The bread is done. It was delicious.

Tonight, I was kneading some bread dough, and it was just such a simple and pleasant thing to be doing. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed with this feeling, like my chest was swelling and I was dizzy. For no particular reason at all, I was struck by where I’ve been and where I am.

My throat aches because I’m thinking about the people in my life and the things I’ve been able to do. I’m amazed that Shirley​, the light of my life, has been with me for a decade and will be for all of the decades coming. I’m amazed that Benjamin​ is so smart and talented, that we both made it, and he’s going to college in about a month. I’m amazed that I have a partner and a group of friends who are all so wonderful and impressive as people, and who make me feel supported and loved. I’m amazed that I have family who I know are rooting for me, including biological family and family that stuck with me just because they’re good, generous people and we love each other. I’m amazed that there are people through work and school who have helped me and encouraged me so that I have work that I am honestly proud of, from poems and stories and scripts, to a class I taught and presentations I’ve given and awards I’ve won (if it sounds like I’m bragging, I am). I’m amazed that I’ve met so many cool people who I could go on adventures with, whether it was exploring abandoned places, playing spooky games, talking at the bar about nonsense, cooking out, or whatever. Every single one of you are so important.

There was a time when I wanted to die. I tried to make it happen. I was trapped, and I thought that life was going to go a certain way for me. I used to wake up and the first thing I felt was a weight on my chest that was the burden of making it through one more day and knowing that there was another one that would follow. Most of the time, I was tuned out, just trying to get through whatever was going on. Now, even when it’s hard to get out of bed, I know that there are still things to look forward to. I don’t want to die. It has only been in the past few years that I actually  started feeling scared of dying and missing out on more time here with all of you.

There are a lot of days where I feel grey and muted. More often than I’d like, I have a very hard time feeling present. Sometimes I have to get away from everyone and hold onto something solid until everything feels real and safe again. Sometimes I feel so blank-slate that I can’t even pick out clothes or taste my food. But every now and again, I get a day like this. Life feels hopeful and furnished (not sure if that’s a fitting word, but it feels good to me). I know I won’t always feel this way, so I want to make a kind of record that I do right now. I know that there are still hard times coming. Crappy things are going to happen, but I can deal with them now. I know that all of the good things in my life won’t keep me from feeling like existential mashed potatoes for a good chunk of the time, but I am thankful for them no matter what.

If I die (condition of mortality still inconclusive), I want my loved ones to know that I was really happy. No matter how it happens or what crud I’ve been through in my life, I have been really happy with how everything turned out. I hope you all have a lot of days like this.

I donked it up a little bit, but it's still pretty tasty.
I donked it up a little bit, but it’s still pretty tasty.


Some thangs for your thangs

About once a month, I hear the scary danger theme song from The Sims in my head. You know, the one that plays when a burglar gets in? It comes when I feel that little twinge in my lower back. It’s like a poop cramp, but with more dread, and then it builds to cataclysmic levels. If that doesn’t tip me off, it’s the inexplicable rage I am overwhelmed with when my internet is being slow, or food burns my mouth, or the wind blows on me. Or maybe it’s the dizzy spells that leave me clinging to walls and stair rails like some 1920s distressed starlet.


Talking about periods, y’all. The old menses.

I know it’s supposed to be a fact of life that people with uteruses have periods, but I find myself asking, “How is this still happening? It’s 2015. Why isn’t there an option to make this stop?”

I mean, I know about birth control pills. I was on them from ages 14-21. I started taking them because my periods were so bad that I missed school and even blacked out occasionally. You know, how you do sometimes. They helped with the cramps, and it felt like a miracle to have only four periods a year, but all magic comes with a price.

I still had extreme mood swings. Every time my period came, my depression would swallow me up, and sometimes last for a few months. My sex drive was fairly low. I had migraines. What pushed me to go off of them though was when I heard that taking birth control could double the chance of a stroke for people who are already at risk, which I am, hereditarily speaking. The day I got my tubal ligation (a story for another time), I went off of them.

For the first six months, the periods either didn’t come or came whenever they gosh dang pleased. The duration ranged from two days to two weeks. They’ve evened out now, and I’m back to a regular grueling 10 day event. That’s including the part where I’m not bleeding, just having migraines and weeping for no apparent reason, and the final throes that feel suspiciously like there’s a little skeleton janitor in there scraping the last bits away with its bone hands.

(In response to my complaints about the uterus’ nonsense, a friend once told me to be thankful for the uterus because it holds up my organs. You know what else could do that? An old juice carton. A miniature bird bath. A computer speaker. A Wii-mote.)

Some might say that there are too many options out there for this much complaining. Some might get an enthusiastic middle finger from others. The pill isn’t always an option, and even when it is, it doesn’t always help with everything. A hysterectomy is a pretty serious surgery (though I’ve considered it while lying upside down on the couch with my head between my knees). Endometrial ablation is an option for people who either don’t plan to or are no longer able to have children, but it’s not guaranteed to stop your period. Don’t even get me started on the Depo shot.

If your periods are especially heavy, you can simply DESTROY your uterine lining with a frEAKING LASER BEAM.

What I’m getting at here is, because we apparently still live in the gee darn stone age, the period is still a thing some of us just have to deal with. So here are some things that I have found that helped me through these dark times. Some of these are probably pretty common, but I’m doing my best here, so don’t bust my chops.


Orange Dang Juice

Not just orange juice, but really any good source of Vitamin C (Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, pineapple, cranberry, just a vitamin c supplement). It helps produce estrogen, so be aware of this if that’s something you’re looking to avoid. Also be careful with high doses of Vitamin C if you think you could be pregnant because it can lead to miscarriage. Otherwise, this will help you shed your uterine lining faster by contracting the ol’ ute. The faster you bleed, the sooner it’s over.


Teas with Emmenagogues

And it’s way tasty.

Emmenagogues are herbs that promote menstrual flow. Some that are commonly used are ginger, licorice root, rosemary in flower, parsley, strawberry leaves, angelic root, etc. Again, please be careful if you think pregnancy is a possibility because contractions caused by these teas may cause miscarriage. I also wouldn’t go making teas out of plants you find all willy nilly. There are plenty you can get in the store that are super helpful. I drank some Healthy Cycle tea during this last crusade and the whole thing was over in a few days. Very little cramping, which is a big deal for me. The only drawback is that I had to pee and change pads more frequently.


Poppin’ It

I’ve heard pretty often that exercising can make a period less terrible, but honestly, between the fatigue, cramping, being on the verge of barfing, and extreme headaches, that’s not always an option. Still, whenever I can do them before the onslaught begins, I find that certain exercises make things go easier for me. Here are some at-home exercises that have helped me:

  •  Ab workout—Do some scissors (I know), crunchy frogs, in and outs (I know), whatever else makes your middle feel buff and ready to expel some gore.
  •  Stretches—Do the cobra pose, the forward bend, the child’s pose, the cat pose, the reaching camel.  Great names for these things, by the way. Just do whatever feels really good and relieves pressure.
  •  Rolling on the floor—Lie flat on the floor and roll around. Make a high pitched noise so everyone knows about your distress. If something is in your path, roll over it. Nothing matters now.

The key with all of these is just to find what feels the best for you.


Rice Sock

Here’s a hot tip for you. If you are trying to get comfy and you have some time to relax, try a heat compress. If you don’t have a hot water bottle or don’t want to spend money on those magical heating pads, try putting dry rice into a long sock, tying it off, and popping it in the microwave for about a minute (don’t leave it in there for too long because it will catch on fire, Zach). Put that dang thing on your dang body and let it relax your dang muscles.


Sweet Death

Once we die, our periods will stop, and we will finally be free!


I think I should reiterate that these are just things that have been helpful to me. They might not work or be best for everyone. Let me know how some of them work or don’t work, and feel free to add your own in the comments. Good luck out there, comrades.

Books change lives

Literary Citizenship

change lives In case you were thinking that I was teaching students how to be “hype-machines” in my Literary Citizenship class, check this out from my student James Gartner:

Literary citizenship isn’t just about engaging people who already love to read or write and talk about books, but also about expanding the literary world. Books can change lives and influence attitudes for good or ill.

Read the rest of his excellent round-up post here.

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Tips for Doing Your First Reading

This is me, when I had hair, doing one of my first readings.

Last year I was invited to do my first public reading. Before anything, I was really excited, but I am also very much like a chihuahua, so that was immediately followed by extreme nervousness. I had so many questions that I felt dumb asking anyone. What should I read? How long should I read for? Should I read prose or poetry? Can I even be in the bar where I’m supposed to read (I was 20 at the time)?

If you’re about to do your first reading, you might be having the same sorts of questions, the same jitters. WELL I’M HERE TO TELL YOU THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT ANYMORE. Because I have some tips that I’m going to throw at you with no particular system of organization.

Tip #1
Practice reading out loud before the reading. This is a good way to get a feel for how much emotion you want to put, or not put, into each piece. It’s also a good way to weed out those words that you never realized you’ve only read in your head and you’re not sure how they sound (ie. “pumice.” Is it pyoo-mus or puh-mus? We may never know) so you can get that nice robot voice to help you.

Tip #2
Take more pieces with you than you think you’ll read. It’s good to have more than you think you need to give yourself some room. Sometimes you can get a feel for the mood of the room when you’re reading and you might decide to switch up your next pieces. I’ve done this almost every time I’ve read.

Q: What should I read?
A: It really depends on the nature of the event. For example, I recently read with the Poet Laureate of Indiana (not bragging or anything) for National Poetry Month. Because of the occasion, I only read poetry. Likewise, at the Ball State Literary Death Match, it was a little more open so I read poetry and prose. Mostly though, just read things that you are proud of and want to share.

Q: How long should I read for?
A: Superb question! Again, this depends on the nature of the reading. If there are a bunch of other readers, try to keep it fairly short. If there are less people, you have a little more time. Sometimes the host might tell you how long to read for. When I opened for the Poet Laureate of Indiana (I guess I am bragging a little), I was advised to keep it at about 10 minutes. Generally I just leave the podium after a big applause because it feels like the audience is enthusiastically herding me off stage.

Q: Should I preface my pieces or introduce myself?
A: This is entirely up to you. Sometimes someone will introduce you before you read, but you are still free to throw in a little something about yourself if you really want. And if you feel the need to preface a piece you’re reading, go for it. If you think it adds to it to say, “This is a poem about how I broke my whole leg. Here it is,” then you just go right ahead and do it.

Tip #3
For the love of Steinbeck, don’t apologize for what you’re reading. Please don’t do this. If you don’t seem jazzed about your work then neither will the audience. You’re obviously talented enough to have been chosen to do a reading, so just own it. If you’ve written something really angsty, read it. If you’ve written something about horses, read it. If you’ve written a manifesto about leaf blowers, read it. There’s no room for self-deprecation here, not in my house (or whichever house it’s being hosted at).

Tip #4
Be sure to thank the people who hosted the event and the audience. Being invited to read at a public event is a really great experience, and anyone who supports it is a literary citizen. And we all know that they’re the coolest cats.

Doing a reading will make you feel like a superstar, and they’re great to put on your CV. If any of you want to share your experiences or your own tips, or if you have any questions that I haven’t answered, feel free to comment or tweet them with the hashtag #litcitizen.

Review of “The Tyrant’s Daughter” by J.C. Carleson

What would you do if you spent your entire life thinking that you father was a king, only to find out after his death that he was actually a fearsome dictator? In The Tyrant’s Daughter, fifteen year-old Laila struggles with this realization as well as with learning how to fit into American culture after what’s left of her family is forced to leave their country. Laila faces the daunting world of American high school and dating while also trying to figure out her mother’s web of lies that includes a CIA agent and a rebel group. While she attempts to adjust to the strange new world, Laila also must try to keep her family from being swept up in the political mess surrounding her father’s legacy in this wonderful young adult novel.

 17910573Talented writer and former officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, J.C. Carleson gives the reader a look into the mind of a young woman trying to survive in a new culture in spite of the complications of her former life. From the beginning, the reader is pulled in by the intriguing notion of a royal family living in a small apartment in an urban American city. Her brother’s young age and her mother’s emerging alcoholism show the reader that Laila must take on responsibility for her family’s well-being even as she attempts to navigate this new way of life. In one scene with her younger brother, Bastien, he illustrates his naivety to their mother’s addiction, and Laila’s protective instinct.

Bastien sits in the hallway in front of our door, carefully sorting glass from paper. He learned about recycling in school, and he’s been a fanatic ever since. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I saw the building maintenance crew toss all the bins into one giant Dumpster, mixed together and headed to the same place….I inspect his handiwork. Four clear and three green glass bottles. All alcohol except for a single empty jar of mayonnaise. Wine and gin and whatever else my mother now drinks in place of tea.

The introduction of CIA agent Gansler complicates the story further when it is revealed that her family’s safety in America is in his hands and dependent on their cooperation. Her mother must help him with an unknown plan involving a rebel group from her home country. Laila is forced into a strange alliance with the youngest member of the group, Abed, who clearly hates her family for being a part of the system that caused his family so much grief. As Laila attempts to juggle all of these issues, she must decide where her loyalties lie and what she must give up in order to make things right.

Carleson keeps the reader engaged from start to finish with the seemingly never ending series of complications for poor Laila. Readers quickly become attached to Laila through her first-person narration and budding love for American culture, as portrayed in a scene where she talks about what she loves about her school.

I like my locker. It’s a small space of my own–the only one I have. I like my classes, with their lessons so different from those at home. World history is reinvented here–the same stories retold upside down. English class, where contractions are allowed and books are not banned, is a pleasure. I even like PE–boys and girls mixed together, their bare legs so casually mingling.

Reading scenes where Laila experiences things for the first time—high school dances, kisses, false bomb threats—was like experiencing them for the first time myself. Every time Laila overheard a new piece of information about her family’s plight, I felt my heart race with the urge to know how she would react and what it meant for her family. This story is a wonderful coming-of-age tale that I think anyone would benefit from reading as it illuminates so well the complications of adjusting to a new culture and learning how people and American values work. It’s hard to decide which route you want Laila to take, and by the end you feel as if you’ve made the journey with her.


To be published in the Midwest Book Review in May 2014.

Books You Needed

I Needed A Good Book As A Kid

When we talk about Literary Citizenship, it seems like we say a lot about making the world a better place for writers, and getting people interested in books. Which they definitely should be. But maybe we should start talking about how to make the world a better place for readers too. Let me explain. As a kid, reading was such an important part of my life. I read on the toilet, at recess, when I should have been sleeping, during church.

ImageOne series that I loved with all of my heart was A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. What made it so great was that Violet Baudelaire, the oldest, was a girl like me and she was the one who was generally in charge, saving the day, fixing everything. As a kid who was also, incidentally, a girl, and someone not very in control of the events in her life, this was the coolest of the cool to me. I gobbled by way through the entire series and then started looking for others like it.

What I found was a little disappointing. Most other books had male protagonists or were about things that didn’t interest me. I found one book with a woman in high heels, one leg cocked, holding shopping bags and decided to give it a shot. In one of my classes, some guys behind me saw the cover and started snickering. I was so embarrassed that I walked back to the library with it tucked under my arm, cover hidden, and turned it back in before I’d finished it. Laurel Snyder really does a better job of talking about this in her article than I do, but more or less the problem was that, despite the wonderful worlds that books could offer me, the culture surrounding them was making it hard for me as a reader.

We All Needed A Good Book

That was a really roundabout way to get to my point. What I mean to say is that books shape us. The things we read growing up teach us how to think and feel about ourselves and those around us. The books that we read now can open our minds to new ideas or teach us about things we might otherwise have never encountered. Why then couldn’t I find more books about women that didn’t make me feel ashamed to be seen with, or why did they have to be something I should have felt ashamed of in the first place? I know that those books are out there, and that people are out there who wouldn’t laugh or turn their noses up at certain genres. I think it’s our duties as readers and writers to help people find those books, and to recognize how important they are.

Completely fabricated. Sorry.

When I suggest books to my little brother or younger relatives, I try to think, “Which books would have been great for teaching me about gender roles and what a load of malarkey they are? Which books would have eased some of my confusion about liking boys and girls? Which books would have encouraged me to never let a romantic partner mistreat me instead of romanticizing it?” I want to promote books that I needed growing up. Or books that I read today and think, “Hey, yeah. That stuff.”

So what are some books that you needed and didn’t know about? What are some books that you had that helped you figure things out? And how are you making sure that other people know how great they are? Feel free to share your suggestions either in the comments or on Twitter with the hashtags #litcitizen and #THATbook, or follow @litcitizen (on tumblr too) where we will be posting ideas of our own.