Excuses for My Disability

Miriam McEwen

This is the part where I make a call to determine my eligibility for a new power wheelchair. Excuse me. My phone is breaking up. Yes. This is the part where I drive. Yes. In my blue bus. This is the name we have for my wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Yes, really. I drive for an hour to reach this appointment with an apologetic-looking doctor. I am late. I am sorry. Excuse me, the doctor’s gray-gold eyes seem to say, but you are late. I nod. This is the part where the doctor sighs and takes me into his office despite my lateness. This is the part where he settles into his creaky office chair and says, “Yes. What seems to be the trouble?” And I say, “My wheelchair. It’s breaking. It’s seven years old. I need a new one. I’m eligible.” I show the doctor how the metal parts which hold my foot pedals on have been inexplicably crushed. This part right here is why my foot pedals dangle like that. The doctor nods. I show him how the wheelchair’s driving console keeps flashing green and red and yellow. I don’t know why. But this is the part where I confess I’ve had the wheelchair out in the rain quite a lot. The doctor’s gray-gold eyes are surprised, seeming to say, Excuse me, but you are in a power wheelchair, so small wonder the wheelchair is breaking. No. I mean—yes. But I like the rain too much not to be out in it. “The wheelchair is seven years old,” I say again. This is the part where the doctor asks if I believe I will always be disabled. “What?” I say. “Yes, yeah.” No, somehow, too. But I’m eligible.


On Love and Duty

Joyce Dehli


“Will you help me?” Michael whispered in my ear as plates of his mother’s rhubarb pie were passed around the table.


Michael had asked my partner Grace and me to join his family’s brunch one late-summer Sunday in 1995. Before others took seats, he’d motioned for us to sit on either side of him. I understood: we were his sentinels. As it turned out, he didn’t need our protection. Michael’s family had gathered for him, but they mostly left him alone. His three brothers ribbed each other incessantly, occasionally enfolding their mother into their banter. They hadn’t seen Michael since his AIDS diagnosis, though they lived only thirty minutes away, near the farm where they’d been boys together. Michael’s two sisters and a few friends cared for him.


Michael was really Grace’s friend. A decade earlier, they’d gotten sober together as part of a tight group of gay and lesbian AA friends. They were all in their early twenties then, except for Michael who was about ten years older. By the time I met Grace a few years later, her circles were widening. Still, her core group stayed tight, and I saw Michael at potlucks and picnics. We talked a little. In their boisterous group, he was the shy one. His hair was summer wheat, his eyes sky blue. I liked his field-worthy jeans and checkered, short-sleeve shirts buttoned over white tees. He reminded me of the farmers on organic cereal boxes, happy amid their grains. He tolerated discos but adored country line dancing. If he could, he would have traded his graphic-design job for tending gardens, hands in soil, and fresh blooms always in the offing. That’s all I knew. Grace was our only link; I had my own friends.


Things changed when Jonathan, the youngest of their sobriety group, died from AIDS. He was the one they’d tried to protect, the dashing and needy one who, in his late teens, had fled his small hometown in northeastern Wisconsin for Madison. Before long, his dreams of a writerly life with worldly men took him to Chicago, but he kept his ties to Grace and Michael. After Jonathan’s death, his parents whisked his body back to the town he’d despised and to a church that prayed he would be forgiven for the life he had lived. His friends drove two hours to his funeral. They did it for Jonathan, though they knew the ceremony would be brutal. I went along. On the ride home, our car overflowed with stories, hilarious and tender, of the man they loved. Michael didn’t talk much. We didn’t know then, but he was already sick. HIV had become AIDS.


One Sunday, not a year later, Michael called our house in a panic. He said his brain wasn’t right; it switched off and on, off and on, froze up and split in pain. Grace and I took him to the emergency room. After hours of tests and waiting, a doctor said he’d had a series of ministrokes called TIAs, or transient ischemic attacks. Blood flow to his brain had sputtered for a spell. AIDS was to blame, the doctor confirmed. He sent Michael home, warning him to expect more attacks.


Michael called us regularly to take him to the ER, usually on weekends. Looking back, I think he was being considerate of our time, knowing we worked long hours during the week. He contained his terrors until they burst on weekends. Most of his other friends—gay men and an ex-boyfriend with whom he still lived—were exhausted by the needs of those dying around them. They were devastated by relentless loss. Some turned away from Michael. Grace loved Michael like an older brother, but she sometimes grew annoyed when he called. Still, she remained steadfast. Unlike Grace, I could keep my distance. I wasn’t bound to Michael in the same way. I sometimes wondered: what is my duty here?


In the decades that followed, I asked myself that question often—when dying friends lingered in illness and when cancer took my dad, slowly and painfully, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. What was my duty, and could I bear it? Could I watch what dying inflicts on a human body? Could I bear the grief that precedes death, gathering into itself like darkness before a storm? Could I bear knowing that whatever care I gave, it couldn’t be enough? And when I wanted to flee, would I stay or turn away?


As Michael’s circle shrank, his anxiety swelled. The sicker he looked, the clearer it became to everyone: this man had AIDS. Nobody took open seats near us in the ER waiting room. If he’d wanted, Michael could have lived most of his life passing as straight. But as he grew gaunt and weak, he was seen as a man with AIDS. And, given that this was the mid-1990s, people assumed he was gay.


He wouldn’t have hidden if he could. When Michael got sober, he committed to being himself in the world. Grace lived that way too, but not me. Although I was generally out, I excelled at managing what people knew about me: more truth for some, less truth for others. I calculated the risks of being out against the pain of hiding. Standing beside Michael, I felt vulnerable to derision. I didn’t always speak up for him.


Once, two white-coated ER residents ridiculed Michael for being scared. As he trembled in a gown on the edge of a hospital bed, they—a woman and a man—stood several feet away, practically shouting their questions: “What year is this?” “Who is the president?” When Michael answered incorrectly, the woman laughed at him. The man accused Michael of seeking attention. Clearly, they wanted Michael to go away. Grace and I were outraged, but we said nothing. Perhaps Grace thought it was better for Michael if we didn’t complain. We didn’t want him to get kicked out. But maybe I also feared their disdain for Michael would extend to me. I’d speak up today, but I knew less of life then.


Michael’s regular doctor said he could stay home as long as he had people caring for him. A few friends set a schedule and divided tasks, until Michael’s ex-boyfriend-turned-landlord kicked him out. He said he couldn’t watch another death. That’s when Michael’s younger sister took him in. She lived alone in a small house nearby and delivered mail in the mornings. His older sister flew in from L.A. and stayed for weeks. Before long, the sisters proposed the family brunch. The family hadn’t gathered in a long time.


By then, Michael looked twice his age of forty-three—all bones, covered by bruised and mottled skin, with wispy patches of hair on his head. If his mother and brothers were shocked to see him, they didn’t show it. The brothers came in with fists jammed in their jean pockets. They didn’t hug Michael or even touch him. All morning, the sisters were up and down from their dining-room chairs, bringing out an egg-bake and plates of cinnamon rolls to the table, filling coffee cups, and clearing leftovers for pie. The brothers talked of the growing season and how farming had changed in the years since their father’s death. Mostly they joked, drawing out their mother’s laughter to the point that she had coughing fits. One of her lungs had been removed for cancer, and now the other had it. The family had known loss and soon would know more.


Michael spoke little and ate less. Now and then, he smiled, though seemingly not about anything in particular. His eyes held one person, then another. Grace jumped into family stories, asked questions, and laughed appreciatively. I could not. I was stunned, then furious that nobody asked Michael about himself. Nobody mentioned his illness. They knew he had AIDS, just as they knew he was gay—another secret that wasn’t a secret. Yet, his brothers barely glanced his way.


I was quick to judge Michael’s brothers as cowards. Quick to assume that what Michael needed from them were words. I was certain Michael needed to hear that his family knew him, loved him, and could bear his illness with him. Now, in the second half of my life, I wonder if I was wrong. Maybe Michael didn’t need words as much as he needed his family’s presence. His brothers came as close as they dared at the Sunday brunch. And he welcomed them, though with Grace and me and his sisters at his side. Michael didn’t speak the words: gay, AIDS, dying. He put aside radical honesty in order to receive his brothers’ love as offered. This was more than Jonathan got, and maybe it was enough for Michael. I don’t know. It wouldn’t be enough for me.


Much is expected of those who love the dying, and those expectations are often enough to scare a person away. But my role with Michael seemed limited and clear. At the brunch, I knew my place: the loyal sentinel, bound not by love but by duty. I fumed, but I kept quiet and refused my slice of pie.


When Michael whispered—“Will you help me?”—I was glad for a reason to leave the table. He clutched his cane and gave me his arm. As we shuffled down the hallway, the table talk faded. I expected he wanted to nap.


“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said.


All of my anger at his brothers turned into fear for me. I didn’t want to be afraid, but I was.


AIDS deaths peaked in the United States that year. Within several months, the FDA would approve antiretroviral drugs that would turn AIDS into a manageable, if chronic, disease for many people. But for Michael, like those before him, the diagnosis was a death sentence. We had brochures from the local AIDS Support Network to guide our caregiving since we didn’t have the Internet then. Touching was okay. We knew AIDS was transmitted through blood and semen, as well as vaginal fluids, but not saliva, sweat, or urine. But what if Michael had a cut, an open wound? He had thin skin and bouts of incontinence. When his sisters cleaned him, they wore gloves. Nobody was completely sure how careful to be. I tended toward caution and focused on doing chores and running errands for Michael, not bodily care. Mostly, he and I talked, often about gardening. Grace did more. I held back not only because I was afraid of AIDS. I was afraid to watch a person die. It was my first time.


I opened the bathroom door, and we squeezed inside. Toothpaste and brushes, soap, rubbing alcohol, and creams crowded a shelf above the sink. I guided Michael to a narrow space between the toilet and the tub.


“I need you to help me,” he said.


“Okay, with what?”


“Everything,” he said. He leaned heavily toward me, exhausted.


Why me? That was my first thought. I heard his brothers’ laughter, those men who had grown up with him and had bodies like his. Why not them? Why not the mother who gave birth to him? His sisters? Even Grace? Why did Michael ask me? How did I get here? 


“Okay, so you just need to pee, right?” I asked.


He nodded. I undid his belt, unzipped his fly, let his pants drop to his ankles, and pulled down his underwear.


“Okay,” I said again. But I knew there was more to do. Michael wasn’t steady, and I didn’t want to get wet. What if there was blood in his urine? I wondered if doctors were absolutely sure urine didn’t transmit HIV. If I got AIDS, Grace would be there for me, but not my family—I felt sure of that then, but I didn’t really know. It would be just Grace and me and, as it was with Michael, a few friends. The thought of dying, as Michael was dying, terrified me.


It’s strange how many thoughts can blaze through a mind in a second or two, leaving—one hopes—no outward sign. I did what I needed to do. I held Michael’s penis, aimed at the bowl, shook off the last few drops, and wiped him.


“Thank you,” he said.


The brunch ended soon afterward, and I don’t think his mother or brothers saw him again until his funeral several weeks later. In the weeks between, AIDS-related dementia took over Michael’s mind, slowly at first, then swiftly. When Grace and I came for our shifts during the week, or just to say hello, Michael was always in bed. He’d lost language and could no longer speak with words. But I felt sure we communicated even toward the end.


One rainy day, Grace and I found Michael agitated, rustling on his bed with gym shorts over his diapers. He was as small as a skinny boy, his body was withered and worn.


It was Grace’s idea to put something on the turntable. She thumbed through the dozen or so albums on a shelf, pulled one out, and dropped the needle. She nodded at me and smiled at Michael.


“If I should stay …”  


Michael stopped moving. Grace turned up the volume until Whitney Houston’s voice swelled through the room, through the whole damn house. Grace and I sang along to Michael: “And I will always love you / I will always love you…”


Ardent and loud, we kept singing. I fumbled the lyrics until we returned to the chorus, then I belted it, and Grace did too. “I will always love you.” We twirled at the foot of Michael’s bed. We drew our hands to our hearts, then threw our arms out to him. He flung his arms toward us with glee. His eyes shone. His smile was radiant. His sounds merged with our song. We hugged him, enfolding him, all the while singing. We were happy. I believe we were all happy in that moment.


Grace had to return to work, but I stayed a little longer. I sat on the bed beside Michael, who was half-raised against pillows. I reached for his hand, surprised to feel content. Michael curled onto his side and nudged his head onto my thigh, where he fell asleep.


I wondered then, as I still do, why Michael let me near in his dying days. It’s true that he needed help and I was there. Still, he kept plenty of people out. Maybe his trust in Grace extended to me. Maybe he’d decided I was basically kind. And with me, the stakes weren’t so high. Not like they were with the people he loved, the people he wasn’t sure would come, would stay. It’s the closest ones who have the power to hurt you most. He knew that, and maybe that was reason enough.


I gave Michael so little, and sometimes not enough. At times, he asked more of me than I thought I could bear. That was a gift, but one I didn’t appreciate until years later when friends and my father were dying. Every time, I felt afraid. Every time, a voice told me to run. Still, I showed up. I stayed. I made mistakes. Too often, I said the wrong thing. By the time my father died, I knew that while words matter, you can’t say everything at the end. You don’t have to.


I went to my friends and my father out of love. But love wasn’t what drew me to Michael, and love wasn’t why I stayed through his illness. He might have been at the edge of my circle, but he was there. I went to him as I go to my garden: duty-bound to tend what is in my backyard. That’s how I imagine Michael tended his garden, from shoots through blooms through winter beds at rest. Maybe that is what he and I were doing from the start—tending each other—from those early talks at parties, through the days of his illness, to the end when silence replaced words. I think that’s right. I wonder if Michael knew how much I grew, tended by him.


Sometimes love follows duty. And, as every gardener knows, tending offers its own rewards: the rhythmic turning of soil, pressing seeds, pulling weeds. You pray for sun one day and rain the next, as if you had a say in what lives and what dies.


Announcing the Winner of the Editor’s Prize for Creative Nonfiction

Congratulations to Faith Shearin, our 2023 winner for the Editor’s Prize in Creative Nonfiction! Her essay, “Going Home,” will be available to read in our Spring 2024 issue.

Faith Shearin’s seven books of poetry include: The Owl Question (May Swenson Award), Telling the Bees (SFA University Press), Orpheus, Turning (Dogfish Poetry Prize), Darwin’s Daughter (SFA University Press), and Lost Language (Press 53). Her poems have been read aloud on The Writer’s Almanac and included in American Life in Poetry. She has received awards from Yaddo, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her essays and short stories have won awards from New Ohio Review, The Missouri Review, and Literal Latte, among others. Two YA novels — Lost River, 1918 and My Sister Lives in the Sea — won The Global Fiction Prize, judged by Anthony McGowan, and have been published by Leapfrog Press.



1. My mother leans in to tell me that ghosts are harmless but unequivocally real. Insignificant mysteries add up to a more systemic experience of haunting: family photographs turned on their faces, a mess of shoes rearranged in the shut-up closet, the occasional slammed door. We aren’t old-house people, and the place hasn’t existed for long enough to accumulate a logic for the eeriness that I feel in the bursting back garden, in its aggressive, bright peonies and hydrangeas. Still, someone has a message for us and at times we joke about its contents, our heads bobbing cheerfully, until one day to me it isn’t funny anymore. Then I am no longer five years old. Then my mother retreats to her bedroom, where she clacks away at the loom as though pursuing a kind of domestic exorcism. I pick at the borders of my fingernails, bite gently at my upper lip. The shuttle glides toward home and back again, moving as gracefully over the blue yarn as the boats it’s been shaped to resemble. Otherwise the house is noiseless and I want to sit again in the belly of the fireplace at the front of the minute approximation of a parlor, like I did before it was ours.


2. The woods around Mashamoquet are full of excuses for feeling spooked. Drive the thickly forested roads, which are narrow and curve and dip and open out to brief scraps of lake before plunging again into pine shade, and you begin to understand the narratives of disappeared hikers and eerie bridges and consumptive girls converted by death to ghostly flânerie. It is a gorgeous and a thieved place, this land. Stealing it required fabricated stories of wildness and peril. The mills and factories and fields are where the real history of danger is, the legacy of coveting and stripping bare and building back up in grotesque forms.


3. My first published poem is about a laughing phantom child and is written in 1994, during a year when my mother keeps me away from the small elementary school. I write each line on a clunky desktop computer as an exercise, the keys clicking awkwardly, and save the file to a floppy disk. Submitting the poem to a children’s magazine means printing it out on paper whose perforated edges have to be ripped from the single sheet by hand. Separating the sheet from a piece of itself proves as darkly satisfying as composing the poem in the first place. It ends with a girl my own age falling to the ground in the night, the phantom child close behind her.


4. Homespun ghosts don’t turn out to be at odds with quaint family ritual. My mother hauls me into the yawning box pew, whose panels are dusty in the unfinished light. There seems to be no heat in the bare room, and next time she outfits her one child in a plaid flannel dress with an economical ruffle. The dress is unusual, having been purchased from a store or catalog and not made at home. The size tag reads 6X or 7 or 8. Later we switch to the white Congregational church with a sprawling graveyard, which we attend only sporadically. My mother recalls the denunciations and massacres that propelled our ascetic relations into their two mountain towns. She reminds me that her father’s fifth great-grandfather was a minister. I read and reread Canadian novels about children who recline in pinafores on gravestones and throw stones between them, who unapologetically trample the long uncut weeds, their braids swinging through the warm air. Across the street, someone’s misplaced idea of a cottage looms. Its pink paint is due for a refresh, but even now the colored frontispiece belies what’s inside: the thick, dust-tinted carpets and papered walls. They take preteen students once a year to see it all, pretending for a moment that we’re only tourists and can leave at any time.


5. The Puritans who ran the first homes along the town green refused the prospect of communion with their ancestral spirits. Now Halloween in the stolen colonial village is a singularly fantastic exercise. Like all events that take place at night at the old school, this one requires a trip through unlit and bumpy terrain, the spaced-out houses blinking yellow in the mostly uninterrupted dark. Unlike the other events it calls for a shivering, coatless exit from the warm interior and down the short walk to the little car, the thin excuse for a disguise stretched across your shoulder blades. You are an angel or a witch or a gnome; maybe you are wearing slippers and feel each individual stone in the gravel turnaround beneath the balls of your feet. You hug another child in the shadow of the school doorway, squealing, and your excitement echoes against the trees. You feel charmed, regal – delighted to be somebody else.


6. Our cassette deck is melting hot and plays Nova Scotian folk songs about women submerged in ocean weeds and reborn as spirits in seaside towns. Their daughters run away or choose the wrong lover and see him killed at the hands of a male relative with a penchant for violence. We fall asleep listening to the ballads, which wind and unwind their way through the motionless rooms of the house. That July amid the beach blossoms and the tides my mother becomes nearly childless, my unsuspecting body swept under too large a wave. I am half a ghost in the stale heat of the car on the hour’s drive back from the coast. My mother remembers the sensation of digging her own small belly into the sand. The songs become a sad-sweet refrain on days’ ends that never cool down despite the window thrown open and the fan it swallows up, its cheap plastic still rattling when the sun reappears.


7. I am living in New York City during my mother’s first attempt at suicide. I speak sharply into the phone from underneath the scaffolding that prefaces the door of the donut shop. The street’s exuberant noises compete with the unsubstantial voice of my mother as she describes to me a god who desires that she remain alive. I am not on the next train or the next train or the next. I sit balled in the cramped ceramic tub, lean my kneecaps into the too-warm flow of the tap. In the living room after my mother dies, the evening lights flicker without explanation.


8. The doors in this tiny canal-side apartment are always creaking open and shut. I have already discovered that I am writing about hauntings when it emerges that my three-year-old’s animated television program is also about ghosts. Het is een spook! the voiceover artist shrieks in Dutch as an army of emergency responder vehicles tears down the cartoon street through an exaggerated twilight. I find my sandals carefully stacked, one sitting atop the other, as though waiting for me to notice. My son sits placid, unflappable in the face of our shared myths. The difference between us is that I need them.


Mother Pass

The sensation starts on the red-eye, as we hover sleeplessly over the Atlantic: a faint flutter and then a pulse. The creature’s movements have been perceptible for weeks now, but this is different, diffuse and repetitive with no clear beginning or end.


Across the aisle, an older man struggles to breathe, and the flight attendants sweep toward the glow of his overhead light, fasten an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. One stays beside him, her voice a comforting murmur beneath the plane’s vibrations. His face calms, but the hushed aura of emergency will not dissipate.


My phone dings; it’s time to stand again. Zack leans across the seat to massage my calves. We’re vigilant against blood clots, which, I’ve been warned, could gather strength in the murk of my insides and detonate. Not unlike the creature itself.


Until recently, the pregnancy had been mostly an abstraction. I was thicker around the middle with beautiful, engorged boobs but otherwise physically unchanged. Then, over a few weeks, I’d swollen, expanded, inflamed. My hips became tender things, my legs rebellious, their faulty wiring tripping electric shocks of sciatica. For the first time in my life, my body is armed and dangerous.


“Birth is like the ocean,” a midwife friend said. “Don’t turn your back on it.”



The question of children had been the defining fight of my relationship with Zack. More than anything, he wanted to be a father. But I dreaded motherhood, which seemed like a kind of brainwashing. On social media, old friends changed profile pictures to their children’s faces, as if the women themselves no longer existed. In interviews, famous actors declared motherhood the greatest role they’d ever played, as if children obliterated all achievements, took precedence over all desires. Even my own mother, now an accomplished professor with stints in Siberia and Central Asia, had put off work and travel when my brother and I were young, staying behind while my photographer dad spent the month in Tibet or Bosnia.


I, on the other hand, cultivated an unsettled, underpaid life with myself at the center. I bounced from Oregon to Thailand to Western Mass to DC to Philly, following friends and boyfriends, spending whatever extra money I had on parties and clothes. And why shouldn’t I be the center of my own existence? Men have lived selfishly for millennia and been rewarded for it. From what I’d seen, motherhood was womanhood at its least fun and most societally sanctioned: the useful body, the selfless days, the life of service.


But then I met Zack, a steady partner with a wild, artist’s soul, an uncommon combination. We fell in love, moved in together, built a whole universe of jokes and routines. If I refused motherhood, I’d have to start over without him. The thought was unbearable. After nearly a year of arguments, I’d decided our shared world was worth the many risks of having a child. At least I hoped it was.


I was thirty-five, we were newly married, and I got pregnant the first time we tried, as they say. The months of pregnancy stretched ahead of me, birth looming at the end like a ritual sacrifice. And then motherhood, in which I would be eaten alive by hormones and sleeplessness, reduced to a mere zombie of my previous self.


Travel seemed the only possible answer, the way I’d sought escape since I was young: familiarity sloughed away so only my bright, receptive core remained. Adventure.


Or, in this case, a visit to my brother and his family in Berlin.


The midwives said I could fly up to the thirty-fourth week of pregnancy, and I wanted good weather, so I booked our vacation for early May, my thirtieth week.


“Let’s set up the baby’s room before we go,” Zack had said.


“If he comes that early,” I said, “we’ll have bigger problems than a baby room.”


And now this fluttering pulsing in my gut, unlike any sensation I’ve read about online.



At the top of five interminable flights of stairs, we arrive at our Airbnb. A flustered young woman waits for us. Her father has just died, she explains in English. She canceled her other rentals but forgot ours. She needs a minute to collect her things. Torn between empathy and exhaustion, we follow her inside. I’m not about to surrender our rental after all those stairs. Plus, we don’t have anywhere else to go.


Her nondescript apartment is still strewn with belongings: mail on the table, necklaces on hooks, a cardigan over the back of the Ikea couch. There’s a risqué glamour shot of our host above the kitchen table. But a balcony overlooks the German rooftops. We can see the rough, rebuilt streets we wandered on our only other visit to Berlin, almost exactly a year ago. The overgrown parks where we drank beers in the sun. We could live in this city, Zack and I said then. We talked about it all year.


Finally, our host hands over the keys, and the door shuts behind her. We curl up on the hard couch, my belly against Zack’s back, the relief of arrival a near-physical release. But an hour later, the pulses wake me, more insistent this time.


I slide away from Zack without disturbing him. There’s an early spring chill in the apartment, and he’s wearing his black hoodie and knit beanie. He started going bald as a teenager, and he’s had a shaved head and full beard as long as I’ve known him. Zack isn’t a big man—he likes to say he wears size “smedium”—but he’s broad-shouldered and solid. The sight of him sleeping heartens me; nothing bad can happen when he’s nearby.


I begin researching the pulses on my phone. Google points to harmless “false contractions,” otherwise known as Braxton Hicks. Practice contractions, I read. A tightening that comes and goes. Normal, especially in the second and third trimesters. I take a deep breath; this has to be what I’m experiencing. But how will I know the difference between false contractions and real ones?


Unlike labor contractions, Braxton Hicks are not painful, I read. They do not come at regular intervals and do not become more frequent.


I try to time the pulses to see if they’re coming at regular intervals, carefully noting the start of each on a scrap of paper. But they’re slippery. Where is the border between sensation and no sensation? Our host’s digital clock, in military time like all European clocks, won’t cooperate. My list of numbers doesn’t make sense, refuses to attach to the minutes in this unfamiliar room.


But the sensations aren’t painful, I don’t think, just unpleasant, and I don’t want to be one of those uptight pregnant women who rushes to the hospital at the slightest thing.



Representations of birth are everywhere in pop culture, but they rarely include a satisfactory explanation of what labor actually feels like. The real-life movie we’d watched at the midwifery practice where I planned to give birth was no help either. Naked from the waist down, a woman rocked and sighed while her partner massaged her hips and the midwives moved purposefully around her. But her eyes were closed, and she seemed completely oblivious to her surroundings. I was appalled that anyone would let themselves be filmed in such a state.


The mysteries of the body have always frightened me, its unknowable organs and breakable bones. A troublesome shadow self that operates within me, conducting its own secret, perilous business.


In a yoga training, years ago, the teacher instructed us to embody our endocrine system by lying fetus-like on the floor. Then we were to rise slowly, as if through amniotic fluid, exploring movement with the moist, heavy knowledge of our kidneys and adrenals. As the other women wriggled around me, I found myself frozen with anxiety. What were my kidneys doing in there? And what if they stopped doing it? I had no control over their function or disfunction, and that petrified me.


As a child, my blood pressure spiked for routine physicals, though I rarely suffered even minor illness or injury. My doctors, all women, were mostly kind, but I still hated their touch. Cold fingertips searching for something gone wrong inside me. Proof that my body could contain the ultimate betrayal.


But even more than the exam, I dreaded the ride home, when I’d be trapped in the car while my mother talked about serious things. Woman things. For years, I wished not to get my period until I was older, to put off adulthood just one more year. I must have sensed how once my body was a woman’s body, it would cease to be only mine. I would occupy it, but others would regularly lay claim. Sometimes as an object of adoration. Sometimes an orifice. Sometimes a receptacle for a child.



The Braxton Hicks, if that’s what they are, haven’t worsened by dinnertime, so Zack and I walk the few blocks to Caleb’s co-op, passing kebab shops and knick-knack stores, oases of green tucked between imposing post-war apartment buildings. Caleb lives in one of these, and we cross a ramshackle courtyard to find him waiting for us at the door. My little brother, who at six feet tall is much larger than I am. My brilliant, loving brother, who has known me every day since memories began.


This is the first time he’s seen me pregnant, and I’m self-conscious of my conspicuous femaleness, my body-ness. But he doesn’t comment on my belly, just wraps me in a hard hug.


Caleb’s wife, Michele, and their son are in the kitchen they share with eight anarchist-leaning twenty-somethings. A dirty, inviting space packed with mismatched chairs and sundry dishes, recycled jars with no clear use, labels on everything, a chore chart. The cozy chaos of communal life. Nothing can replicate it.


Michele is American, though she grew up in Germany, which is why they are here. She’s warm and self-possessed with a wide, genuine smile. She and Caleb have been together ten years, so she’s known me through multiple cities, jobs, relationships. I would trust her with my life.


Thirteen months old and small for his age, my nephew is all silky blond hair and blue eyes. The last time we were here, he was six weeks old, a compact bundle of incessant need. It was a few months before our wedding, after which I’d agreed to get pregnant. Finding a baby in such close proximity was a shock.


During that visit, Caleb had worn him on his chest in a complicated wrap that appeared to be just a very long piece of fabric. The baby was hot or he was hungry or he had pooped or he was crying, and Caleb was always taking him off or putting him back on, tying and untying the wrap with its ends trailing on the ground.


Love for my nephew was supposed to come naturally, the way loving my brother did, but I could only see an infant like any other. Except this one would not let Caleb finish his sentences. No conversation was satisfying. No excursion went smoothly. Our time together was chopped up by baby cries and baby needs, and my future flashed before my eyes. But the wedding invitations were sent, my committment to parenthood sealed.



Years ago, I spent a night babysitting a friend of a friend’s son. This wasn’t something I did much, not even as a teenager, and I was exquisitely bored while the evening crept by.


As I was taking the little boy up to bed, he ran to the open window and yelled “Mommmmmyyyyyyy” into the darkness. “I can’t stop thinking about my mommy,” he sobbed when I comforted him.


The intensity of his love repelled me. A burden to be on the other end of all that need. I planned to be a successful writer and a world traveler, a woman who lived by her own rules. How could I have the life I wanted while a child cried for me?


Still, when motherhood was a distant fantasy, I assumed I’d have children someday. I let that assumption drift alongside me for years, a hazy possibility that contained a child.


Then women my age began to have kids. The Facebook feed of baby photos. Friends swallowed whole by their love. I’d never liked children, but I started to hate mothers. They canceled plans for nap schedules. Their conversations revolved around breastfeeding and daycare. What had happened to the brilliant, complex women I’d admired, the ones who were the protagonists of their own stories?



Over dinner with Caleb and Michele, I describe the sensations, but Michele didn’t have Braxton Hicks during her pregnancy and doesn’t know what’s normal. No one seems very worried. My due date is ten weeks away. We’re supposed to be on vacation.


But it’s been hours, and the Braxton Hicks, or whatever they are, won’t go away.


“I think I need to go to the hospital,” I say at last.



Michele, Zack, and I take the U-Bahn to the nearest hospital. Caleb stays with the baby, since Michele’s German is better than his. Through three never-ending subway stops, Zack and Michele small talk while I sink into my body. The contractions are suddenly agonizing, and I can barely keep up as we climb the flights and flights of stairs to the exit. It’s past ten p.m. when we finally emerge at the dark hospital grounds, which are sprawling like a college campus. Michele locates the correct building, and a receptionist asks for my passport through a hole in the window.


At first I can’t find it—If they won’t see me, I will refuse to leave—but thankfully it’s still in my bag from the flight.


“And your Mother Pass.”


“What? I don’t have one of those.”


She frowns. “That is not possible.”


I look helplessly at Michele.


“Here pregnant women get a Mother Pass from their doctors,” she says. “It has all your medical history.” She speaks German into the hole.


The receptionist narrows her eyes but waves us past.


We come to a waiting area with a couch and chairs, glass bottles of sparkling and still water. The hospital is clean and quiet with a pervasive sense of order, more like an office building than an American emergency room. No one else is waiting.


Now that we’re here, the contractions seem further apart, like when your car won’t make that strange sound at the mechanic. After what feels like a long time, a nurse brings us to another room for an EKG.


“They’ll be able to monitor the baby and the contractions,” Michele translates.


On my back, with my belly bearing down on my spine, I hope for contractions, so the machine can record them, and soon they gather strength and roll through, beginning low in the bowels, like intense menstrual cramps and radiating outward, down my legs, up my back. I watch the clock, trying to keep track of them, but the minutes have detached from their numbers again.


Zack and Michele are beside me, but it’s like they’re in another room. Here, the world has shrunk to a pinpoint of panic. I don’t tell them about the contractions; they can’t save me.



In my twenties, I spent six months in Thailand, where I regularly rode helmetless on the back of a friend’s motorbike. With his girlfriend between us, we raced down the unlit highways outside Chiang Mai, late at night, after we’d been drinking. That New Year’s Eve, a different friend and I ordered magic mushroom tea at an island bar, then hitched a ride in the back of a stranger’s pick-up, careening over the dark, potholed roads. Airborne as he accelerated, we clutched each other with the grim clarity that this had been a very bad idea.


Another time, in the US, a boyfriend ordered a research drug from the internet, which arrived in a pile of white powder that we eyeballed into doses. We took the drug camping, where we lit a fire, then wandered into the wilderness until we were utterly lost. The hallucinations illuminated the woods, turning the trees brilliant orange. We hadn’t started a forest fire, but I genuinely couldn’t tell.


In those days, my body was co-conspirator, collaborator. A tool for attracting men and converting drugs and withstanding risk, even with fear humming alongside. What could I take, who could I touch, where could I go to get closer to the yearning, seeking, wanting aflame under my skin. A brush with death here and there felt like part of the deal I’d made to be a girl let loose on the world.


Before Zack and I were married, when motherhood seemed unimaginable, I envisioned myself as that girl again. I saw how my parents would grow old and die. I saw how my brother would be absorbed by his new family. And I would have nothing to which to anchor myself. I would float away. But a child could ensure my place in the sequence. I would take my spot in the human cycle of generations. Better to have that mooring than none at all.


Now my body itself is anchor and threat: soft, vulnerable, contracting.



Unhooked from the machine and back in the waiting area, I’m increasingly desperate. The deep, gut-sick feeling expands and obliterates. Like waves of terrible diarrhea combined with a kind of nausea. Only this nausea does not point up to the throat but down. Inside a contraction, stillness is ludicrous, and I squat, stand, squat again. Though movement does not bring relief, it is my only weapon against the roiling pain.


Michele is about to look for help when a woman calls us into an exam room. Her manner is brisk and dismissive, and she must be a decade younger than I am. I instantly dislike her. But she appears to be the doctor, and she speaks English.


“Where is your Mother Pass?” she asks.


“I don’t have one.”


She’s incredulous. “But you must have a Mother Pass.”


“We don’t in the US.”


“That is impossible. You cannot travel without a Mother Pass.”


“I just don’t have one.”


She eyes me suspiciously. “When is your due date?”


“July 9th.” Today is May 1st.


She doesn’t react, consults the EKG results. “The baby is fine,” she says. “He is not under stress.”


“What about the contractions?”


“They don’t mean anything.”


I stare at her, speechless. I will not leave this hospital.


She speaks to Michele in German, practically rolling her eyes, then instructs me to get on the table for an ultrasound. I do as I’m told, helpless and enraged.


On my back again, in exquisite discomfort, the doctor presses the ultrasound wand hard into my belly.


A second young woman has appeared, a nurse or another doctor, and she draws a curtain between us and Zack and Michele. They tell me to strip from the waist down, but do not offer a sheet or a hospital gown. I have no choice but to bare myself.


Instead of an exam table with stirrups, they direct me to a spread-eagle chair. My thighs rest on movable arms that spread up and apart, exposing and restraining me. Tears run down my cheeks into my ears. They poke and prod and swab indifferently, while I writhe in pain and embarrassment, muted by my sore, defenseless body.


“Stay still,” they say over and over.


“I can’t,” I say. “I’m having a contraction.”


At last, they check my cervix.


“You’re two centimeters dilated,” the first doctor says, surprised.


I could have told you that, I want to scream.


“You will stay here with us.” Her voice is gentler now.


I begin to sob uncontrollably, desperate to get out of the spread-eagle chair.


“Can I come over there?” Zack calls from the other side of the curtain.


His alarm is audible, but I don’t want him to see me in that chair.


The doctor explains what they will do. First, a steroid shot to develop the baby’s lungs. Then a magnesium drip to slow the contractions. “You may be here a couple weeks or more,” she says. “But you will eventually need a C-section because the baby is breech. Do you understand?”




I’m allowed to move from the chair.


“You may not be able to have a vaginal birth in the future after a C-section,” the doctor says. “Do you understand?”


“Yes.” I almost laugh at how little this concerns me.


They pull back the curtain, and Zack rushes to the table where I’m curled with the magnesium IV in my arm. He hugs me, his face wet against mine, his worry and love pulsing through me. I matter to this person.


Then the worst contraction hits, and I’m pinned moaning beneath it. They say women don’t remember the pain of labor, but I will. I will replay the experience over and over, so I won’t forget, so I can tell people. But even though my memories will be clear, the words will never be right.


The doctors must be sufficiently alarmed, because they check my cervix again. I’ve gone from two to nine centimeters dilated in twenty minutes, a process that usually takes hours.


“The baby has to come out now,” the first doctor says.



I’m a body on a gurney, wearing only my T-shirt, rolling through hospital hallways. Strange faces speak above me.


“Can I have something to cover me?” I ask.


The faces seem startled. I’m given a sheet, but it’s folded in a tight square.


Soon we’re in the bright operating room.


“Stay still,” is all they say in English.


An impossible request as the contractions rage through me.


Everywhere hands are on me, swabbing, prepping, holding down my legs. These hands are an invasion, and they will save my life.


One of the faces removes its mask, leans close. “I’m the surgeon,” says a woman, calm and serious. “We strongly recommend a C-section, but if you want you can try to birth vaginally.”


I’m confused and horrified. “No. C-section!”


“So you agree?”




Next the anesthesiologist materializes at my side. His eyes are kind. “We don’t have time for an epidural,” he says. “We will use general anesthesia.”


I know this means my situation must be very serious.


He asks questions that seem crucial. Do I have medication allergies? Are there heart conditions in my family?


I search my mind for the right answers. “Caffeine gives me heart palpitations.”


“Has it ever caused you to have a heart attack?”


“No, just anxiety.”


He laughs, a comforting, human noise.


I want to tell him not to let me die, but even saying those words feels like a curse. “Take good care of me.”


“I will,” he says.


Last, a woman grasps my hand. “I’m the midwife,” she says. “I’ll be looking after your baby.”


I had practically forgotten the baby; in this moment it is of no consequence to me.


The anesthesiologist puts the mask over my face. “You may feel warm.”


Instead, cold spreads down my throat, and the world blinks off.



This is when the body becomes just a body. It still wears my jewelry, has my face and unruly hair. They cut it open, take the creature out, sew it back up. The surgeon’s long hands tighten the skin, seal the body closed. Then they dress the body in mesh underwear, an oversized pad for the blood. At last they cover the body and wheel it away.



I wake up in the recovery room, delirious with drugs and gratitude. I’m alive alive alive.  Zack, Michele, and Caleb surround me, laughing; I’ve said something funny. My good fortune is overwhelming, life unbearably sweet. The creature is expelled, my body uninhabited, released from its sentence as vessel, repository, container. The sacrifice has been made and yet here I am, whole on the other side.


But above my pubic bone, a bright wound burns, the skin around it numb.


In a few days, I will leave this hospital, so exhausted that Zack will push me in a wheelchair for a week. But months later, scanning myself critically in the mirror, even I will see that this new body, once cut open and sewn shut, is nearly indistinguishable from the old body, the one that, barely tethered, pitched carelessly through the world. That white line above my pubic bone will seem a small price to pay for this body.


And my son? Red and little and too young to be angry, he’s taken to the NICU, attached to tubes and monitors. For four weeks he will drift there, mostly asleep, a tiny uncertain presence. In six weeks, he will be released from the hospital, and in ten weeks, he’ll be cleared for the long, long-awaited flight home. Will I love him? Slowly, yes. But this is not his story.



I can’t recall my childhood without thinking of Boy Meets World. I felt like I grew up with Cory, Shawn, and Topanga, and while all my girl friends wanted to be Topanga or Angela, I desperately wanted to be Shawn. I kept this information to myself, somehow knowing without explicitly knowing that there was something taboo about a girl wanting to be a boy. With his pouty lips, sensitive heart, and swoon-worthy hair, what wasn’t to love about Shawn Hunter? You could say I had an approximation of a crush on him—most days I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be him or be with him, although if I could manage to shed the layers of societal influence that told me I was supposed to like boys, I knew the true answer. I can clearly recall one episode in which Shawn stands in the middle of the school hallway and does his infamous hair flip, which makes girls come running. “I got a 30-foot range,” he brags. I, too, wanted that power.


Growing up, my neighbor, Kristine, had short, spiky hair. She wore baggy jeans and t-shirts and backwards hats. I didn’t really like her—she was mean to me and my friends—but occasionally we invited her to play football or baseball because she was big and tough. One day, we were playing touch football when Kristine, having gotten angry about a play, tackled our neighbor, Donald, a skinny, pretty boy who I was convinced I would one day marry. After we yelled at her for tackling in a no-tackle game, we took a break and drank Gatorade and ate cheese crackers under the sun. I think we were all hoping Kristine would go home, but she didn’t. She sidled up next to me and said, “I wish my name was Justin.” “Okay,” I said. I’d never heard of anyone changing their name before. I’m not sure I’d even known it was possible. Having always hated my name, I was intrigued. Marisa seemed too girly for me. I wanted a rough-and-tumble name, like Hunter, I wouldn’t have minded Hunter. A name that suited me.


On the surface, Shawn is a player or a heartbreaker—that’s the idea we’re fed for many seasons. He gets a reputation for being a great kisser, the type of guy who won’t commit, but in reality, he is sensitive and romantic and dreamily vulnerable. When he begins a relationship with a classmate, Angela, I fell for the idea of becoming Shawn in a whole new way. Not only did I want to attract girls, but eventually, I wanted to find one that I loved fiercely, one who would love me back. As a 10-year-old, this felt insurmountable.


I went home after the football game and thought about Kristine and what she’d meant when she said she wanted to change her name. Did she want to be a girl named Justin or did she want to be a boy? Was she unhappy as a girl? Had she shared her desire with anyone else? She’d been so forthcoming, proud, even. If she felt ashamed, I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know how she could be so confident. I was scared of my desires, let alone how others would react if they ever learned of them.


As a young child, I role-played with myself in the basement. I pretended I was Shawn. Of course, my hair never did flip like his. The closest I came to mimicking his hair was in seventh grade when I started growing out my bangs, which had hidden my forehead acne. Once they were long enough, I’d part them down the middle so that they’d curl around my face like his. I’d stand in front of the mirror and pout my lips and run my hair through my bangs. I’d pose how the heartthrobs on my bedroom wall posed—one hand behind my head, the other lifting up my shirt to show off my stomach.


Thirteen-year-old me really, really wanted abs, along with that V hip cut the girls were always fawning over. Thirty-year-old me still does.


I wondered if everyone else felt as confused as I did by what they saw in the mirror every day.


Because my bedroom wall was covered in posters of ’90s heartthrobs, my parents probably assumed I was straight. And I’m certain it never occurred to them that I was anything other than a girl. People like my parents don’t think that way. They think in what they can see, in what information is available to them. What I never told them was that the Shawns and the Leos and the Brads and the Ryans and the Pauls and the JTTs of the world did nothing but provide me with a blueprint for how I wanted to be: beautiful, charming, and masculine, but not too masculine. Masculine in a soft, delicate way.


Of course, none of this—my sexuality or gender identity—was in the forefront of my mind at the time. It was more like an itch that I could never scratch. I knew something was there, but I didn’t understand its origin, what its presence meant for me and my life. I knew that Kristine’s very existence disturbed me but not for the usual bigoted reasons, no, these reasons were of the creepy-crawly type.


Kristine never mentioned her desire to change her name ever again, yet every time I saw her, I had only one thought: “Justin.” I was terrified of my obsession with this single detail. I was convinced everyone could sense my covert desires—so much so that I often shared other people’s secrets in order to divert attention away from mine. I remember telling my mom about how Kristine wanted to change her name. I’d thought it would shock her, but she hardly reacted. She said something along the lines of, “She’s a bit different, huh?” then changed the subject. Different than who? I wanted to ask.


Throughout middle school and high school, I’d log on to AIM and wait for girls I had crushes on to come online, although I didn’t think of them as crushes but rather, close friends—not best friends, I had those, and I didn’t think about kissing them or touching them in the dark, but close friends I’d made more recently, ones I’d sought out for one reason or another. I had a lot of buddy alerts set up. [Redacted] has just signed on, AIM would alert me, with the sound of a door opening. I’d spend all night talking to these girls, not understanding why my pulse quickened whenever they complimented me.


The older I got, the more ashamed I felt of desires I was convinced no one else shared. I didn’t understand how I would ever become like Shawn Hunter. The closest I could get was to try to make boys like Shawn Hunter like me, as if by becoming the object of their affection I could then transform into them. I didn’t like the boys, but I did like how powerful I felt when I gave them head and then ignored them. “You’re not like other girls,” they all said.


“Because I’m not a girl at all,” I would have said, if I’d had access to that part of myself.


One night, I slept over at the house of one of my “close friends.” She didn’t tell me she intended for us to sneak out and go to a bonfire, so I wore my usual: basketball shorts and a t-shirt, my hair rolled into a bun. It was how I felt more comfortable, yet I knew guys didn’t find this style particularly attractive. When I arrived, we drank some rum then snuck out to the woods. My friend ditched me for some guy, but luckily, a nice guy sat down next to me and flirted with me all night while I drank. At the end of the night, he asked me on a proper date. Still trying to convince myself that I was straight, I went out with him a few nights later. I made sure to wear my hair down and dress “feminine.” When I showed up to the golf course, he said, “Wow, you look amazing. See, I told the guys you didn’t always look how you did at the bonfire.” He seemed to think this was a compliment.


I’d always thought I identified with Shawn because I was gay—I liked girls, that made sense—but it wasn’t that easy, there was something else lurking beneath the surface. Shawn, in all his bad boy glory, was not that much of a bad boy. He wasn’t macho, he didn’t work out (except for that one episode when Cory convinced him it was “what men do”), he was comfortable showing his love for his best friend. He lived in that liminal space between feminine and masculine, the one I also lived in. Do live in. I didn’t want to be a girl, but I also didn’t want to be a boy. I just wanted to be me. I wanted to like what I like—sports and lions and dachshunds and books and Dr. Pepper and writing poetry and making home movies with my friends.


My best friends and I spent hours and hours filming music videos. I played Justin Timberlake and Eminem. I wore my friends’ brother’s clothes, stuffed my hair into a hat. When the music played and my friends danced around me in tube tops and Soffe shorts, I slouched my pants, held my crotch, walked around the room like I owned the place. And it’s not even that I demanded to play these roles—it was a deeper understanding among all of us that it was the role I filled best. It makes me wonder if my friends saw me better than I thought.


Some of my favorite episodes of Boy Meets World are when Shawn and Angela fall in love. Initially, they date for two weeks, and then Shawn breaks up with her because he has a two-week rule. He’s afraid of commitment. Not long after, he finds a purse containing a book of sonnets, a ticket stub to a Van Damme movie, kiwi lime lip balm, and a classical music CD. He becomes infatuated with “purse girl.” He listens to the CD, reads the book of sonnets, and carries the purse with him everywhere he goes. When Cory tells him he hung up a lost-and-found sign and someone called, Shawn is too scared to meet her. He says, “This feeling is so incredible. I just want to hold onto it for as long as possible.” He describes seeing the pain on his father’s face every time a woman walks out on him. He doesn’t want that to happen to him. If he continues life as it is, he can romanticize purse girl and never have to confront the actual person behind these items. Of course, he finally gets up the courage to meet with purse girl, and she has a boyfriend. Later, Cory and Topanga realize that Angela had been borrowing this girl’s purse, and the contents of the purse actually belonged to Angela—his dream girl turned out to be the girl he’d just dumped. Shawn is, as it turns out, a bit of a lesbian. Once he realizes purse girl is Angela, he’s too nervous to call her. He says he doesn’t know where he’d start. When Cory suggests he starts with, “Hello,” Shawn says, “That’s too risky, Cory, it would probably come out, I want to have your children!”


I know what Shawn means: the first rec league basketball game I showed up to, I laid eyes on my future-wife and knew I was a goner. I was afraid to speak to her for fear of giving myself away. She was sexy in an aloof way. I wanted to make her mine. I also wanted to make ten thousand babies with her.


Years later, my wife asked me, “What do you want Wilder to call you? Should we just be Mom and Mama?” “No,” I said. “I don’t want to be called any version of Mom.” I told her I have been researching nonbinary parenting terms, but I didn’t like any of them. “We can make up our own,” she said. Our Australian friend calls me Marzy, which I love, but children often struggle with their R sounds, so we decided Wilder will call me Mozzy. Mozzy fits. Mozzy feels warm and snuggly, not too masculine and not too feminine.


Today, for the first time, I hold my hand to my wife’s belly and feel Wilder’s soft kick. “Hi, my name is Mozzy,” I whisper. “Nice to meet you.”



From Knowing to Unknowing

An Earlier Life, by Brenda Miller
Ovenbird Press, 2016
174 pages, paper, $14.95

Winner, 2017 Washington State Book Award in Memoir



In her most recent collection of essays, An Earlier Life, Brenda Miller examines the rich assortment of previous lives she has come through on her way to the life she currently inhabits. “In an earlier life,” she begins, “I was a baker in a bakery on a cobblestoned street. I woke early, in the dark, to do my work . . . In the quiet, I brought something to life.” The image of Miller kneading dough in the quiet hours of morning bringing something new into being is reminiscent of her work as a writer, and she delivers a breathing work of art between the pages of this book.


In “Who You Will Become,” Miller reflects on a sign which always hung in the front hallway of her childhood home, the Hebrew letters for Shalom with its multiple meanings—hello, goodbye, welcome, good and peace. She explains, “In Hebrew, the word for God means, “I am what I am becoming.” This presence is always imminent, always evolving. When we say Shalom, we are in the midst of this transition: hello, goodbye, turning to face the past and future at once.”


With that, she begins a candid examination of her life beginning in childhood and adolescence, through her early adult years and into a time of reconciliation and healing. The theme that one thing—a word, an object, an event—can carry more than one meaning, echoes throughout the book.


Miller’s close observations illuminate the remarkable contained within the commonplace, making the scenes dance on the page, and readers can’t help but pay closer attention to their own surroundings. “In Alaska, you understand how light is now a substance of its own making—tactile, with particles and waves and something else. You understand how light finds the least pinhole and expands.” With these opening lines of “Understand,” readers are suddenly more aware of the light that plays around them. Miller’s vivid account of her physical world brings the geography of the readers’ own into sharper contrast.


Later, in the essay “How to Get Ready for Bed,” she renders the mundane task of shopping for a new mattress into a work of art, a study of all the mattress represents: sleep partners past and future from boyfriends to pets, sanctuary and isolation, and the best description of insomnia I’ve read. “It’s as if you’re afraid of something, but you don’t know what. Maybe you’re afraid of that moment you slip from knowing to unknowing—the moment you’re with your unpartnered self alone.”


Yet not afraid to be vulnerable, Miller allows us to enter the places she stalled, consider decisions that led to trouble or heartache, and experience the consequences of missteps. Even so, she doesn’t neglect to shine a light on the beauty contained in even the darkest places. In “Beloved,” an essay tense with the possibility of violence, Miller describes a day boating on a desert lake with her boyfriend. He’s drinking and flaunting the fact that he could do her harm, that she’s defenseless. The stakes rise when he steers the boat into a secluded cove, “A place,” she writes, “that in any other time, with any other person would be a romantic picnic spot.” Juxtaposed against the visceral sense of mounting danger is this description of her surroundings: “This cool air in the desert, over the water. It’s a land of contradiction, the light bright and subdued at once. You can motor along the wide expanse of the lake, find a small canyon to enter and look for the hanging gardens: plants growing high above the waterline, gaining foothold and flourishing on bare rock, while beneath you—far beneath—a ghost garden mirrors the one above.”


By age eighteen Miller writes in “L’Chaim,” she no longer attends synagogue, but there is a thread running through these essays that suggests a search for spiritual meaning—a desire to understand how each of her ‘earlier lives’ contributed to the full spectrum of her life as a whole. Miller carefully considers each remembrance as if she’s turning them over and over in her hands to consider every plane, seeking the places where light shines through.


As co-author of the craft book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, it’s no surprise that Brenda Miller’s writing is exceptional. Many of her essays are written in second person. Speaking directly to readers in this manner, she calls them to walk alongside her, to share in each choice that moves her to the next experience. A life unfolds full of music and grit and danger. The beauty, and the pain, and the wonder on her journey toward wholeness becomes their own, a life shared.


In the epilogue, “We Regret to Inform You,” readers are treated with an outstanding example of a hermit crab essay—a term coined by Miller and co-author Susan Paola in Tell It Slant. In the form of rejection letters, she highlights a string of her ‘failures’ at various roles and relationships—with her elementary art teacher to the babies she lost in miscarriages to her grad school boyfriend, and finally, an acceptance letter from a pet adoption organization. The letters are bittersweet, sometimes funny, and always insightful.


Miller’s ability to turn angst into art, to interpret the ordinary with extraordinary clarity is unmatched. Her work wakes up the senses—external and internal—and will resonate with readers of poetry, as well as prose. An Earlier Life sings to readers, and they can’t help but hum its tune while going about their own tasks. Like bite-sized treats, readers can consume these essays one taste at a time, or in a decadent cover-to-cover feast—the perfect balance of savory and sweet.