Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What you give to your mother when she retires to breed puppies

I have two mommies, a poetry mum and a non-fiction mum. Or more to the point, I have several mommies. Because it really does take a village to raise a child, especially when she's as recalcitrant as I am. But the mother of my poetry, Laura H., the founder of UVU's Touchstones Journal of Art and Literature, is retiring at the end of Spring semester. I'm not sure how to explain the gift we're giving her. You see, she lost a child, her only son, about twelve years ago. He was vibrant, bright, tumultuous, and artistic. I identify with him in ways that don't make sense considering we never met. But he made an impression on anyone who did. 

He jumped trains. Crazy kid. Jumped trains, tagged them, wrote beautiful poetry, was in love with justice and philosophy. And then, one tragic night, went caving with three friends and never came back. The story is almost too difficult to write, but they all ended up drowning in attempt to swim through an underground tunnel from one part of the cave to another. The mother of poetry laid her only child to rest at the tender age of 24. 

He left a legacy in his wake. One that rumbles behind my duplex in the night and shows up like a ghost every so often on my morning walks along the tracks. A book has been made of his tags, and copies of a zine he started started are still floating from person to person. The mother of poetry tells the story of her son defending his girlfriend's honor with a bushel of peaches. She tells how he went in search of a guru for his devotion to Hinduism and returned disillusioned by dogmatism. She tells how he screamed for change

My poetry mother is retiring at the end of Spring semester. With the help of the Touchstones crew and past alumni, we're giving her back a piece of her legacy and the inspiration of her only son. We need more like her and more like him.


I'm convinced it's never like you think it will be, even though I'm here for the first time. The last two hours I read every article I could get my hands on, thought long and hard about the advice of my doctor, my therapist, two of my children, a few of my friends, and now I'm beginning to understand. I thought I could do this forever. Thought I could manic-pixie-dream my way through years of living for someone else. I never intended to resent him. But what else can I call my apathy over the past two months as it drained me inside out like a vampirized fruit. I'm a skin with a few useless seeds at the core. Everything sweet and pungent is gone.

I fill hours before sleep by skimming through websites for assisted living centers, wondering why I convinced myself that the saintly route was the right route, and that somehow I could walk it indefinitely. I'm wrecked. Gone. Hollowed out and devoid of spirit compass. We love people so hard we convince ourselves that relationships obligate us to the point that our giving care is and act of slow, poised dying.

We're planning to make the change after the end of the semester in May.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Two years in & I'm lost without a map

For some reason 
the last two weeks I thought 
the pale China blue light of morning 
held the answer. 
And so I chased after.

I'm afraid I was wrong. 
The cold light holds no answer
and I am still lost
unable to remember the girl
before she disappeared 
in the fog. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

For the Love of Cocoons: an Open Letter on Metamorphoses and Shifting Caregiving Roles

On February 14th, after sixteen steady months of filling the role of 24/7 caregiver to my husband, I acknowledged reaching the point of physical and emotional burnout and placed Mr. PNU in the care of Beehive Homes for a 12-day respite period.

Before I initiated this break, my role as my husband's primary caregiver nearly broke me. Only, I was too overworked to notice how the all-encompassing the breakage. I'd stopped being myself; didn't feel as Bonnie does, barely acted as Bonnie does. I think when I first brought Mark home I recognized the onset of that dissolution, but then as I remained completely invested and focused in the goal of ensuring his personhood I lost track of the process of losing my own. I would like to be able to describe what it’s like to look in the mirror and not recognize the person looking back, but the dysphoria is unsteadying enough that there are no words. My husband, half of himself, absorbed all of me, and I willingly consented to giving what I had. 

The last sixteen months I’ve been acutely aware of our public visibility as we’ve moved through the process of stroke recovery, and I don’t regret sharing this journey. The cost, however, was constant second-guessing:

Was I doing well enough at the task? Did those watching think I should do it differently? Were our spectators as aware of my weaknesses as I was? Could I be more patient? Work harder? Be any more selfless than I already was? Was I being judged when I took time for myself? Were people genuine with me when they lauded the work I was doing? Why weren’t people helping more? Was I thanking those who did help enough? Could I be less critical of onlookers? Could I ever possibly live up to the expectations of the pedestal on which I was placed? Did I really even give a rat’s ass what outsiders thought? Were they right that we were being punished, or being taught a lesson? Did I believe in the God the believers around me embraced? Was God even there? Is there a soul, or as Mark is convinced, are we simply flesh, bone, and the electro-intensity of synaptic impulse? Were people interpreting our shifting faith as failing? Could I possibly think my way back through the problem-solving that took me first from my previously tenuous position in the mainstream of my faith community, to the outskirts of belief? Did I really want to go back into that maze? Did I even need the unfulfilling answers that the maze had attempted to provide? Did any of it matter anyway with the present pressing in on all sides? Perhaps that is what, if anything, I was supposed to learn, if in fact, this were a lesson in the first place. I’ve come to the conclusion I don’t need to know, and I’m certain I’ll be judged by onlookers for that. So be it. I’m not an angel. I love fiercely, but at the end of the day I take of my street clothes, lay in a bed, and fall asleep from less than celestial exhaustion. I believe in the glorious flash of now; it’s richness and possibility.

Someday, I may second-guess all of this under less public conditions. But you see what I mean. The last twenty-two months have not only been a significant transformation for my husband. I am wholly changed as well. I am wrung out from giving more than was in my physical and emotional bank account, and my credit is almost spent.

People, extended family and friends, express the desire to help often. I apologize for not knowing previously how to express what our needs were, or how we needed them met. I think that is why I have been reluctant to take a break sooner. Mark’s needs are many, and they are complicated. I knew how to do the tasks required and how to do them correctly and efficiently. I was so often frustrated in how tasks were done by others, and for good reason, that I retracted opportunities for others to help. I did it out of the best interest of my husband. His care demands exactness. I wasn’t willing to forfeit his safety and future health in order to let others participate. 

But since taking this break I have discovered one need that only our friends and family can meet, and I am going to ask it.

I met with Mark’s New Choices case manager a week ago. She and I discussed options. It was though New Choices that I was provided with the help to bring Mark home from the nursing home in the first place. Medicaid’s waiver program pays for the in-home supports we’ve utilized so far: shower aides, CNAs to help with bedtime routine, adult daycare at assisted living centers and in-home attendant care for respite, transportation in the community, equipment, medications, and continued medical appointments. Each time the workload has become too heavy, we’ve re-evaluated and luckily there is always another avenue to help me keep going, more support. This visit we determined that Mark and I can benefit from extended serviced, and if the re-evaluation is approved on top of what we are already receiving we will qualify for meal service for Mark, five hours in-home Saturday respite supports, grants for in-home therapy and adaptive equipment, forty-two transportation stops a month, and thirty-five hours of weekly attendant care.

In short, I will be shifting the primary burden of caregiving onto aides. 

I’ve planned a weekly schedule for my husband and myself that looks something like the activities of an able-bodied couple. I’ll still be taking Mark to his co-teaching appointments on the campus of UVU. Philosophy has defined us since the beginning of our relationship. I deeply value our discussions kindled by Mark’s lecturing and teaching participation. As his colleagues continue to extend opportunity, I will continue to pursue supporting his personhood in the classroom. Otherwise, I’ve set aside Friday nights for dates, Saturday nights involving family in activities, and Sunday I will bear the full task of his care. We will participate in worship service wherever and whenever he sees fit. The last few months we’ve branched out in our religious observance, and it’s helped both of us relax into living our authentic sense faith and our individual pursuit of capital “T” truth. 

Compared to the weekly schedule before I took this respite break, this is almost its inverse. I had 15 hours’ break previously, and because of the all-encompassing nature of Mark’s care, whenever my “respite” hours came a vacuum opened up that the needs of my children quickly filled. I had little to no free time. A forty-five minute morning walk five times a week. I wasn’t sleeping through the night, because caregivers don’t sleep through the night. We get up two or three times to empty urinals, get drinks of water, adjust hospital beds and blankets. I will still man the nightshift, but during the day these changes will mean that I am my own person. 

And what shall I do with my time, my sudden freedom, the confrontation with a future’s possibility? Live. Keep my mental health. Love my children while I still have two at home. Love the three who do not. Bask in color and light, sound and texture. I will write and create and contribute a voice, which once I was lifted of the weight of Mark’s care sprung to life once again. I will walk the hills and valleys, get my hands dirty in the mud, and bring blossoms home from my wandering. I’ll find opportunities to teach and be taught. I’ll feast and fast, reach and read. I’ll pray and build altars to give thanks. I’ll care for broken things. I’ll breathe at a comfortable rate and let my blood pressure settle back down to normal. Most of all, I won’t apologize and I won’t make excuses for why I am living the life I lived before my husband was wrent in twain. I’ve walked through that veil, made passage. I’ve learned I cannot live as I was before. I can only continue to love and support my husband as he discovers meaning in his new life and how he will fill it. Those choices are up to him.

So to the point of my needs from family and friends: Accept with me that I am not married to the same person I was married to the morning of April 18, 2015. I lost him. He is gone. It’s not the same “Mark,” and I don’t know what a healthy marriage with this new Mark looks like yet. Accept with me that Mark has to accept that the “recovery” has happened for the most part. There may be another 2% of abilities that return in the years ahead. But where we are now is likely as far as he’ll come toward being the old “Mark.” Accept with me that this is hard and just as great a loss, if not more so for me than my husband. He is a burden that I must carry if I want the marriage to continue. Accept with me that the humanness of this predicament means the picture will never be perfect or fair. And accept with me that I do not have to do this perfectly, that you have no idea how to do what I’m doing, and that judging me isn’t anyone’s place but my own. Trust me, I do that. Accept that love doesn’t conquer all. Accept that my personhood is just as valuable and necessary to preserve as whatever is left of my husband’s. Accept that me living my own life, largely separate from Mark is the best thing for him, for me, for my children. And accept the fact that it’s alright for me to come down off the pedestal and join everyone else.

I make mistakes every day. I need to be able to get messy in order to live right. The figuring out is the art we make of life. I love hard and deep, and I have a big enough heart for all the world if they’d have me. But I am an artist to my core, and I’m in the middle of one of the most intimidating canvases there is. 

Thank you all. Thank you, for your love, encouragement, cheering, and support. Thank you for your goodness and your roughness, your willingness to forgive, for the beautiful people you are both before and after you have found the door to my heart. I couldn’t have made it this far without you, without my redefinition of “family.” I am so very fortunate. Blessed. Thank you for the many times you reassure me that I am, in fact, enough. Thank you for meeting my own chasm of needs. I look into your eyes and I am filled with all the universe has to offer in the way of deepest peace and grace.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Unfolding the inner woman

Kelli has been a facet of my life both large and small since I married my husband. They go way back to Mr. PNU's undergrad, where they studied philosophy at BYU. They were colleagues in the philosophy department at UVU, she came to our wedding, and when my husband fell to stroke six months later Kelli answered the call of duty to take over Mr. PNU's classes and finalize his grading. She's visited my husband in the hospital, in the nursing home, she came to his forty-eighth birthday party, and a few weeks ago we joined her for tea at her apartment.

Except for Sunday tea, every time we'd interact, I called Kelli "Dennis." She came out last summer as a transwoman. And a month into HRT (hormone replacement therapy), I wrote her about the thoughts and feelings her transition elicited in me.

"On my morning walk I thought about what you said yesterday, about people seeing you as a man. I think the coolest thing, for me personally, about you coming out and going through transition, is that I have acute issues with men who seem to see me as entertaining for being assertive/rejecting male-imposed sexiness/not needy or submissive enough. And so even though I identify as far more masculine than feminine, and I prefer the company of men to the company of women, I am terribly intimidated by them. As [Kelli] emerged, something happened in me to relax that intimidation, and as I think another woman expressed yesterday, I came to see you as an ally, as someone who "gets it", and the more I think about this transformation you've undertaken, I'm learning that you get it on a level I never will. Anyway, I love you. I'm proud of you. I do think about you a lot, and if you are ever in need of sharing pizza or funky clothes (I think I'm a little bigger than you) my door is open. We're not that far from you. Feel free to not be a stranger."

Mr. PNU and I had Sunday afternoon tea with her a month ago. When we left my husband remarked at how she seem calmer and genuinely happier. He said, "She is hands down the best logician I know. One of the sharpest, most powerful minds." And he's encouraged me in supporting Kelli however I can. 

This past week she took me up on my offer of closer friendship.

Whereas, I initially met "Dennis"—uber intimidating professor of analytic philosophy, whose intensity and ferocious unhappiness likely escaped no one—Kelli is exquisitely buoyant and soft. While I admired Dennis from a safe distance. Kelli is, however, delightful and inviting. When she came out, it was as immediately clear that puzzle pieces long missing were finding their rightful place. And I think she will agree with me in observing that her transition isn't performative, but congenital and long overdue. The performance works because it aligns with the emotive experience that gender is. But the dysphoria. The body confusion, where biologic sex organs do not match perceived gender, drives her to work hard at femininity.

"I will always work at passing. In how I dress, how I move my hands and use my voice," she says.

This week I saw her performance first hand. And what I find most interesting is that when her self-consciousness drops away she is the most captivating, the softest woman in a crowd. I saw it on the dance floor at club Area 51 as she and I were approached two or three times by men. I saw it as she giddily held second-hand dresses to her breast in between racks as Deseret Industries. I saw it in the audience of Eve Ensler's play, Vagina Monologues. I saw it as we walked together to the women's restroom and she slipped with no hesitation into the stall beside me. But most notably I witnessed her inherent femininity in the privacy of her front room where I photographed the developing softness of her to help dispel the dysphoria entirely.

In time her breasts will become fuller, her face and legs continue to fill out, operations are expensive but someday she may take the final step of removing the reminder that the brilliance of her woman's mind came wrapped in mismatched paper. She has already discarded decades of depression, self-destructive behaviors, and suicidal ideation known to many genderqueer people prior to fully expressing their gender identities.

As she continues to unfold we'll try the photography experiment again. But already, she is a gift. 
One I find I instinctually call woman.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Why it matters

"Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit. In the words of Citizens Against Government Waste, “actors, artists, and academics are no more deserving of subsidies than their counterparts in other fields; the federal government should refrain from funding all of them."—Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017, Heritage Foundation 

Rule of thumb: for every great photo you will take one hundred and miss a dozen more. 

Things lost to the lens during our twelve hour excursion into Nine Mile Canyon:

A volery of tiny bluebirds, each one small enough to nestle in the palm, backs, wings, and tailfeathers a startling flash of cerulean in flight. Oceans of white-tailed deer, winter coats still thick and downy. Nerve-wracked jackrabbits skittering this and that way in the roadside pitch. And the sunlight, taking us by surprise on its journey, dripping gold glaze down canyon walls in bold edging, a different gilded pattern each time our eyes returned to the west.

Someday, when my son and I lay in the earth, these things won't even remain in memory.

But the photographs of the petroglyphs we captured, we pondered. What might they mean? These people, Native Americans dubbed "Fremont," gone a thousand years from the game-rich basin floor—what could these painstakingly etched panels reveal about the craftsmen who could no longer speak for themselves? 

When you are an artist who's raised artists, the source of expression seems organic. The purpose, however, my oldest son and I determined, is the human inclination to document hardship, celebrate abundance, give image to our fears so that we are better equipped to recognize and face them, and to illustrate our sense of splendor and awe at the divine and serendipitous. That's why artwork varies in presentation and effect. It leaps from us in song, is crafted in story and poem. We dance our living through the day to rhythms that remind of the heart's pulse and the joy it is to breathe. Art's brushstrokes already lay beneath the skin. It pours forth in paint and pen. We capture it in photographs the way we catch butterflies for their beauty, or breath as if denying the next exhalation might mean our end. It moves through us and back out into the world. That is why we called it expression; the authentic return from a life fully lived. And full lives are rife with both wonder and sorrow. We create so as to share our human experience with others, to grasp hands, to be understood, to not to be forgotten. And for most ancient cultures it is because of their art that they are with us still—indelibly.

The meaning? There in lies aesthetics. Each of us gets to define that. And the definition is the art within the soul. It is the connective tissue of the species. Stripped of support to create great art, our bones clatter, and the movement forward becomes rigid. We lose vision. We fail to recognize ourselves in the lives of other human beings before us. The softness of our people is overtaken by the cold and mechanical.

Without the arts, perhaps it is better that our nation should not be remembered. Disappeared and forgotten. If this be how little value our existence in this blink of time matters, to our individual selves, to our collective people, then I agree. We certainly shouldn't force those sorts of memories on future generations.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Wares of the baker's wife

in my kitchen:

different cookie cutters—same lack of dough
Measured twice, 

my children all arrive red and bleating;
cut once,

brushes and lyres in hand.
It's a painful passage.

They spring formed from the pan
ready to devour whatever's put before them.
And I, the mixing bowl culprit
—I wonder 

 at complicity in the spareness
everywhere except the sideboard.

Cakes and cakes,
I've given them excess,

currants and spelt,
access to private recipes, hunger

to do cooking up of their own, 
the crooning over eggshells,

the gentle folding in of song
till they warble and wail in kitchen tongue.

For the rest of their days: infant hope.
And I ask them to be good

while I stand beside 
the oven door praying.

Emma J. Barlow

 Emma J. Barlow

Emma J. Barlow

 Emma J. Barlow

Emma J. Barlow

 Emma J. Barlow

Monday, February 13, 2017

Gaslight gospel

I've been told faith is remembered feelings, how they felt before but not now, the before feelings, the right feeling before the chain of thoughts that hold those first feelings suspect. I am told not to trust new feelings/intuition/the emotions that compel & propel & change thought into action. They shouldn't be trusted. If you have new feelings, that's what makes you crazy & crazy thoughts compel crazy action. I've been told that feelings/thoughts/actions are my trial in this life. I've been told to do what I am told, to distrust what I feel or think & definitely never act. I've been told there is a god & that thinking/feeling/acting are good gifts god gives. Lessons for the likes of the faithless and me. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

en route

Mid-September, to better fit my caregiving/college student schedule, I traded in my morning canyon paths for urban terrain. Sidewalks do not offer the same cardiovascular rigor of the mountains, but the scenery is no less wondrous. I can't explain the compulsion I've felt to capture light and angles and my own feet plodding along beneath me. 

Monday, February 6, 2017


There is something to this. I'm caught up in the stickiness of it so often these days, that when I realize I'm standing midstream in "spiritual" phenomena I'm already in the act of catching my breath.

Mr. PNU listens to me preach on about it repeatedly, all the while warming the choir bench. Nearer the beginning of the problem I was handed a ball of yarn, and I held it, believing because I was told the ball of yarn was what there was to be believed. I may have even tried to drop the ball of yarn a few times out of resentment that I couldn't disbelieve. And then the stroke happened, and it was like I found the loose end of the skein. All I had to do was give it a tug; the whole thing, layer by layer began to unwind, even when I didn't want it to. The harder I thought about that tightly wound ball of yarn, the faster the skein unwound itself. My husband nods. He's been dealing with unspooled yarn for much longer than I, "faking" belief because he couldn't re-spool the individual strand into a ball again.

Belief systems are a mysterious thing. I think they provide lenses through which we can see the world like a sliver of refracted light. All the varying forms of belief are like a collection of complimentary and contradictory small t truths. And I haven't decided yet if my unravelled skein of yard is yet another frequency in the stutter of what is, or if I'm getting closer to truth that wears it's T in all caps.

Whatever is, it continues to speak in the dialect I was taught belonged to spirit. It hums like a plucked string. It communicates in an array of light perceptible to the heart, when the mind only understands the synaptic jumble as wondrous to behold.