Monday, July 23, 2007

TIMEX by Billy Herman

When the Mets lost at 11:30 I looked at my watch and it said 9:30 and I thought who cares? Who cares about me? Certainly no one evil. No one with bad intentions. Not one who has singled me out with special interest.

I used to have a green Timex I was very fond of. It matched the blue shirt I was very fond of, and both items matched the woman I was thrilled by.

The green watch first broke and then was lost, the shirt got old and was given away to our family friend Leon Scutt, and the woman never took my infatuation seriously so I let her slide.

The power of letting go is called sanity, and it is not to be confused with apathy. Apathy is when you can’t keep up with all the things you care about so you just give up. Like if I cared about the watch, the shirt, and that woman so much that I stopped tying my shoes.

The first two things to maintain are your mind and your body. The old composition of particular watch, shirt, and woman had its time and that time has passed, no matter what time my watch says.

And I’ve reached the point where I don’t doubt my mind. The infatuation was a fine length and a wonderful power struggle between obsession and freedom.


A long-time member of the Authentic Writing workshops, Billy Herman has a degree in English Literature from Bard College and wrote the detective comedy novel “Joe Poughkeepsie” in 1994, published by the Gortday Review, a San Francisco zine. Billy dances -- swing, zydeco and salsa -- interprets the blues on piano and has acted in short films by NYU grad school film majors including Don’t Turn To Sports for Warmth by Brian Loatnan.

IT'S ALL OVER by Judy Benatar

I bit into a crisp, sweet cherry and walked out into the woods with the dogs, grateful anew for the sanctuary of that park-like piece of ground, the comfort of its ancient boulders and perpetual spring that never freezes in winter and is never less than full, even in times of drought.

Henry found this place - our old, modest, sturdy house that dates back to 1905. It would only be later, when we began to truly appreciate where we were, that we bought the extra land behind the house to keep it safe and protect our privacy - even then not fully comprehending that we had assumed guardianship for what many Native Americans (and two coincidental visiting Chinese masters of chi) would immediately recognize as sacred space.

For me, that recognition would come much later, when things went dark, and I felt like my essence was about to dissolve, sensed my very cells vibrating with the effort to remain coherent and connected, and it really did seem that all was over. Only then would I learn about the sanctity of that space. It healed me, at first outside of my conscious awareness; then, with glimmers here and there and more willing participation.

Now, almost a decade beyond that trauma, that pile of evil ashes, I look back at that time and what has transpired since then - and in spite of the grime and guts of events I would have said I would never survive if I’d seen them coming, I find that the mystery has deepened and grown more compelling – and now I’m not sure I believe that all is ever over. There are endings, for sure, pain, loss, death - but there is also change and transformation, even at those times when I am narrowed and dulled and blind to the shifts in the wind and the rearrangement in atoms.

Henry got up out of a sick bed, with a fever of 102, to find this place. He called me where I was working in the Manhattan and said, “I’m going to find a motel and get some sleep. Do you think you can drive up and meet me here? – I think it’s pretty special.”

In November of 1976, we moved in and sat on a comfortable, dilapidated sofa the previous owner had left behind, watching the stars through the sliding glass doors, while we, in turn, were watched by at least a dozen voyeuristic raccoons, drawn by new activity in the vacant house. There were two or three masked faces pressed against every window and door in the long, empty room.

Our daughter, Anna, was born in October of the following year. I felt her moving inside me, as I climbed along a path my woodsman neighbor, Bob, had mowed through his soft, mountain meadow. When she was old enough to laugh with delight, he took her for rides on his tractor, holding her safe against his faded work clothes with one calloused hand, while the other steered the machine, his gaze closer and more of this earth than haunted by the faraway look he usually wore when resting on the hoe he used every day to keep the ditches clear in our long, shared driveway.

It was a gift, a blessing, to know him, tough, grizzled, irreverent, often foul-mouthed, eagle-eyed, and humbled by the wisdom he had gathered through his pores in the passing of seventy-odd years. He got out of his truck in a blizzard, where we’d been stuck for an hour on a steep incline, lay on his back in the snow and ice, and hooked up the ill-fitting chains on our car to work well enough to get us up the mountain to our house, next door to his through some trees. He brushed aside our thanks, but came in for a whiskey, before heading home. He might well have saved our lives that day, since traffic on the mountain is sparse, even in better weather. As he left to head home, Bob tipped his hat to me and said to Henry, who had been fumbling at the fireplace to make him feel welcome, “Next time I might stop by and show you how to make a fuckin’ fire. You sure won’t get one started the way you’re goin.’ Ain’t easy moving from the city to the sticks.”

Bob died before Anna reached three, leaving me bereft and struggling to explain to a toddler what that meant. I didn’t know.

We would go through more deaths in our lives on the mountain, each of them a blow, and then Anna and I would watch Henry tumble into an inner hell that would eventually threaten even our physical safety. Towards the end of that time, I had to ask him to leave the house. The three of us loved each other, but in the long run, it wasn’t enough to buoy or distract him from the pit that swallowed him up. When he died, that was one of the times when I thought it must be all over, but I was still in a place, where I was mistaking the part for the whole. I think that’s a common thing to do, part of the human condition.

Each time I venture into the woods, the whole is there to consider in the comfort of those huge stones, the oak that resembles a sea fan, the small green frog that stares up at me from a spring that is always full and never freezes. It will be my birthday in a couple of days. Maybe I’ll sit out there with this bittersweet ache and act like I belong, even though it’s clear I’m just passing through.

Judy Benetar was a practicing psychiatrist for many years, specializing in the treatment of traumatic abuse. She now lives with three dogs and a cat on a windswept mountain, does Tai Chi, and enjoys the wildlife, the weeds and all shifts in the weather.

Monday, July 2, 2007

REMNANTS RECOVERED, TRACES RESTORED (for Jasvinder) by Julia Lynn Butterfield

Yesterday I came across your Spanish book fallen behind a shelf, the one you’d nicked from the Jawaharlal Nehru University Library in Delhi, and left with me in London before heading off to El Salvador. Inside were some folded crib notes, written in your beautiful scrawled hand—so familiar to me, yet exotic looking, like Farsi or Urdu—speaking decades later of your optimism, passion, and sense of militant dedication. I couldn’t bear to look at it at first; I re-closed the book with its alluring promise: “Essentials of Mastery.” It felt like a time capsule. I wiped it gently with a soft cloth and left it on the blue kitchen chair.

I often think of the bent brown book of Neruda’s memoirs you gave me when we first met, and wish I could put my hands on that. But that one was left behind accidentally in Calcutta and could never be recovered.

I’m curious about this recent impulse of mine, to recover the traces of you, to think about what my longing for you interrupted and impeded, yet at the same time set in motion—Manuel in San Francisco, Carlos Sarandeses in northern Spain—and now I’ve had the option to check back in with both. But our young love is unmatchable…


AUTHOR BIO: Originally from California, Julia Butterfield grew up surrounded by art worlds--high and low, local and international. She went on to live, study and do field work as an anthropologist across Europe and in India. Now director of a college writing center in Manhattan, Julia lives in Brooklyn and takes passionate advantage of all the film and art the city has to offer. She writes of romance and tragedy, of everyday events and more exotic ones.

CRASH by Elena Batt

Sometimes your past follows you around like a shadow, or in the shadows, waiting just around the corner or in the basement so that you turn suddenly and come face to face with it. Your old self and your new self stop abruptly and stare not speaking into the void between you.

Last summer when I moved to Saugerties I was only vaguely aware of the horseshow grounds. And then me and my husband and my dog went to check it out. What were the chances? I thought as wandered through the lanes between the temporary barns. But I knew they’d be there and they were. My old trainer and his wife, and their son who was about the same age I was when I first started riding with them. And I saw myself as they must see me, then and now, and those judgments follow whenever I walk past the deserted barns, covered with snow, and now that it’s summer again I simply avoid them.

My saddle was in the basement and I’m cleaning it in preparation for tomorrow’s ride. The nylon case which is lined with synthetic sheepskin is moldy and I’m alarmed to find that the saddle is ensconced in three different colors of mold, white, green and a rust color that turns the sponge the color of old blood. I’m sitting on the floor of the kitchen, cradling my saddle as I clean it. A Hèrmes, made in France, that carried me for so many years. We’re becoming acquainted again, straps and flaps and the worn places, grimy spots. It cleans up real good.The next morning I’m zipping on my blue suede chaps. A sixteenth birthday present. They were custom made and my initials are in needlepoint on the back strap. And they still fit.

Alison’s friend just finished telling me that the horse I’m riding today is a little crazy. Not malicious crazy, just a little green. I may have a fancy French saddle and custom chaps but it’s been ten years since I rode regularly. I just gulp and try to savor the sensation of fear.

It’s just me in the woods with my new friends and this horse. My sportsbra is digging into me because my tits are so much bigger than they were then and it’s only been 15 minutes and I have saddle sores already but this here today is an act of defiance. We skirt a field, rushing by the trees and my body is lightning, everything is coming back to me: balance, contact, effortless communication. Everything rushes back into me and we are going too fast. Sit up straighter. I try not to hear that cold voice coming over the swamp that I can barely make out through the woods. You’re a fucking disaster. You’re going to ruin that horse. I wanted them to be my parents. I whittled away at myself to become accepted, acceptable. The whites of my eyes were always showing. We’re jumping fences now. Fuck you! I’m jumping fences with everything you taught me, running away with it and the image of you kicking that dog and your rages, we’re clearing them, jumping clean over them and I’m still on.

I see wild turkeys running through the woods out of the corner of my eye. Awkward and ugly. Bailey, the mare I’m riding, always has to be in front of the other horses and she’s stubborn about it so I let her stay ahead. She trots and jogs impatiently and I let her have her way just enough to keep her content. You almost never had mares in the barn back then, you didn’t like them. Too moody and bitchy.

We lose the trail which is marked with orange ribbons. I’m in front so I’m supposed to spot them but they fly by too quickly. It feels like we’re going in circles and we hear the sound of shotguns in the distance. They’re getting closer. Run, turkeys, run, and now we’re all running and singing, too, so the hunters hear us.

We find the trail which leads us by the swamp again, maybe on the other side now and the woods are thick. The cruelest things you ever did to me lie at the bottom of that swamp. The time you gave me a leg up and said I was like a sack of potatoes. I was supposed to jump up as light as a feather so you hefted me over so hard that I flew over the horse and landed in the dust on the other side. To teach me a lesson. Or when my father sold my beloved horse Abby before I went to college. Is yer dad happy? chimed your Irish accent. I bet he’s so happy, was your response to my despair. I was in love with you for a time, your dark hair and muscular shoulders, the way you sat on a horse’s back. A crush. I became a machine, and all the points and ribbons and championships and even the praise I could only meet with a wooden smile. I think I had finally become as close to perfect as I could be, almost invisible.

There are two log fences in front of us and I’m game. Bailey clears the first one and my reins are too loose after landing, my legs still coming back into position. She’s distracted by something in the woods. I’d noticed this tendency of hers earlier, maybe she was daydreaming. She’s not paying attention to the jump ahead of us and swerves left sharply. She saw something, maybe she saw you and your cold blue eyes waiting there by the swamp. By the time I realize what’s happening it’s too late, I’ve lost my balance, the saddle slips, something is pulling me down. I hit the earth like a stone, like something dead, as if the weight of the past came crashing down on top of me. I hear snapping sounds and hope that it’s not me, that it’s branches.

Quickly instinct takes over, I get up mumbling assurances to my companions and walk unsteadily over to Bailey, approaching her slowly so she doesn’t run away. She’s standing by the banks of the swamp, staring out across the gray and yellow emptiness. My saddle has slipped and I unbuckle the girth to fix it but my right arm isn’t working properly. And then the lesson you engraved in my soul prevails: that weakness is unacceptable and pain inevitable. I right the saddle and remount and we head home. I’m less trusting. I make Bailey jump more fences to reassure us both. But she’s bored and tired and wants no more of this, wants to be in her stall munching hay. Misbehaving now, pulling me like a rag doll, my hands blistered, shoulder pounding, drenched in sweat, no longer in control. I’m thinking about the fact that I have to be at work at 2 and that I’m not going to make it.

That last summer before I went to college and after I sold my horse I worked for you as a groom to earn some money and started riding again, riding your horses. After one particular afternoon of dust and sweat and shouting I found excuses not to ride anymore, staying on the ground, feeding and mucking. Still your temper snaked out like the lash of a whip until finally during a long silent truck ride home from a horse show I told you, “After this summer I’m never going to work for you again.”

“Ah, you’re just tired,” you said, irritably.

And I was, I was so tired on that ride home until finally we came out of the woods and even though I was hating it, battling with Bailey, fighting just to stay on and feeling broken beyond repair, still, despite everything, I had risen out of the shadows.

* * *

AUTHOR BIO: For three years Elena Batt ran away with the Big Apple circus, traveling up and down the east coast in a unique world that often appears in her writing. She lives now with her husband Adam -- whom she met on the road -- and her pets Java and Saffron in Saugerties, NY and is the Box Office Manager at The Fisher Center at Bard College. Writing and the arts have always been her passion and lately she is allowing her own art to flourish and take center stage.