo’s Delaware Park at a peace rally to end the Vietnam War. This was a far cry from my childhood days, when I gave a speech on patriotism in a high school gym at a Camp Fire Girls of America conference.

I have enjoyed writing and making art from an early age, but growing up in a town of 5,000, I had little opportunity to pursue either. Politics came later. At a fundraising dinner in Buffalo I met former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clarke, who was then a candidate for one of New York State’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. He asked me if I was interested in managing his political campaign in Erie County. I wanted to but declined. My life was not what it seemed. 

My Buffalo renaissance was overshadowed by surviving daily domestic violence; I wore a gilded veneer that was rapidly chipping away. I needed to get to safety before the vessel that shaped my life shattered, taking me too.

I created another kind of renaissance, an inner renaissance that I had been cultivating in a domestic violence women’s group and in therapy. I would leave so much behind—friends, college, job, family, and most of my material goods except the few sent to my sister’s house in California. I’d leave under a cloak of secrecy, fearing my physically violent then-husband would find my safe house. I left on a plane to California, feeling determined but with a heavy heart. Even 3,000 miles was not far enough to assuage my PTSD and depression.

A few years ago, I answered a call for poetry and visual art for an exhibit at the California History Museum entitled, “Creating Freedom: The Art and Poetry of Domestic Violence Survivors.” I entered this exhibition with trepidation. The creation of art and poetry for the exhibit stirred up painful memories, but also proved to be a healing process. The artwork I entered was entitled 1 in 4, the numbers representing domestic violence victims in America. We exhibited our art and told our stories. I will never regret my choices.

 

 

 

 

The Pebble

A routine mammogram showed nothing. Dense breasts. Yet I felt a little something. A very little something.

I began a dialogue in my head. One part of my brain encouraged me to check it out. The other part disagreed. What you feel is the denseness, a little pebble.  Absolutely nothing.  

Thankfully, I listened to the relentless voice and made an appointment to see my gynecologist. She felt the pebble and scheduled an ultrasound. 

I suspected something might be wrong when the technician called the radiologist in while I was still on the table. I anxiously asked the radiologist—a tall, dark, stern-looking man who had a propensity to lie—what he thought. He mumbled, more into his armpit than making eye contact with me.  “Not sure.  Could be cancer.”

NOT SURE?! Could be cancer!  I’m not sure about you, Dr. Radiologist. You could be a liar.

He turned out to be right. A lumpectomy was scheduled.  I followed up with an oncologist to discuss further treatment. The nurse who saved my life listened to some of my history and ordered an MRI. 

The MRI found two additional malignant tumors. Consulting with radiology/oncology, I opted for the most aggressive treatment: double mastectomy, chemo, hormone therapy. 

I felt detached from my body, a dreamlike existence. Aware of what was happening, but convinced I’d wake up soon and discover I didn’t have cancer. And still had my breasts. 

The big decision became my job. Working as a high school counselor is demanding. How could I work and undergo chemo?  But I worried about taking a leave of absence and becoming too self-focused and depressed.

My oncologist asked that I reduce my hours to half time. I was hopeful a clerical person could be hired, as a good deal of high school counseling involves record keeping. 

The administration agreed, but as the year progressed, my caseload and work responsibility stayed the same. I was expected to do everything in half the time.

Although exhausted and nauseous most of the time, I connected with my students. 

My co-workers and I pleaded with the teachers’ union to make some changes. Finally, toward the very end of the year, I received help.

There were days after chemo that I crawled under the covers. This became an indicator of my mood. Under meant darkness was swallowing me; on top meant lightness peeked through. 

Per my doctor’s orders, I’d walk a marathon each day. Rather, I’d walk thirty minutes each day. It just felt like a marathon. 

I meditated and did yoga. Doing yoga meant I showed up, did what I could and mostly concentrated on breathing and staying on the mat. 

Why would I be tooting my horn? Why would I stay in a toxic, unsupportive school environment? 

Why didn’t I walk out? 

I stayed because I’m strong and committed to youth. I didn’t allow cancer to define me.  Not then. Not ever. I’m not a victim. Kudos to me. 

 

 


The Triumph of the Tampons – an illustrated history of the strides women have made since 1960.
Collage by Linda Falcão.

Persistence

Working at a major university in the 1970s, I was asked to become Director of Internal Auditing for a year until a man could assume the job. I said no; I wanted the job permanently. My husband, an assistant vice president, was asked to get me in line. He refused. Finally, reluctantly, I was named the director. I still smile at how that went down.

After discovering that the university had millions of dollars languishing in non-interest-bearing accounts, I went to my boss, told him what I’d discovered, and proposed a plan to start earning money on those stagnant funds. He agreed, and for a year I ran cash management behind the scenes. I earned six million dollars in interest income that first year. The treasurer retired. I was a logical candidate to replace him but was told the Board of Trustees would never accept a woman in the position. I knew this to be true, and I didn’t fight for this job.

I was named associate treasurer and continued to increase the earnings by working with our banks and training money-handlers in university departments. I started with the biggest areas of cash transactions. The bursar, who was responsible for collecting student fees and other income, had reduced Brinks Truck runs to the bank from daily to two times per week to save money. We changed that back to daily.  

I explained to the assistant athletic director the importance of getting money into university bank accounts in a timely manner. He opened a closet door in his office and pulled out eight grocery bags stuffed with dollar bills: parking fees collected for a football game that he didn’t have time to count, let alone deposit. He was persuaded to secure the money and assign staff to the job. 

The University Hospitals’ management immediately embraced the concept and instituted lockboxes to accelerate cash payments into their bank accounts. Cash management earnings grew to eighteen million annually. 

I heard the gossip circulating about me. She doesnt know anything about cash management; her husband is coaching her. I was a CPA, my husband an electrical engineer. What shes doing is immoral, whispered the controller. Because I invested float (i.e., checks written but not yet cashed) it appeared in his accounting that the university was often in the red. The university police chief, a clever wit who liked to goad me in meetings, made jokes about me in private. 

One Saturday morning, the controller came to my office and apologized for his earlier comments; he now understood that cash management was not immoral. The police chief came to me to ask me to run for a position on the State Retirement Board because he wanted to be sure his retirement money would be well-managed. But I was especially pleased that, during a time of budget cuts, the money I generated from cash management was used for salary equity adjustments for women and minority faculty and staff. 

More than forty years later, I still relish that accomplishment.

 

 

 

 

My Odyssey

My odyssey with my novel began by way of a personal revelation of the Goddess almost fifty years ago–a tear in the curtain of reality, a glimpse of the Akashic Record, a profound sense of the historical reality of the Divine Feminine which held sway at one time, and wherein lay our hope for the future. When I had regrouped after this powerful jolt, I began a course of research. Was what I had intuited in fact true? Had there been an ancient dynasty of queens and goddesses that was largely unknown? And might this lost history be the Golden Age, the paradise lost of legend?

I began with The Second Sex, Women’s Mysteries, and Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and  Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah Pomeroy. Eventually, I read Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, The Myth Behind the Sex of God, The White Goddess, The 
Great Mother, The Mothers, the work of Marija Gimbutas, Jacquetta Hawkes, and so many others. Clearly, such a time had existed beyond the realm of mythology, though long buried and excluded from the historical record.

I compiled slide carousel lectures and began teaching college classes based on my research. Beyond this, I wanted to write a novel about women’s archetypal journey emerging in contemporary experience, in some of the ways that James Joyce summoned the prototype of Ulysses in his character Leopold Bloom.

My first effort at my novel was in the style of Mary Renault, set in ancient Greece, the story of Penelope on the island of Ithaca. It had a certain poetry to it but never gained traction as a narrative. I switched to the present with a work of autofiction, a massive tome of over 1,000 pages that fell wide of the mark. My next attempt was a murder mystery, followed by a post-modernist treatment of The Tempest. I was clearly flailing.

One night a friend guest-lectured on feminist science fiction at a class I taught on the Female Hero Journey in Contemporary Literature. He mentioned a book in which adolescent rites of passage on a distant planet were so extreme that only a few survived into adulthood. This struck a chord, and from that point on I was working on a coming-of-age novel.

I set it in California in the 1970s so I could address the advent of second-wave feminism, a prominent theme; and I needed the proximity to the 1960s when I’d had my own coming-of-age. The locale of a small town in the Central Valley seemed the kind of backdrop a group of precocious teenage girls would be dying to get out of.  I named my heroine Miami, after Bay Area artist Mayumi Oda, renowned for her paintings of playful goddesses.

I still had many rivers to cross, but I had my story. I’d finally found something that worked.   

 

 


Mural: In the Way of Progress, 1996, by Jennifer Phil & Jamie Richards.
Painted on brick wall, skim coated with plaster, latex primer and artists’ acrylics.
Location: Scarborough, Ontario. Learn more…

Every Day a Celebration

Eleven years of sobriety. 
What a relief 
to not have to drink in order to keep away
the endlessness of just one more.
What a relief 
to greet the day without shame,
unfulfilled good intentions, 
hopelessness.
What a relief 
to have hit the bottom of my black hole
hard enough to say,
I can’t do this anymore. 
I need help. Please help.
 
Other than my daughter,
for whose beautiful being I can only take partial credit,
my sobriety is an ultimate source of pride.
It is a secret I carry on my shoulder, 
visible only to me.
Unless you had seen the “before” me for comparison.
Unless you had seen my never-empty glass growing, 
And filling earlier and earlier in the day.
Or found my hidden stashes, or hidden empties.
 
I would like to wear a velvet A, 
and have it understood,
I am an alcoholic.
Proud as a peacock.
Proud as a new mom.
Pleased as punch, unspiked.
I am strong.
I believe in myself.
I take one day at a time.
Every day a celebration.

 

Miami in Virgo
A Feminist, Mystical Novel
by Sally Mansfield Abbott
  A disturbing encounter with a hermaphrodite at a county fair presages teenage Miami’s loss of innocence in 1970’s California. MIAMI IN VIRGO is a literary fiction coming-of-age novel narrated by precocious seventeen-year-old Miami. She and her friends form a tight-knit circle practicing feminist Wiccan ritual, as her childhood fundamentalism casts a long shadow. Conflicts with her friends over boys threaten their newfound feminist solidarity. An anticipated trip to a women’s demonstration devolves into a nightmarish questioning of her sexuality, further fracturing her friendships. An ill-fated romance at a Halloween party becomes thoroughly spooked when Miami winds up exiled in her new family after her mother’s remarriage. Her peccadilloes take on a spiritual dimension and she goes through a soul-searing scrutiny which eventually leads to the resolution of her conflicts through the deepening of her character. The twists and turns of her fast-paced story make a compelling read.   Learn more about the book and its author: https://miamiinvirgo.com/ Available from Amazon or from your independent bookstore.
Watercolors in the Desk Drawer
by Georgette Unis

In Georgette Unis’ Watercolors in the Desk Drawer, the world is rendered in intricate detail, lush as the pigments on an artist’s palette. Family, nature, politics, and art circumscribe the arc of a life where “time bends / the chronometer” and “leaves do not grow / in the winter soil of philosophies / but rather along the arteries / of unfortunates.” Whether tracking an ancestral immigrant childhood or the results of the most recent election, Unis is attuned to the shifting world, where memories pulled from the desk drawer of recollection reinvent and reinvigorate the landscape.
—Cati Porter, The Body at a Loss, poet, editor and director of Inlandia Institute

 
Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, Barnes and Noble, or from your independent bookstore.
Ghana Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
  Helen Bar-Lev, whose vivid paintings of Ghanaian men and women illustrate this issue’s poetry page, is offering a special set of her paintings of the people of Ghana, either as originals (for $350) or as signed and numbered prints ($20). The paintings, which Bar-Lev refers to as pencil paintings, are exquisite miniatures, each approximately 11cm by 15cm (4.5" x 6"). Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of these paintings goes to support the Ghana branch of the Sheenway School. Sheenway School in Sasekope Village is the first registered private school in the Volta Region of Ghana. Its partnership with the original Sheenway School in Los Angeles, its enriched curriculum, extended education, and cultural aesthetics provide an unparalleled opportunity for Ghanaian children from pre-K through secondary. To see the full range of Ghanaian paintings or prints available as part of this special offer, contact Helen Bar-Lev and let her know you are a Persimmon Tree reader.
The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm
by Patricia Crisafulli
The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm by award-winning, bestselling author Patricia Crisafulli is the eagerly awaited second book in the Ohnita Harbor Mystery Series from Woodhall Press. A hike through pristine wilderness suddenly enters much darker territory... The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm opens with the discovery of two people on the beach of a secluded lake—one dead, one dying. Gabriela Domenici runs back up the trail for help and returns to find the bodies are gone. Soon, from suspected poisoning deaths to a nefarious development that threatens to destroy the chasm, Gabriela is caught in a web of danger.
If Crisafulli keeps setting her mystery thrillers in Ohnita Harbor (and I hope she will), that fictional little Upstate New York town will not only have as many bodies to bury as Midsomer County, but will be as famous as Louise Penny’s Three Pines or even Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead - and justifiably so. - Jean Zorn, Publisher, Persimmon Tree
Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble or your favorite independent bookstore.

Bios

WRITERS

Sally Mansfield Abbott is the author of Miami in Virgo, a coming-of-age novel set in California in the 1970s.  She has taught Goddess Worship in Prehistory at several colleges and universities in the Bay Area and is a poet and peace activist. Miami in Virgo is available for purchase here.

Connie Corcoran is a retired librarian, with a BA from the University of California, Davis, and a Master’s from the University of Wisconsin. Her first novel, Illusions I Recall: Elegy for a Flower Child, is available here.  Follow her on Facebook. 

Patricia Crisafulli is an award-winning writer. Her first novel, The Secrets of Ohnita Harbor, was published by Woodhall Press in 2022; her second, The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm, comes out this fall, and is available for purchase here.

Karin Eaton is a writer, traveler, and student of Ancient Egypt. She is enjoying retirement in the rural tranquility of Lake Scugog, Ontario. When she is not indulging her love of travel and adventure or pottering in the garden, she spends her time experimenting with memoir, travel, and poetry writing. Recent publications include two travel stories in Common Tread, an online motorcycle magazine, and poetry and stories in four Quillkeepers Press Anthologies.

Following a professional career as a modern dancer, choreographer, teacher, and yogini, Sally Hess is now an award-winning competitive ballroom dancer. She writes essays exploring dance, meditation, dreams, and language.

Susan Knox’s stories and essays have appeared in CALYX, Cleaver, The Forge, The MacGuffin, Sequestrum, Zone 3, and elsewhere. She and her husband live in Seattle near Pike Place Market, where she shops most days for the evening meal.

Kwan Kew Lai is an author, a Harvard Medical Faculty physician, and a humanitarian volunteer. Her latest book, The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly, chronicles how Wellesley College enabled her to achieve her dreams. She recently hiked up to Everest Base Camp at 72. kwankewlai.com

Since earning an MA in English at the age of 44, Wendy Lukomski has been teaching literary analysis and writing at Santa Barbara City CollegeShe has been published in The New York Times “Tiny Love Stories” column and in Sad Girl Diaries—an Online Literary Magazine. She recently read her work at a local Moth-style program, Personal Stories, in Santa Barbara.

Liz Newberry is a writer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. She bought her 1890 house in 1996.

Kay Patterson’s essays have been published in many newspapers and journals, including two anthologies from Belt Publishing: Right Here, Right Now, The Buffalo Anthology; and Sweeter Voices Still, An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. She is an editor of the annual anthology of the Pyramid Lake Women’s Writing Retreat.

Jennifer O’Neill Pickering is a literary and visual artist, a Pushcart Nominee for Poetry, and a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition. Her most recent poetry collection is Fruit Box Castles: Poems from a Peach Rancher's Daughter. Her prose has been published by PenDust, Radio, Ravens Perch, and elsewhere across the country.

Ellen Reichman, M.Ed, a native New Yorker, resides with her polar opposite love of her life  husband in the Pacific Northwest where they raised their children. She’s a former teacher, counselor, and drug/alcohol supervisor for youth whose work has been featured in Persimmon Tree, CIRQUE, CURE, Heal, Passager, and Common Ground Review

Born and raised in Beijing, China, Li Ruan is a Manhattan-based educational consultant. She is an emerging immigrant writer who felt a calling to write later in life. Li's work appeared online at Restless Books, Purple Pegasus Publishing, Flora Fiction, and Assignment Literary Magazine.

Susan Shea is a retired school psychologist who was raised in New York City and now lives in a forest in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Most recently she has been published, or has upcoming poems, in The Bluebird Word, The Agape Review, Last Stanza Poetry Journal, and four anthologies.

Sabine Vorkoeper-Orchard is a German-American naturalist who can often be seen walking around and literally stopping to smell the flowers. When she’s not calling on the natural world, she calls on her inner world for poetic inspiration. Her lifelong love of words and language has only recently found its expression through poetry.

ILLUSTRATORS

Linda Falcão is a civil rights lawyer, author, and creator of art as social commentary, currently working on “Unborn babies have daddies too!” (child support) and “I’d rather put it in the bank than on my face” (financial literacy). She is a U.S. Presidential Scholar and founder of America Serves.

Janis Butler Holm served as Associate Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal, and currently works as a writer and editor in LA. Her prose, poems, art, and drama have appeared in small-press, national, and international magazines. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., Canada, Russia, and the U.K.

2 Comments

  1. Every one of these Short Takes sings a song of resilience. Yay for the aging body. Yay for the wisdoming soul. Yay for the editors who bring us these gifts.

  2. I have read Ellen Reichman’s “The Pebble” and was so drawn in by her writing. Having read several of her articles, I find that each time I feel as is I am right there with her experiencing all of the feelings and emotions. What a heartfelt writer!

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