7 awesome women writers

Credit: groupoesneca.lat

If you’ve paid any attention to my personal blog in the past couple of months, you know that I’ve shared the space with 30 other writers from around the United States and beyond.

That’s the idea behind Voices of August: a different essay each day from a friend, family member or former co-worker.

Every year, we in the VOA community vote for our favorite pieces. These are the seven that moved us in 2022. If you haven’t read any until now, please take a look and consider leaving a comment on one or more. The writers will appreciate it and, as head wrangler, so will I.

In no particular order, these were the most-liked:

Tammy Ellingson – “Summer School with Dad”. A touching account of how the author, ever and always the teacher, pulled out her bag of tricks to keep her 86-year-old widowed father mentally and physically active.

Jina S. Bazzar – “Closed doors, open windows”. An illuminating piece by a Palestine-based mother and fantasy-fiction author about the process of losing one’s vision, only to realize you don’t need your eyes to live a fulfilling life.

Mary Pimentel – “I’ve never been good at love letters”. A fly-on-the-wall piece by a recent college grad, now living in France, that reads like a short story, describing a barista’s techniques, overhearing conversation between customers, and thinking back to a past relationship.

Jennifer Brennock – “Undertow”. A splendid take on the phenomenon of big families by someone who was the last born in a family of five. What these big families possess in cohesion, she says, they often lack in supporting individualism and make a person feel small.

Elizabeth Hovde – “Words not only have meaning, they mean a lot to me”. A professional writer asserts that words not only have power and meaning, but are central to everything in her life — work, entertainment, therapy and comfort.

Jane Pellicciotto – “Pass the gravy”. From a first-time VOA writer, a lovely and sensual reminiscence about family driving trips from the Maryland suburbs to visit the author’s Italian grandmother in New York City.

Susan Scharf – “Red is our color”. From another VOA rookie, a sad but sweet piece about the red high-top Converse tennis shoes that the author’s late sister gave her more than 30 years ago and which today trigger a flood of memories that always leave her smiling.

— George Rede

Undertow

JB on her bike. Circa 1983.

By Jennifer Brennock

I want to talk about big families, those miracles of perpetual spaghetti that were romanticized by “Eight Is Enough” and “The Brady Bunch.” We imagine the magic of a mother who can keep her many ducklings in a row at the grocery store and doctor’s office.

I grew up inside one of those big families. My childhood in California in the ’70s and early ’80s was a Neil Diamond Greatest Hits album. There were a lot of mustaches and trucker hats and swimming pools and avocado-colored Winnebagos and banana seat bikes and hot dogs and white corrugated paper plates for picnics.

The big families I knew all went to the same Catholic church and its attached, small K-8 school, Sacred Heart. Surprisingly, I was happiest as a child when I was outside of my own family, enveloped temporarily – for a weekend or a Saturday night – into another big family nearby. It was easy. Every family I knew had a ton of kids. The Siffermans, the Hodgins, the Crowleys, the Phams – I could have found myself in any of these packs of seven or twelve on any Saturday.

As an adult, I made the choice to no longer interact with my siblings as a group, and some not at all. It wasn’t easy. It’s still not easy. Big families have a way of swallowing up everything in their path, to pull you in and keep you there like an undertow.

Today, I’ve made peace with the fact that I will never feel comfort inside my own family. I forgive myself for not wanting to be there, and at 48, I know it is okay not to try anymore.

Big families can be a source of strength and community. They are immense things themselves. They can be beautiful, and they can make you feel small. They are their own power source, living things with their own ecosystems and seasonal pulls. They can carry you when you can’t make it on your own, and they can break your sense of self even when it is strong. What big families possess in cohesion, they lack in supporting individualism.

Even though we lived for twenty years in the same suburban ranch house overlapping in space and resources, my family never really knew me. Closeness and proximity are not the same. We had bunk beds and shared cars and always hand-me-downs and a practiced system of chores. We were not individuals. We were a pack. I felt like a widget, just another of the same model stacked up on the end, trying not to spill her milk at the dinner table.

My family wasn’t bad. It wasn’t abusive nor unloving. There wasn’t withholding of affection nor neglect. I was given experiences like skating lessons and ballet recitals. I felt thrift rather than scarcity. My parents loved each other and their pack. But I wasn’t known as a person, rarely listened to, and sometimes simply forgotten in the mix. The youngest of five, my place was in the back — back of the station wagon between the dog and the cooler. I avoided my sister’s desire that I did not exist. I stayed out of the dramas of the teenagers. I learned to be happy when I was alone, escaping to the walnut tree where I would not be noticed or into my playhouse in the backyard with a book.

Eventually, we all left home and made our own lives, and my parents aged. The undertow grew stronger. I was never enough for my siblings. I didn’t have the right job or live in the right place or vacation like they did. I didn’t do enough, give enough, martyr myself enough for the sake of the family.

For me, the weekly sibling check-in phone call about our parents’ care was always followed by insomnia, an occasional panic attack, and a goodly amount of time spent in therapy. I was still five years old to them. Perpetually five, and not seen as a whole person for my strengths, challenges, capabilities, and vulnerabilities.

I decided I could only set my own boundaries. I could not prevent my sisters from resentment and overwork if they did not set their own, and from then on, I would be the only judge of the loyalty and care I gave to my parents. Did I know in my heart I was taking care of my mother to the best of my capacity? Yes. So, I let the opinions of my siblings about me grow cold and unhandled, and I stopped participating with the group. When I did, I was able to see outside the pressure of obligation and realize I always felt horrible after interacting with them. Since I was a child, I had been seeking to escape them in the families of other people.

My favorite childhood memory is about 1980 at the Hodgins’ house. It was a hot summer day, and there are five of us kids, their four plus me, all of us under eight. It was a northern California suburb, and we were dancing, err, jumping on the couches in their sunken living room while Mrs. Hodgin was putting snacks in a bowl. It was “Sweet Caroline” on the stereo. I felt sunburned as we screamed “Touching you. Touch-ing me.”

I saw Mrs. Hodgin’s striped batwing blouse and gold hoop earrings in and out of my vision as I jumped from one couch to the other. The ends of my post-swimming pool hair whipped across my shoulder blades, stinging my forearms. My best friend, Cheryl Hodgin, and I were in our favorite purple bathing suits and pastel, rainbow towels, an imprint of the pebbled concrete of the patio still puckering the backs of our thighs. In the morning, Mr. Hodgin made pancakes that are chocolate all the way through. It was a kind of magic.

A big family can hold a specific beauty and power. It can feel safe and warm inside of one. Or it can take you under. The thing I know for sure: after I fought my way out of the undertow, I began to sleep again.

***

JB and her puppy Hank. Neskowin, Oregon.

Jennifer Brennock is a writer living in Portland.

Editor’s note: I’ve known Jennifer now for 13 lucky years. How grateful I am that I walked into the public library on Orcas Island and timidly joined several local residents who’d signed up for a Writers’ Roundtable. It was my first time dabbling with fiction and led to a friendship with the instructor that continues in Portland. And, oh, how I admire how JB slings words around, F-bombs and all.

Tomorrow: George Rede, Violeta

This is not an empowerment essay

By Jennifer Brennock

(Reader advisory: explicit language throughout.)

This year, there is no bootstraps vignette. “Oh, she found her power on her own. Ain’t that sweet.” Hard no, 2021.

If you are sensing my tone is acerbic, you are underestimating it. You know that thing people say about a woman who’s been betrayed? You know that thing they say about redheads? About a Sagittarius? Yeah, if I were this man, I might hide from me too. 

I think we’ve been tricked into receiving relief through a nice story. I’ve said it myself. “In these times, we need to focus on the good.” But, at this point, I’ve been screwed over, and I am fresh outta fucks. 

Here’s why: It’s not just about heartbreak and a selfish, lying, aging fuck-boy to whom I naively gave my heart. Again. No. It’s that everything is getting worse. I mean everything.

Do you know that the environment has been so completely violated that the moon can’t spin straight anymore? Yup. The big cheese is actually shaking its head at us, doing the only smart thing left for a celestial satellite to do. It’s starting to peace the fuck out. 

Credit: Kym MacKinnon

What happens next? Sea-level rise. Flooding. Death. Habitat loss. Lower fish count. Destruction of homes and artifacts. Homelessness exacerbated. Social and community problems ballooning. Further division of world view and understanding. Less compassion, more cutting in line. 

Just think of the worst possible scenario from the most horrific dystopia imaginable. Yeah, we’re on our way. 

I acknowledge that here I am, writing words on a page. I am lucky to be asked to share them. I have an education that allows me to do that effortlessly. I get to have a nice glass of wine while pounding out furious, indulgent words. I get to admire the bartender’s tattoos and uninhibited self-expression. I get to express without fear of retribution. I get to say “fuck” a lot cuz I need to right now. I am in possession of twelve million things others dream of having. 

But in this shitshow of a year, there is a better way to get temporary relief fast. Anger. Unbridled rage. That’s the way we are going to get through this pile of total monkey diarrhea. Good old-fashioned fury. 

I took my son to the railroad tracks with a box of glass bottles. I told him we needed to get shit off our chests. 

I picked up a bottle by the neck and threw it as hard as I could, overhand, flipping end-over-end through the air until it combusted against the brick barrier wall. A cascade of green shards fell as if gravity’s still a thing. I bent from the waist and screamed as violently as I could, shaking my head and closing my eyes, hands in fists stretched out behind me. My voice possessed the burn of humiliation. Of chopping the boyfriend’s wood and buying him vitamins while his bed was still warm from another. Of believing him when he said again, again, again, “Love, love, love” and “I don’t want anyone else” just to let him run over me with a tractor the very next day without remorse.

At the wall, I bleated the volume of a lost future. Right then, I could have stabbed him in the throat without a second thought. I would grip the blade hard and pull through the vocal cords, just like I watched him kill a deer once. I would mute his singing, take away his best quality, and silence his bedroom voice forever.

I breathed heavily. Raised my shoulders and let them fall again. Neighbors poked their heads out like gophers, stopped preening their lilies and sipping IPAs. I didn’t give a….you know. 

“Now you.”

I handed my teenager a bottle. 

“I don’t want to.”

“Come on. It’s okay. We all gotta let go. We’ve been through a lot of shit this year.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Are you kidding? Come on. Do it.”

I pulled out some real eighth-grade-girl-group manipulation, yet the strongest peer pressure I could muster would not move him to break a bottle.

Miracle human. 

I did the only thing left to do. I picked up every one of those motherfuckers and smashed them. I did over-the-backs. Overhand dunking. A through-the-legs, two-handed, three-bottle granny. Followed by a, “Fuckkkk, yeahhhhh. Suck ittttt, you fat bastard” while flipping the bird with both hands. Each throw had excellent brick contact. I spun glass guns on my palm, Eastwood movie pistols, and sidelong pitched them into the wall. One. “Pew pew.” And two. “Pew pew pew.” I reached into the box for the next while the glass was still raining like glitter at a strip club. Beautiful violence. Music. Perfect reverb. A landing puddle of rainbow shards. 

If a bottle made contact but was not completely destroyed, I’d pick that shit right back up and fuck it up again. 

My kid stood stoic. He has already learned to do this. (Not from me, obviously.) He has absorbed that expressing emotions, saying the words that make the feelings alive, is not what a man does to remain strong. Instead, he contained. 

I imagine he was thinking something like, is this normal? Is there someone to call? No. Of course. There is nobody to call. That’s part of the problem. And even if there was someone okay enough with this brand of tiny mom mayhem — someone who wouldn’t tell her she should stop because we know how that would turn out – how could the torrent of Natural Born Killers enactment be interrupted in order to get at her cell phone? Not possible. 

Credit: Chuttersnap

At some point, the box was empty. 

Now what?

What the fuck do you think happened? I picked up the box. We walked home. 

The catharsis was temporary. Uninhibited glass breakage was no longer an exit for pain, and it soon returned as the weight of an elephant sitting on my chest. My son and I did not speak. The evening was uncomfortably light. Soft, cotton candy sky. Kids still on the damn trampoline. Shouts of joy. 

My son was in step with me. He hesitated but put his arm around my shoulders. 

“Okay?”

“Sure.”

A sliver of moon could be seen. A small, thumbnail crescent. It’s still up there. For now. A few more blocks to home. 

“It’s gonna be okay, Mom. Can we get ice cream? You can pick.”

I started to cry. That fuckin kid slays me every damn time. 

Jennifer Brennock: wordsmith and bottle-slinger.

Jennifer Brennock, “JB,” lives, writes, and swears a lot in Portland. 

Editor’s note: Twelve years ago this August, I walked into the public library on Orcas Island and nervously joined several local residents who’d signed up for a Writers’ Roundtable. It was my first time dabbling with writing fiction. Jennifer was the discussion leader during the two-hour workshop. When we met later for coffee, an enduring friendship followed.

Tomorrow: On second thought | George Rede

The way men sit in chairs

By Jennifer Brennock

I leave the evening poetry reading and begin a non-buddied walk to the dorm. Someone is following me. The unlit field is too dark to see anything but a few unmarked figures making the crossing ahead. They’re nearly out of earshot. I cinch my coat a little tighter, walk a little faster. No dawdling. I am appearing assertive and aware of my surroundings. 

Once, my father sent me an email, something along the lines of “Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Get Raped.” He wanted me to learn not to park next to a van with cargo doors, to check the backseat before driving away, to never open the front door of my home to the sound of a crying baby. The father of four girls was concerned about strangers. He didn’t know that the statistic of one in four women didn’t spare his family.  

Decades ago, I was fighting with him. I wanted some independence he was denying me. I brandished my face in his and said, “I am a survivor!” He looked at me, not comprehending, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “It’s too late, Dad.” Instead, I folded my arms and told him if I was going to get raped it probably would be by someone I knew. He didn’t know it was the kinder thing to say. 

As I continue to stride briskly across the field, I take out my dorm key, just in case, and hold it between my knuckles like a dagger. To poke his eyes out. They give us all this responsibility when we are girls.  

At the poetry reading, someone sits down on my left. The man extends both legs fully, each jutting out directly from the corners of his seat. It makes the lower half of his body into a big v. A big valentine v. As if he can’t help from spilling over. You know, cuz he’s so big. He has a right to all this space because he was randomly born with some anatomy that is apparently a foot wide. Men sit like this. On airplanes. On carnival rides. In church. Women are constantly shrinking themselves to accommodate the valentine v net to them. I fiddle with my notebook and pen. This is not the man who raped you.  

The poet is talking about oral sex. Once, twice, again and again. Each time he mentions it, the man pretends to be examining the fingernails of his right hand. He holds the hand out in my direction to do this. He’s not looking at his fingernails. It’s made-up. Then he looks openly. First at my mouth, then the top of my head, then a visual sweep down to my shoes like a teenage girl checking out the competition. I pretend not to notice because I was taught to be polite. I look straight ahead. He puts his hand in his lap. It keeps flinching there. He fingers are on the lowest buttons of his untucked shirt, resting on his crotch. He keeps doing it, the flinching, and he keeps looking at me while he’s doing it. I cross my arms, recross my legs. I try to take up less space in my chair. I try to extinguish my peripheral vision. You are being over-diligent. 

Now the poet is talking about rape, and the man rests his arm on the back of my chair. Comrade. We’re both grad students, you see. Now his bloodless fingers jerk repeatedly, quick and ugly, a self-pleasure tempo nearly grazing my shoulder. They aren’t touching me, they aren’t, but I know how they feel. They are the albino winter branches, the ones that snagged my hair as I ran after it happened to me. I was twenty. It was a different field on a different campus. I was barefoot. He was a professor. My roommate didn’t believe me, so I didn’t tell anyone else.  

I’m nauseous now, and I think I’m going to have to get up in the middle of the reading, everybody looking up with question mark brows. I look around. All the men are sitting like valentines. A room full of them. 

I don’t want to throw up. I force myself to think quickly of a man who doesn’t sit like this. I see my brother.  

My father’s only son knows women. He has two older sisters and two younger ones, and for most of our growing up he couldn’t get into the bathroom. He kept a toothbrush in his bedroom. He brushed in the kitchen on school days when four girls were trying to blow their bangs into feathers with AquaNet. My brother does not sit in a v. He sits with class. One time when I was a freshman home on a break, I called him in the middle of the night from a party gone sour. I begged him to pick me up. It was an hour’s drive, but he got there in 45 minutes. He got me the hell out of there, pushing his girlfriend’s little car faster through the night. He never asked why, and it wasn’t the reason he probably thought it was. At the reading, the memory works. The Ten Stupid Things list is stalled for the rest of the poems. Afterward I start walking to the dorm.

Halfway across, I dare to look behind. Oh, good. It’s just the poet who was reading tonight. I keep walking. He does too. Of course he does. What else would he do but walk back to the dorm? The pace becomes a little too in sync. As I stride, I can’t remember. For the life of me, I can’t. This seems so important to know right now, and I’m blanking. A fact that could save me. So essential to confirm. How could I not have noticed? Remember, try to remember. Before he got up to read, how did the poet sit in his chair?  

### 

Jennifer Brennock is a writer, teacher, mother, and student of historic architecture. She has grown five cucumbers and ten tomatoes (so far) in the median of her street this summer. She considers this a small victory in the pursuit of adapting to Portland. This piece was written ten years ago, before Trump was president and before the metoo hashtag. She carries hope in the fact that she is raising a son who will soon be a man, and that together all mothers of sons can teach them enough to change the paradigm.  

Editor’s note: Thank goodness for coincidences. Ten years ago on a Saturday in August, I attended a writing workshop on Orcas Island. Jennifer was the workshop leader and I was one of a dozen people who attended. I wrote a short burst of fiction (300 words in 20 minutes) and, more importantly, made a new friend that day. Neither one of us lives on the island anymore but what a nice coincidence that Jennifer would relocate to Portland.

Tomorrow: John Killen | Chasing Kristin

Bad news

hands

By Jennifer Brennock

I come into the kitchen. Grocery bags. Car keys. The same loose doorknob. He’s waiting at the table. Home early. He hasn’t poured a drink. Boots still on. “I have something to tell you.” I go soundblind. The mouth is doing the things it does when making words. He folds, refolds his hands. The wedding ring he doesn’t wear scrapes across the table: I am deaf but only to him. In California, a butcher saws through a meat joint. In Berlin, firecrackers in the back alley. The hum of an intersection in Mexico City. He stands. Footfalls in reverb, a child finding an old piano in an empty barn. He wants to hold me against him. Crackandbuzz crackandbuzz inside his ribcage. What’s that sound? He insists, holding my shoulders, his palms comfort circling the way I can’t stand. I pull away to read his lips. I’m sure he’s saying it is only the wind through the trees. Behind me, ice cream melts in the brown paper bag. The cold sweat railroads down the carton. I hear it metalscreaming. Like a baby. Taken from her mother’s milk. Too soon.

***

jennifer brennock

Jennifer Brennock

 Since childhood, Jennifer Brennock has gotten into trouble for not keeping her mouth shut. She’s written poetry, prose, and play. She’s worked for arts organizations, created arts organizations, given readings, emceed slam, made zines, busked, facilitated, studied, and taught in all literary arts she could wiggle her way into. Jennifer is uncomfortable talking about herself in third person, but she’s getting used to it.

Editor’s note: I met Jennifer during an Orcas Island vacation several years ago when I attended a writing workshop she was leading at the public library. We met for coffee a couple days later and a friendship bloomed between the two of us native Californians. I find Jennifer’s writing nothing short of amazing.  

***

From the author: A note to one of my writing communities (VOA) about another of my writing communities (TILL): You guys should really know each other. I wrote this prose poem at TILL, a writers’ retreat at a farm gone feral in western Washington. Every year, I’m amazed by the organizers and their ability to keep it low-key, low-stuff, pitch-in, inspiring, egoless, and generative. I’m more convinced than ever that every creative person needs to drop out of the rest of their life for a bit on the regular. Check out TILL and buy a chapbook. If you’re in Seattle, come to the reading in the fall. http://tillwriters.org

till exterior

Till began as a collaboration between Arne Pihl and Chelsea Werner-Jatzke in 2013. (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

jennifer at till

Jennifer Brennock at a workshop in the equipment barn at Till. (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

claudia castro luna till

Till 2017 included workshops given by writers Matthew Simmons, Rachel Kessler, Jane Wong, and Claudia Castro Luna (pictured). (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

till interior

Till cultivates time, space, and community for writers. (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

Tomorrow: Michael Granberry, My Watergate summer

2017 Oregon Book Awards

george-jennifer

George and Jennifer outside the Gerding Theater.

It wasn’t the Oscars and it wasn’t the Grammys. But it was my first time attending an awards event and it was pretty cool.

On Monday night, I joined my friend Jennifer Brennock at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards, held at the Gerding Theater in Northwest Portland.

No red carpet in sight. But in the lobby there was a pop-up book sale going on staffed by the folks from Broadway Books, my neighborhood book store. Also, there were plenty of animated conversations going on among book nerds of all ages, young adults to retirees.

For those of us who love words, it was a night to celebrate seasoned pros, first-time authors and everyone in between who strives to inform and inspire us readers with works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. If you’ve ever written seriously — whether for work or as a hobby — you know the feeling of facing a blank screen and wondering when or how the first words will materialize.

If you’re patient, they will come. Eventually.

Knowing a little something about what that’s like, I felt nothing but admiration for these accomplished writers who faced the blank screen and won the stare-down. These are the diligent, creative folks whose characters, plots, scenes and dialogues — imagined or real — come to life on the page, often after years of research. Such work is impressive and every one of the Oregon Book Award finalists deserved the whistles, whoops and hollers they received.

***

Before the event, I met Jennifer at a coffee-and-wine bar a short walk from the Gerding. We met several years ago when I attended a writing workshop she was leading on Orcas Island. I was impressed by the way she led the class and since then I have been dazzled by her writing.

Read Jennifer’s contribution (“Baby Shower”) to my Voices of August guest blog project.

She’s taught English at the community college level and I’m now teaching communications classes at two universities, so we have that connection, too. Jennifer’s students are blessed to have someone whose writing prompts challenge them to think and feel deeply and whose own intelligence and passion explode off the page.

The awards program, sponsored by Literary Arts, itself was entertaining — probably more so than you’d think given the absence of live music, video clips or other such stuff that you see at the Academy Awards.

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The Portland nonprofit Literary Arts sponsors the Oregon Book Awards.

A California author, Lysley Tenorio, was a charming master of ceremonies, filling the same role as Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres and others have done at the Oscars.

Anis Mojgani, a spoken word artist based in Portland, performed a poem. Téa Johnson, a Grant High School senior, reprised her winning entry in the citywide high school poetry slam competition known as Verselandia.

Read a profile of Téa Johnson in Grant Magazine.

Finalists were announced in eight categories, and the judge for each one read an excerpt from the winner’s book before calling that person to the stage.

Turns out that I had met — ever so briefly — the winner in the first category. Kate Berube took home the award for Children’s Literature for her book “Hannah and Sugar.” Last summer, I took part in a fundraising trivia contest sponsored by a nonprofit that provides books to low-income children. Kate, an author and illustrator, was at that same fundraiser and donated a portion of profits from her sales that night to the same cause.

Even better, Jennifer knew the woman who won the Creative Nonfiction award. That would be Walidah Imarisha, who is currently a lecturer at Stanford but also has taught at Portland State and Oregon State universities. Walidah was honored for “Angels Without Dirty Wings,” a book about life behind prison walls that weaves together the stories of three people — her incarcerated brother and his fellow inmate and herself..

jennifer-walidah

Reunited: Jennifer Brennock and Walidah Imarisha

Jennifer and Walidah have known each other since graduate school. In the lobby afterwards, the two embraced and Walidah autographed the book I bought on the spot. Gotta make room for it on my always crowded bookshelf.

***

Two quick anecdotes that illustrate what a small world we live in:

Walidah’s companion that evening was a young man who had participated years ago in a summer journalism program for minority high school students that brought him to The Oregonian, my former employer  John Joo, then a student at Beaverton High School, remembered me from the program — probably one of those times when I popped into a room of teenagers wolfing down pizza and soda during a visit to the newsroom and said a few words. What a great memory.

Before leaving, I introduced myself to Cindy Williams Gutiérrez, the only Latina/o among the Oregon Book Award winners. Cindy is a poet who’s worked with Milagro Theater, the bilingual theater group where my wife and I saw a recent production. Her new book, “Words That Burn,” dramatizes the World War II experiences of three men, including Lawson Inada, a Japanese American internee who later taught at Southern Oregon College, where Jennifer met him as an undergraduate student.

Cindy chatted warmly, jotted her email address on a card, and invited me to get in touch. I think I’ll do just that.

All in all, a fun evening spent in the company of someone who loves words as much as I do. Who needs the red carpet anyway?

VOA 6.0 meetup

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Another year of stellar writing by a diverse group of guest bloggers, ages 12 to 70. (Photograph by Taylor Smith)

 

 

If Voices of August were a child, she would be in kindergarten by now.

VOA, as this annual guest blog project is called, debuted on August 1, 2011, at a time when I was working at The Oregonian as a web editor focusing on community engagement. I had taught a couple of introductory communications classes (weekend mini-courses) at Portland State University that prompted me to start a personal blog and led to the subsequent birth of this project.

Fast forward to October 2016 and consider how things have changed or come full circle..

I’m no longer at The Oregonian, having accepted a buyout offer at the end of 2015.

I’m back at Portland State, this time teaching a full-fledged, upper-division class that meets twice a week.

Meanwhile, Voices of August just notched its sixth year. A week ago Saturday, about a dozen of us bloggers, along with spouses and other supporters, came together at a Northeast Portland brewpub to celebrate a remarkable collaboration: a month-long feast of writing, reading and reacting. (Yes, this is one place where you actually can read the comments and not have to take a shower afterwards.)

Click on images to view captions:

Each day, I post a guest blog that’s been written by a friend, neighbor, relative or former co-worker on a subject of their choice. Many of us are professional writers but most are not. And that’s the beauty of this thing. The variety of topics and writing styles flows from the fact that people write from the heart as much as their head, from their personal experiences and professional perspectives.

Since VOA began, about 70 people have participated as guest bloggers. Among them: teachers, professors, musicians, lawyers and documentary filmmakers. Contributions, totaling nearly 200, have come from several states and even a smattering of foreign countries: Vietnam, France, Slovenia, Poland and Texas. (Kidding. Just kidding.)

Looking back at my initial entry on 8/1/11, I launched VOA with three reasons in mind.

  1. I expected it would be fun. Boy, has it.
  2. I thought it could be a teaching tool. Indeed, I’ve learned much about online communication that I’ve applied to my work and social media.
  3. I knew it would bring more diversity to the site. Duh. When you invite people of different ages, races and ethnicities, people who represent different generations, bring varied life experiences and a constellation of passions, well, you wind up with something pretty special.

VOA is like opening a new gift every day. You never know if you’ll read something light or heavy, funny or sad, something universal or deeply personal — but you know it’ll engage you. This year, people wrote about their mothers and their cats, about politics and immigration, about love and loss, about pregnancy and a years-ago fishing trip gone bad.

Call me biased, but I think this year’s batch was the best ever. (I know, I know. I said that last year too.)

At month’s end, bloggers and regular readers cast votes for three favorite pieces — whatever resonated with them for whatever reason — and five were judged the most popular. In no particular order, they are:

“The memory keeper” by Gosia Wozniacka, writing from Poland.

“Rhubarb summer” by Jennifer Brennock, writing from Orcas Island, Washington.

“Night on the Kahawai” by Tim Akimoff, writing from Salem, Oregon.

“American internship in the shadow of Yellowstone” by Aki Mori, of the Portland area, and “My visit to Heart Mountain” by his 12-year-old daughter, Midori Mori. Both reflected on their family’s summer visit to two historical sites in Idaho and Wyoming where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.

A tip of the cap also goes to first-time VOA bloggers Anne Saker, Elizabeth Lee, Sue Wilcox, John Killen, Michelle Love, Maisha Maurant and Gosia Wozniacka.

Final word: Last weekend’s gathering at McMenamin’s on Broadway meant renewing friendships and making new ones between sips and bites and much goodwill. It was great seeing friends from Washington, Oregon and California.

For me, though, the best takeaway from VOA 6.0 was the thank-you note I received from Midori the day after our gathering. In it, she said she had always imagined that the only way to innovate for future generations was as a top government official such as senator or president.

“But the fact that I was given much positive acclaim in my essay moved me to a new perspective I have never once perceived,” Midori wrote. “It was the fact that such a small action, as to writing a blog entry, had moved and altered many people and their way of thinking. I, only being 12, have much to discover in this universe. However, I am grateful to know that my writing was just the beginning.”

If you missed Midori’s piece or want to re-read it or any of the others published this year, visit the VOA 6.0 index page.

Rhubarb summer

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In a summer of loss and love, rhubarb plays a symbolic role.

By Jennifer Brennock

I lost my job today. I mean, I have five jobs, most of them meaningless and labor-oriented, but this was the one that made me feel like something. It floated me when the tide was low and kept a roof over my kid’s head no matter what. It woke me predawn for a red eye ferry for six years. I walked into it and said “Good morning, class” with a genuine smile every session without fail. It tested my brain’s capacity and asked me to be better because what they learned was important. Yeah, that one.

I’m a little freaked out. In response, I’m harvesting rhubarb. I should be trimming the mean girl tomatoes, but all I care about is the emo rhubarb.

My child is already in bed this summer evening, so I’m being liberal with the wine bottle. From my view, no structure nor person can be seen, only pasture, birch, and evergreen—a Cascadian ideal. I am solo under an expanse of easy sky, but clouds lurk atop the treeline. The moon wants to be seen and the swallows dive for insects inches above my head. I can hear their wings back and forth in a spasm of feeding. There is a Brett Dennen song on the radio. Not my favorite, but he insists “It’s the life you made.”

The rhubarb is a mistake I made. I planted this blushing, awkward teen in the center of the very best bed in the garden. Inside the deer fence. Deer don’t eat rhubarb. I could have planted it anywhere else, making room for sensible broccoli, more delicate lettuce, and cheerful, knobby Brussels sprout. Instead, I am protecting something that no longer needs it. Even so, there is primordial, fantastical growth on these dogs. It’s like science fiction out here.

The music floats over the berm to the narrowing valley and pasture below. I wonder how far this sound travels at night. I turn it up.

“Who do you think you are?”

Tonight, I feel the full power of middle age. I select a stalk, grip it at the base, and twist. The decisive choice makes the most satisfying staccato of fiber breaking under force. Rhubarb harvest is imbued with more “fuck you” than any other fruit picking. With a middle finger, I tell life to do its worst. I’ve already been here. There’s nothing you can do to me that I will not survive. This is just another day. There have been worse. Days when I could not get out of fetal. The days I hiccuped from crying too much. The days I fell farther. The days I fed myself with nonfood that I will never confess to. Still, every time I got up with Invictus, not because I believed I deserved to live, and certainly not because I believed I deserved to be happy. I got up because someone smaller needed me.

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Jennifer Brennock: badass writer, artist, mother on Orcas Island. (Photograph by Melanie Masson)

Tonight, I remove the yellowed, limp, snail-trodden leaves at the base. They were the front line months ago before the plant knew it would survive new earth. The clouds are approaching slowly, as if I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. My nose fills with the fresh and bitter fruit, an olfactory stab. The wine buzz and unyielding song makes this night a syrupy date.

Rhubarb is obnoxious. Who does it think it is with those gargantuan leaves of poison? We know what you’re up to; you’re not impressing anyone, rhubarb. You are not the umbrellas you think you are.

This rhubarb summer, I am in love after rejecting him over and over for years. I managed to fabricate reasons. His desire to provide my soul with daily tenderness and my life with strong shoulders was, you know, over the top. I had to save myself; I believed these were separate things.

“Don’t be afraid of the hands you play.”

I give sun space to the stalks that need the light by pulling out the four-foot charmers. The new ones—curly, insecure entering the world, virginal—are wearing the wrong green. If a stalk is thick but short, I pardon it, ask it to grow taller with girth and confidence. Confidence begets confidence they tell me. Hot pink root tips peek through, small flames, genital-like, solidly in place and keeping steadfast to center.

I’m in love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower and once said the words “I concur” while we were fucking. His heart has been broken in the worst way it can be, and he is still willing to go all in. You know the guy who taught you to ski? Remember how he leaned down to your cold-rosy five year-old face on the verge of tears and asked with perfect enthusiasm and a smile, “We gonna have fun today?” Remember how just then you forgot you were scared to death and how you let go of your mother’s hand without thinking and took his? That’s him. He enters sleep just like a tree falls, calls climbing Rainier “going for a walk,” and is not afraid of carrying heavy things. I am a heavy thing.

“Who do you think you are?”

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“I’m in a love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower…”

I’m the chick who writes about being alone while being a parent. These are the stories I tell. I write about falling down. I write about sex, and I write about pain. To separate things, juxtaposed, rarely intersecting, but close enough that the possibility is there. That’s my schtick. I make weird art by destroying 1950s gynecology textbooks and sticking their diagrams next to poems describing fellatio. To remind you—haunt you—that love and body are not one, and they are not to be trusted together. It’s all going to hell once you’re happy and spooning. But what happens when the sex is actually leagues away from any pain, and he loves you enough to correct you when you call it fucking? He’s not leaving tonight, and not tomorrow either, and if he’s right, I may die at his side. What happens? Will I still have words? Will I still have night gardens and disturbing poems and breaking rhubarb at the neck? Will I still come out to see the moon at 2 A.M. alone?

All good stories must be universal, and, dear reader, for you to trust me, you have to get something out of the read. So here it is: you deserve it. We all do. Each of us deserves to be loved and supported regardless of our failures and voids, past and present. You’ve said things you regret. You’ve neglected someone who was counting on you. You failed her. You couldn’t deny wanting someone else. You did not forgive him in time. No matter how hard you try, you are not enough for her. You made him into someone he didn’t like. Okay. That happened. Still, there isn’t some huge karmic punishment coming for you because of it. When the song points at you and says, “Who do you think you are? This is the life you made,” you can just say, um, yeah? So? My head is unbowed. So you planted the rhubarb in the wrong spot. You gave attention to the wrong thing. You made bad choices. You still deserve to be loved, supported, adored, and saved. You do.

The rhubarb is crowding the artichokes. I shouldn’t’ve planted those there either. The trees are blowing now and the birds have become bats. The bird-murdered strawberries won’t be moved tonight, but these fruit-stalks look like an armload of ugly miracles. I’ll make cardamom sugar for the jam this time, I think. Best go inside now. The rain is coming, and I gotta find a job before summer’s end.

***

Jennifer Brennock lives on Orcas Island in a cabin nicknamed “Slaughterhouse” for some reason that she’s not asking too many questions about. This is an excerpt from Real, a memoir-in-progress about adoption and single motherhood with conversations with the Velveteen Rabbit. Contact her for organic rhubarb $2/lb.

Editor’s note: I met Jennifer seven years ago when she was leading a creative writing workshop at the Orcas Island Public Library. She is a dazzling writer — fierce, fearless and unfailingly honest — and someone I’m proud to call my friend.

Tomorrow: Taylor Smith, I’m desperate

Friday flashback: ‘Baby shower’

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Jennifer Brennock writes powerfully about the bond between mother and son.

Attending a baby shower for someone who’s conceived through sperm-meets-egg when you’re an adoptive parent stirs a kettle of emotions.

Such feelings might go unnoticed if they were not given voice by my Orcas Island friend Jennifer Brennock. She is a remarkable writer — fierce, fearless and unfailingly honest.

In this 2014 piece for Voices for August, Jennifer puts readers on her shoulder as she takes us inside the home of a woman whose friends have gathered to celebrate her impending passage to motherhood.

“From her living room floor, I smile the correct smile and chat the correct chat. In my chest, something has grabbed and is squeezing,” she writes.

VOA readers were moved by the words that followed.

“Every year on VOA I am rendered speechless by your ability to turn words into magic,” one wrote.

“I have no words for the impression this has left on me, but thank you for giving me something to tuck away as I remember my friends who are walking the roads of infertility and/or adoption,” another said.

Read it yourself right here: “Baby shower”

Carpentry and poetry

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Rose Swartz is a writer and visual artist from Kalamazoo, Michigan, currently living in Portland, Oregon.

Life is full of coincidences, isn’t it?

In early November, I drove out to an industrial park in Northeast Portland to do a story about the progress being made in Oregon placing women in apprenticeship programs.

In a room full of women at the Sheet Metal Institute, I found myself next to Rose Swartz, a 32-year-old former English teacher, originally from Michigan, who was now hoping to become a carpenter.

“I feel optimistic, but I also feel it’s really hard work,” she told me. “I don’t have any misconceptions.”

After the story was published, I got in touch with her again, thinking that once she completed her pre-apprenticeship class she’d make a great subject for a followup interview focusing on the transition from the classroom to a blue-collar trade.

Rose agreed to the idea and I made tentative plans to contact her early this year. That plan went out the window, however, when I took the buyout offer to retire at the end of 2015.

Fast forward to late January.

My Orcas Island writer friend Jennifer Brennock posted a Facebook blurb about a poetry reading she had organized in Eastsound for late February.

The program would be the first featured reading by an artist affiliated with Drop Out on Orcas, a new residential program for writers and other creatives. Through Jennifer’s efforts, there is now a destination on the east end of the island for people to work on their art in no-tech solitude.

The blurb said: “Rose Swartz will read from her latest offering, “Panhandle,” a letterpress chapbook. Rose will be coming from Portland to join us.”

I did a double take.

Holy crap!” I wrote. “Is this the same Rose Swartz I interviewed during a Women in Apprenticeships program?”

“Oh wow, yes it is,” Rose confirmed.

If that weren’t coincidence enough, this past Friday was my turn to contribute to the neighborhood poetry post maintained by our little community of townhouse residents.

It was an easy choice. I turned to www.roseswartz.com and came up with “Half-Fish Daughter,” originally published by Silver Birch Press.

I share it here, courtesy of Rose (who goes by Rosa in her published work):

HALF-FISH DAUGHTER
by Rosa Swartz

At first frost I vacate the pond,
hooks and barbs wedged in the shadows of my flesh.
Asleep in winter’s wool blankets
dry beds of hot air scrape tears in my scales,
my pulse swoops into a murky scream.
Below the bridge at Wolf Creek,
my body swims away
each morning leaving just a raincoat,
the wind that slaps the maple trees.

Lori and I won’t be on Orcas until the spring, so we’ll miss this Feb. 28 reading. Along with sending best wishes for a good turnout, I hope another opportunity pops up to hear and see Rose — on the island or the mainland.

Photographs: Drop Out on Orcas