The Resolutions: A Novel by Brady Hammes

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The architecture of her life began to crumble.

In The Resolutions by Brady Hammes, the architecture of all three siblings lives (Sam, Jonah and Gavin) have begun to crumble. Sam was so full of promise, a talented, skilled ballerina before an injury destroyed her dreams. Salvation came with a Russian dance company northeast of Moscow. Living at “Chàteau Oksana” feels more like a campus, which is exactly what everyone calls it. Meant to dazzle, charm the guests at monthly parties, her life is wearing her down, but nothing more than her old injury and the death of her days dancing with the New York City Ballet when she was only 18. Heroin is an escape from everything that pains her in this place that is a blanket of snow, the perfect place to bury one’s dreams. Isolated though this place may be, such demons can only be tolerated for so long.

Jonah is the intellectual in the family, distanced from his artistic siblings. He feels lonely, ready to attempt to strengthen the bonds. Jonah came to Gabon, Africa to assist his thesis advisor at Vanderbilt, studying the vocalization of forest elephants, planting ARUS (Autonomous Recording Units) to better understand how the animals communicate. It’s important work, but a mountain of pressure when his advisor takes ill, leaving Jonah in the forests of solitude and danger.Just as he is readying himself for a trip home, hoping to connect with his little sister and older brother he falls into an abyss of trouble all because his camera gets stolen. Soon he has the threat of poachers looming over his head, but that is just the beginning. Trouble rises, someone has a plan and he has no choice but to obey. Sometimes it’s the stable, quiet one whose mistakes could cost lives.

Gavin is the actor, but a decent face isn’t always enough to bounce back. Maybe his career was thriving years ago, but now it feels like “making it big”in the industry just isn’t going to happen. What was it all for? His relationship has ended and now, his show. On the horizon there is Marina and a cabin in  Taos, but all that glistens isn’t gold. He is too old to feel like he has to start over again, too old to believe his dreams will come true and definitely old enough to know better about… well… everything.  Now he is sorely needed at home. Just who needs saving? Maybe they all do.

This novel explores the shifting dynamics within sibling relationships, and how our dreams sometimes have to die to be reborn into something new. The slightest change in our fate can send us hurtling, but what is life but weather? The damage we try to keep close is sometimes best shared with our loved ones, because sometimes they really do have to step in and help steer the wreckage we’ve made of ourselves. Even the perfect, most promising child can trip up. Sometimes saving others saves us too.

Publication Date: May 5, 2020

Random House

Ballantine Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Home: A Novel by Christina Clancy

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“I tell her she needs to learn how to be in the present.” Brad said, “The present is a hard place to be sometimes.”

Families, someone once said, are like countries. They have their differences, their war zones, their isolated places. There are secrets that are swept under the rug or kept under lock and key. Some change every relationship, some bring siblings closer. Summers can bring new beginnings or dreadful endings, and for one family a summer changed everything. The story begins with Ann reminiscing about her parents as she meets the realtor planning the sell the summer home her parent’s owned in Cape Cod, “the house felt like it was less a place they’d left behind than a place they’d planned to return to.” Shivering with memories, she knows it’s vital she has the place up for sale in time for the summer people. She and her sister Poppy will split the proceeds, Noah will have money for his college fund, the financial boost will make their lives easier. She happens upon a family photo and in it, Michael. Michael, their adopted brother- as Ann feels the picture like a burn in her hands, immediately the reader knows there is a story there.

Due to the suddenness of their parents death, there is no will. But surely, despite having two houses to sell, both Poppy and Ann will be in agreement. Poppy lives a life “like a long summer vacation”, constant to nothing. There is a bite in that thought, in a sister who doesn’t seem to be present enough. But what about Michael, the adopted son? Where is he in all of this? If they have to lie about the title being in the all clear, so be it. With that decision, we are in the past.

Michael enters the Gordon’s lives as more than a visitor, still feeling like an outsider. The beautiful house, unfamiliar to the type of world he lives in, seems to be ‘buzzing with life’. He learns their family traditions, their history, all ‘the stuff of legend’ right away, and despite the fact he should feel lucky that they saved him from the fate of a foster home upon his mother’s death, he sometimes feels like they rub their perfect lives in his face. That fact that he doesn’t belong in their perfect world is only more apparent when they run to the shore and his hesitates in terror, rather than plunging in like Poppy. It is then that he runs away from the ocean, telling Ed and Connie find he just wants to go back to the house but the family have news that will fill his heart with their love. But with any blessing, there is always a catch, and it makes family life complicated for the young teen.

Ann is 17, cringing under the watchful, protective eyes of her parents when she starts working for The Shaws. As a nanny/helper, it isn’t long before she gets a little too close to the couple and their children. privy to grown up problems, emotions. She is growing up too fast for her own good, learning adult secrets that are better left unknown.  Poppy spends the summer on her own, learning to surf, making new friends, the early days of her bohemian style. Put off because the family seems to run without her approval, even if she loves Michael it would have been nice to voice an opinion. A common woe of many last born children in a family. Michael notices that Ann seems obsessed with the Shaws and their big house, big lives. Irritated by the handsome couple eclipsing their importance in Ann’s life, feeling bored, lonely until Ann saves him again with an opportunity, a job working for the dreaded Shaws. It is when he meats Jason, the Shaws gardener and begins working for him that he too finds a passion in this ‘grunt work.’

Their summer begins with so much promise, but there are snarls in this perfect season and by the end of it, they will carry a bitter seed back home. Manipulation, lies, betrayal and leverage. When you love someone to the core, you’ll do anything to secure their future, even if it means destroying your own. Michael learns the hard way what being family means. Liars hold all the cards, and know just how to deal them so they remain the winner. People don’t get to the top without playing dirty. Ann is naive, but she goes from being this caring, sweet, strong willed girl who is the reason Michael is with the family at all to losing all sense of intelligence. Of course, fear plays a big role here, still… something just didn’t follow for me.

Just what did Ed and Connie do wrong in their parenting to cause such an unraveling? There is nothing but distance between the children, great distance for years!

The present, Michael is back and making a claim on the house. The story as it’s been told is falling apart, Poppy is once again shocked to find herself the last to know the truth. Ann hasn’t always been honest, and what she believed about Michael and about her nephew Noah’s origins may have all been a big lie. Does an heir who walked out on the family, breaking their parent’s hearts really deserve the chance to stake his claim? What makes it a solid women’s fiction pick is the seduction and abuse, that I don’t want to go too deeply into. It’s so easy to lead a young girl where you want them to go, that part is sadly too common. Still, in some ways the villain has an easy time of it.

This is a complicated tale about the love, desire, abuse, and loss one family must endure. The loss isn’t just in the death of Connie and Ed, but the closeness and support siblings should have had. Can the truth come too late? All it takes is one carefully constructed lie to change the direction all the children take. It’s sad, the wasted time, the broken hearts. It’s a good story, even if I found what happened a bit hard to pull off but life is stranger than fiction so you never know. I felt Ed and Connie would have gotten to the bottom of everything, but that’s just my take. I wish there was more time spent with Ann, Poppy and Michael as siblings before the rot set in, so it would be easier to understand the pain Poppy felt too. I actually liked Poppy’s role, in so many families the youngest is left out of the important decisions, and stories (especially involving sordid things), which often makes them feel adrift. So it made sense she later floats through her life. A good read.

Publication Date: June 2, 2020

St. Martin’s Press

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they had before didn’t count. 

In these stories Souvankham Thammavongsa allows the reader into the painful and sometimes humorous lives of immigrants. In some situations it is better to tell no one where you’re from, what language you speak so you are not judged. It is in rebirth that the future lies, and for children of immigrants there are often humiliations they don’t quite comprehend yet innately understand they must try to protect their parents from. My attention was grabbed from the first story where a little girl comes home with a note pinned to her chest (how well I remember the importance of such notes when I was a kid), notes that for this child have no meaning for the mother and lead to misunderstandings. Bigger humiliation visits this child when she brings home a book to read for practice and the parents attempt to help her understand a word. There is tender pride sometimes in misunderstandings. I couldn’t help but feel a connection with my father’s own youth when reading about the little girl in the first story. The memories he has of how it felt to be on the outside, trying to understand the American way of life, it is so much more than language but that is by far the hardest obstacle. She had my heart!

In Paris, Red is stuck in the chicken plant thinking about the shapes of women’s noses, and ‘the things that could make you happy’, but such happiness is available only to those who make enough money to attain it. Certainly a chicken plucker never could! In her town, there isn’t much a woman can do beyond chickens or shaking their own tail feathers, so to speak. This story is an exploration on what is beauty, dependent on where you are, naturally.

Age has its hungers in Slingshot, as a much older woman proves wrinkles aren’t in one’s heart, only the face. In another tale a mother has a runaway fantasy about a celebrity that causes her daughter and husband to lose their glimmer, she suffers from the disease of hopeless devotion in one form or another. A husband in The School Bus Driver finds his wife’s boss a little too helpful and present in their marriage. Disbelieving “people form this kind of friendship in this country,” he isn’t just a jealous man nor a fool! In Mani Pedi, former boxer Raymond used to knock people out in the ring but now works at a nail salon, realizing he ‘wasn’t the only person who’d ever lost the place he saw for himself in the world’. It isn’t only Raymond who is warned to keep his dreams small. In many stories there is an ache for more. There are young children driving through a neighborhood with their parents wishing to live in the bigger homes that come into view, unfamiliar with the strange customs, like trick- or-treating yet game to try to join in the door to door fun. In a heavy tale a mother impresses upon her daughter that she feels lucky earning money picking worms having been born in a peasant family who had no money for educating their children. It is through these slimy creatures and her ability to fill cups with many squirmers that she can hope for a better future for her daughter. Characters try to make their own place in the world, like Mr. Vong with his print shop, priding himself on the reputation of his deft skills with wedding invitations made in the Lao language. A keen eye, too, he has in the success or failure of relationships, but how will that play out in his own family?

Every story made the characters vulnerable, it is a visit in the lives immigrants make for themselves and often with next to nothing. There is beauty and heartbreak, shame, struggle, humor, love and resentment too. Beautifully written. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

Little, Brown and Company

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers

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Generosity was both an insurance police and a deeply held value.

Kentucky born Cassie Chambers grew up in Owsley County, all too aware of the hard-work and struggle her grandparents and their children dealt with. Cassie parents were both still working their way through college, living in Berea but close enough to her Mother Wilma’s family when they had her. With the impossible cost of childcare, they relied on those in Owsley to care for her, and it is here that Cassie ran around ‘getting into trouble’ and playing with her many cousins. It was a second home where she was privy to stories about all her aunts and uncles. It is also where she wondered why it was so important for her granny to see her mother Wilma get a college education, when for many it was never an option.

Working on a tobacco farm (Wilma’s family didn’t own it) was backbreaking labor, more incredible was her Aunt Ruth who was the best tobacco worker in the county, better than even some of the strongest men. Rising early in the mornings to help when she stayed with her kin, she saw firsthand that it was never an easy life. Her granny was just as hardworking, even at her advanced age and despite the poverty and years of struggle, she always had her pride and an easy smile for others.  It was through spending time with her clan that Cassie’s curious nature was fed, where she learned hands on science, engineering and art. With her parents as an example, education was a goal knew she must strive for. So how did this young girl whose family tree is deeply rooted in Appalachia find the wherewithal to attend Yale and Harvard, becoming a lawyer?

Obstacles in the mountains of Kentucky can feel insurmountable when each day is a struggle just to feed one’s family. When there isn’t work to be had, when you live below government-designated poverty, when the counties haven’t developed like the rest of the country and the rest of the world has forgotten you. Where all politician’s promises fall by the wayside once they are in office, if they even notice you at all. Here, one must wrestle with leaving the support and strong bonds of family to find work, and anyone who has ever attempted such a thing without money (even with a college degree) understands it can be quite a feat. Staying can feel easier, but it is not without hardship. An education, as seen through Cassie’s rise and the opposite end, as we see with her cousin Melissa’s choices, is jarring. As Cassie reiterates, they are the same in so many ways, born from the same stock, branches on the same tree yet Melissa had drug addicted parents. Drug addiction haunts the hills, there isn’t much hope in a place that offers nothing for it’s young by way of entertainment, where health care is shaky at best, where the coal mines were never as big as in other counties and tobacco farming collapsed. This is a land where fields are left empty and yet they are a proud, strong people. Where women throughout generations help in birthing children, because there isn’t anywhere else to go and if there is how can they afford the proper, necessary care?

Outsiders see only poverty and like Cassie says, feel pity and disgust, never getting past the surface to understand why natives feel such a connection to the land, generations in their family. Through the fear she and other women in her circle feel navigating the world outside rural Appalachia, it is evident how much courage it takes to strive for more. To judge the people as ignorant is a travesty, for they have learned how to exist in the past through feeding themselves and each other growing their own food (I have a garden, it’s not easy at all and has more failure than success), have worked with the harsh elements to survive, helping birth children, and her own granny could take apart anything and put it back together for the better. Stupid? Not one bit. Lazy, pitiable? No way! By returning to lift those in need, with her education in hand, it is inspiring. Women, in this memoir, lifted each other even while they themselves had nothing. Ruth, the older sister, was selfless providing in every way she could for Cassie’s mother Wilma so that she could find a better life. This support, in turn, made Cassie’s future possible too. It warms the heart see such generosity come from people who have so little. That the rest of the world looks down upon people, like Cassie’s Papaw whose work was backbreaking and long, far harder than anything most of them have ever done, is shameful. These are folks, especially the women, who somehow manage to feed their children while working their weary hands to the bone and still feel a sense of duty to their community while keeping faith in their god by living what they preach.

This is a tribute to the women whose grit was passed down to Cassie. Rather than bemoaning their circumstances, they get things done and often in creative ways. Like Cassie said, there is no such thing as “I can’t do it.” It wasn’t easy for Cassie to work hard, to step outside the comfort of her family and assimilate into an elite place (Ivy League schools) but with the strength of her family’s blood running through her veins, she wasn’t going to give in to self-defeat, it isn’t their way.

Hill Women is a heart-felt, engaging telling of one girls rise from poverty that was only possible through the love and support of the strong, wise women before her.

Publication Date: January 7, 2020

Ballantine Books

 

The Majesties: A Novel by Tiffany Tsao

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Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all.

A  wealthy, successful, prominent Chinese Indonesian family has been poisoned, every single one of them, by one of their own. “It was caught on a surveillance tape, so there’s no denying that Estella was the culprit”. As Gwendolyn “Doll” lies in and out of consciousness she is left trying to comprehend how her sister Evelyn could commit so evil an act. Why would she want to destroy their entire family, and herself? Why did she want to put an end to the family line? Yet… “the wealthy don’t need reasons”,  for anything else they may do, is the reigning belief in Indonesia about the affluent. Doll knows first hand the rot in the line, the many calculated actions of her entire clan. How can she possibly find the one moment, the seed of destruction?

Scavenging through her memories, family secrets are brought to light. What exactly happened to their mysterious young aunt “Tante Sandra” who was there one day and tragically gone the next? What are the sisters to think when it dawns on them that you can’t take your family’s ‘stories’ as fact anymore? How are they to to understand that evil is excusable if in the name of snuffing out any threat to the family’s reign? How much can the reader rely on Doll’s own retelling, when she herself has often “blinded myself” to the family she moves through?

Doll takes us back through her memories, in their youth “despite our mother’s disgust” the sisters had been enthralled by bugs, ants, carpenter bees, and grasshoppers, as if there was something ‘illicitly fascinating’ about their ‘indulgence’ in the world of creepy crawlies. College abroad, they find themselves studying in America with the freedom to explore as they wish “infected with American enthusiasm” though they now stick out as outsiders due to their ethnicity and all that difference entails. They take a class on entomology, which leads to a fascinating career for Gwendolyn, something she can create on her own after she feels cast out in the cold when a man named Leonard enters Estella’s life, as insidious as a disease. It is this love that comes between the sisters, that serves as the measure of family loyalty. A brutal, abusive love, but with the alliance of two prominent families their future success is iron clad, one must endure, one must always save face. Married life changes Estella, ending the closeness Doll once felt for her big sister, who now faces her days feeling like she isn’t good enough, brow beaten by her mother-in-law, confused by the changing behavior of her husband Leonard. In the meantime Doll’s busy with her own life, from the rise of Bagatelle to it’s success as other empires begin to fall.

When her sister needs her the most, she admits to falling short, but there is so much more to the story, and we must wait for Doll to divulge it, while she can still draw her breath, ravaged by poison.

This is a story of sisterly bonds, family loyalty and shame, and the atrocities only the wealthy can commit. Who is the victim, who is the criminal? It is a strange novel with a dark ending, yes read it.

Publication Date: January 21, 2020

Atria Books

 

 

Orders of Protection by Jenn Hollmeyer

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How easy it is to spend a lifetime protecting ourselves from the wrong things.

In Jenn Hollmeyer’s story collection, people discover their need for protection- everything from the threat of poverty, abuse,  to ‘a thousand needle stings’ and maybe even from themselves. Lives sinking to its lows, partners abandoning promises, bright futures fizzling out, happiness pulling away, and sometimes the best parade is the march away from what’s bad for you and your child. Why cling to disaster when you can just let go? Characters intuit what is happening, but the question for them, as for us all is, what will you do about it? Keep your eyes closed tight, or act and face the consequences, the change.

Protection from old family stories, a slight revision (it wasn’t really a lie) that landed as a fog in one daughter’s life. How can the truth be so blindingly bright, alter the story those who remain behind have told themselves? How easy it is to let what we think we know poison our joy, trying our hardest to follow in the footsteps of other’s sorrows, like a code in our DNA. How easy a lie to hide shame can barrel through your loved one’s future.

The kindness of a stranger may be your holy grail, but they too can run out of goodwill. Where do we find the grace to be better than those who went before us? Where do we find an anchor to keep us present when we’re on the edge of not caring? It’s not the hungry coyotes alone we have to fear, sometimes it’s where or if our next breath of air will come. Sometimes it’s whether or not the ones we love will leave again. Some of us want nothing more than to be haunted by those who have vanished. Some of us are always just leaving the scene because alone may be the only way, for a time, that you can make it through another day.

Not all soft places are easy to fall into. Often it’s the broken people who make the most sense, while we are waiting ourselves to be ‘fully cooked’ as a person. It’s the things we don’t see coming, isn’t it? Not the things we shield ourselves from that get us. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: November 15, 2019

University of North Texas