“Did I frighten you?”

The problem, I’ve noticed, with Shirley Jackson month, is not that I haven’t the time for it (#parenting); by taking quotes from her short stories, I had hoped to generate interest in her writing. Yes, I wanted to focus on the more unsettling qualities of her voice to match the eerie atmosphere of October, but by focusing on only a sentence or two, her stories are taken completely out of context.

So when I posted a quote from “The Witch” (a misleading title) where an old man talks about how much he loved her sister that eventually he strangled her, it’s no wonder than my mother, bless her, commented that the story must certainly be one of Shirley’s “more morbid pieces.” To her credit, my mom was one of those people who was completely mistaught Jackson in high school, so no wonder she is inclined to think the worst of her.

On the contrary, I can’t think of one thing that I’ve read of Shirley’s that I would consider “morbid.” Yes, strangulation is not particularly pleasant, and no, stoning someone from the village in an annual ritual isn’t exactly cheerful. But when I think “morbid,” I think gruesome. And Shirley never gets gruesome. She leaves the gruesome up to the imagination of her readers, always giving them a taste of panic and then cutting them off. I can say with a great amount of certainty that she always believed it was her readers who were the morbid ones to imagine such violence. She just wrote what she saw. 

Case in point: “The Witch” is not morbid at all. It takes place in a train car. And old man has an inappropriate conversation with a little boy while his mom tends to her baby. No one gets killed or tortured or mutilated. It’s all just talk.

The little boy is just as guilty at being outrageous as the old man, insisting that his mother’s name is “Mr. Jesus” and his baby sister is 12 and a half years old. He tells the old man he’s looking out the window to look for witches. 

It’s important talk, all the same. One interpretation of the story could be that it unveils patriarchal themes, that the boy, even though he is only 4, is not at all dismayed by the man’s story of violence against his sister, because violence towards females is something our society normalizes with males, no matter the age. In fact, it seems the little boy respects the man more than he respects his mother, since he laughs happily with the man when his mother tries to intervene in their conversation.

Or it could just be a realistic story of a weird old man and an imaginative bored little boy on a train.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is scary, certainly, but not because she’s morbid. No, it’s scary because it shows the shocking reality of American society.

(Read the whole story here.)

The Lottery

Yesterday was the first of October, and I hereby declared it to be not the month of Halloween, nor Fall, nor the month of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, but The Month of Shirley Jackson, because her writing is brilliant and beautiful with a touch or two of bewitching. What better reading material for October than one that puts a spell on you?

I wanted to start out slow with one of her most famous short stories, “The Lottery.” It is usually required reading for middle schoolers, which is a terrible idea (like middle schoolers can appreciate any good literature) and is usually mis-taught with class-held mock lotteries and lacking any sort of cultural or historical context. But that’s a post for another day. If you haven’t read the story, go ahead and do so now, because spoilers lie ahead. Trust me, it won’t be time wasted.

I originally thought that this blog post would be about some of the topics I touched on in my 100-page Master’s Thesis: how American Cold War culture led to strict regulations of what was an acceptable lifestyle, and anyone who varied from that lifestyle was considered a threat (I’m looking at you, Red Scare). In this case, it’s Tessie Hutchinson, who is late for the annual gathering and then speaks out about the unfairness of this age-old tradition that no one questions ever. No wonder she’s the one (SPOILER ALERT) who is murdered in the end.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.

Ralph Ellison had a story along the same vein called “King of the Bingo Game,” where a man is picked to play a lottery-like game of chance in order to win money to save his ailing wife, but he fools himself into believing that, with the right push of the button, all his dreams will come true, and no longer is willing to take a chance. The audience that watches him play (or not play, since he refuses to make a move to advance the game) tires of his inaction, takes the game away from him, and beats him.

Super nice stories, I know. While there are many ways to interpret these stories, one thing is for sure. When it comes to games of chance, you can’t win.

I’ve never been a lottery player. I don’t have the best of luck.

How appropriate, then, as I’m thinking about writing a blog post about “The Lottery” that I, in fact, win the only lottery I’ve ever played regularly: the one where, if you win, you can purchase tickets to the Broadway smash Hamilton for $10.

There’s a catch. Of course there’s a catch.

You get less than 24 hours notice for the show that you’re able to attend. The closest theater with Hamilton running is in Chicago, a three-hour drive. I’m a mother of a toddler with a part-time job and few daycare options.

My mother-in-law, our go-to caretaker, is up north on vacation. My mother was already planning on coming over and would probably be tickled to, instead of just visit for a few hours, watch my kid all day long, but I can’t help feeling how terribly rude that would be to ask. My husband has a big project scheduled for work (kind of a rarity, to be honest, so go figure), so he can neither attend the show with me nor work from home and watch the toddler so I can go with a friend. My friend S can’t go because her only childcare option–her parents–just left on vacation (although she does offer to watch my daughter if I find someone else or go alone, which is beyond sweet). My brother can’t go because of lots of good reasons, one of them being a newborn; I didn’t really expect him to drive two hours to my house and then another three to Chicago anyhow.

What a bad time to have good luck.

I should have known from Shirley and Ralph that I shouldn’t even bother playing the game.

I could have made it work. I could have dropped my kid with S, who my kid adores and probably would have had a lot of fun with her two boys, and I could have gone on my own. When else might I get the chance to see this world-renowned show for so cheap? In the end, I decided that just didn’t feel responsible. I didn’t want it bad enough to screw up everyone’s day and spend the whole day alone in my car.

I’ve used the excuse that “kids ruin everything,” that if it weren’t for my daughter, if it weren’t for S’s lack of childcare options, if it weren’t for my brother’s newborn, there wouldn’t have been a question if I were going, and I would have had my pick of who I wanted to go with. Spontaneity does kind of fly out the window when you’re a parent.

But really, being a parent just brings focus to perspective. I didn’t care enough about that show to drop my daughter somewhere for the day, to cancel on my mother, to go off on my own. There was too much to sacrifice. And having a lot to sacrifice is an indication of how much you have to lose, and if you have a lot to lose, then that means you’ve won in your life.

I’ve won. Even though I lost this, I’ve won.

Resolute

I am one of those people who start a new week or a new year off with endless aspirations about how, this time, it’s going to be different. And nearly every time I do that, I fail right away. I take on too many things: I want to lose ten pounds, start meditating every day, write every day, give up sugar, drink more water, exercise for 30 minutes a day. It’s all too much to tackle at once. No wonder I fail. And yet, even now that I know I’m likely to overwhelm myself with all my new year resolutions, I still feel inclinded to make some.

Of course, another reason why I fail is because I feel enslaved by these new habits I’m trying to incorporate into my life. Sure, I could sit and meditate for 15 minutes a day, but what else could I be doing with that 15 minutes? Maybe something that felt more…productive? Maybe something that felt more relaxing? Sure, I could eat a salad every day for lunch. But, ugh, salads are so bland and messy and so much work. Fast food tastes better. Sandwiches are easier.

Resolutions make life harder.

And yet the word, “resolute,” stems from the Latin *resolutus* which means “released.” And that’s what we’re all really looking for, isn’t it? To be released from our demons or our vices. To be released from disease or weakness. There is something already enslaving us from which we wish to be free.

What is it I wish to be free of? I could say cancer, but no one is ever free from that. I could say anxiety, but no life is stree-free all of the time.

Perhaps I just want to be free of the worry of these things. I want to know that I am as healthy as I can be, mentally, emotionally, physically, so these shadows don’t darken my doorstep every day.

2018 brought me great knowledge. I learned what I could do to take the best care of myself. 2019 will be an extension of that, to take what I’ve learned and expand on it. But most of all, I want to learn how to be more forgiving of myself during those times when I inevitably fail. After all, failure is not an end. It’s an opportunity.

Synonyms of “resolute” are “unwavering” and “persistent,” yes, but also “purposeful” and “indefatiguable.” I know I won’t be unwavering 100 percent of the time. I won’t accomplish everything I want to, and I won’t incorporate all my goals every day. But I will face 2019 with new purpose and with new motivation that won’t waver over time.

That is my resolution for this year.

*And you? What do you hope to accomplish in 2019?*

Writing Prompt: Surgeries

“Maybe every time you get into a paper gown you summon the ghosts of all the other times you got into a paper gown…” Leslie Jamison, “Empathy Exams.”

My eyes opened but everything was blurry. The florescent light was bright and I remained squinting. I heard an unfamiliar voice, a woman’s voice, speak softly. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me. I turned my head in her direction, not bothering to find her body with my sight, and said to her, “I’m going back to sleep now.” I heard a slight chuckle as I drifted off again into darkness.

Later that day, as I rested on the couch, propped up by deflated pillows and covered in an afghan crocheted by my mother, my brother perched himself on the edge of the cushion and told me funny stories from his day. This made my body react with laughter, but I hadn’t a voice, so no sound came out, and my throat was ripped to shreds, so instead of joy, I felt pain. My mouth winced a smile, but it was clear I was uncomfortable. “Oh, no,” he said, eyes wide in panic. “I’m sorry. I won’t make you laugh anymore.”

For ten years after that, whenever I filled out a form at the doctor’s office that asked what surgeries I’ve had, I had only one to put down: tonsillectomy. These days, the list has gotten quite a bit longer.

I was awake for the next one, which made it seem less like a surgery, but I was getting cut open, so that’s what it was. My arm draped above my head, not unlike Kate Winslet’s in that memorable scene from *Titanic*, but not nearly as romantic, as my fingers were going numb after resting in that position for a half hour. I stared over my left shoulder so I wouldn’t see the length of the needle, the size of the incision, a squirt of blood. I didn’t want to know where I was or what was happening to me. I didn’t even want to know what they had found, what it was, what it contained. But the doctors did, so I let them perform the biopsy.

Amost ten years later, and I’m lying on a table again awake. I feel slight touches on my thighs, and I turn to the small Asian woman next to me and tell her I can feel that. She nods and orders more of some drug, and soon I can’t feel the touches anymore. The anesthesiologist speaks softly with a thick accent, and I’m under the influence of who knows how many drugs, and I can’t see her mouth because it’s covered by a surgical mask, but she has kind eyes, and I trust her to protect me. It takes ten minutes for my daughter to be born, and she lays on my chest for maybe five. My husband tells me we were in surgery for almost two hours, but I don’t remember much between after they took my daughter off my chest and when they wheeled me to my recovery room.

If you ask me, prepping for the surgery is the worst part. There’s so much anticipation. They wheel you into a large bright room with lots of scary artifacts and lots of strange people whose faces you can’t see. For everyone else, this is just another day of work. They make small talk as they arrange their instruments and wipe me with antiseptic. For me, it’s the start of a horror film. What will happen to me when I’m asleep? Will I wake up? I get so nervous that I feel like throwing up, or maybe it’s the drugs that have me feeling so woozy. I tell someone and they bring a small pink curved tray and place it by my face just in case. I get a cold compress for my forehead and try to take deep breaths. I stare into the blinding light above my face, but before I am conscious of it, I am asleep and the world is silent.

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*What surgeries have you had? How were they alike? How were they different? Get our your timer and write.*

Writing Prompt: How Are You?

Someone asks me how I am, and I say, “good.” Every one says the same thing or a variation of the same thing: “fine,” “well,” “great,” “okay,” any word that has one syllable and gets the job done quick. No one REALLY wants to know how you are. What they want to know is that you are good. They might not even want to know if you’re great, because then that might make them feel a little self-conscious. Why aren’t *they* great? Why are they only good? No, the answer everyone wants to hear when they ask how you are is that you are good.

But how am I…really?

I am ambitious. This is a new year. The clock has started over. The slate is clean. I can make anything happen. I can finish my book. I can restart a healthy lifestyle. I can make time for the things that are good for me and the things I’m passionate about.

I am overwhelmed. There aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything I want to, especially with a shadow in the shape of a toddler, holding her arms up to me every five minutes, shrieking to be held.

I am satisfied. I have a part-time job. It’s the perfect job for me, it’s right down the road, and I get to spend just the right amount of time with my daughter–a lot, but not too much.

I am embarrassed. When someone ask me what I do, I confess I work at the local library, counting books, putting them back on the shelf–work an intelligent monkey or at least an ambitious high schooler could do, not the usual work of someone with a Master’s level of education.

I am comfortable. I love my house. I love my neighborhood. I love my city. There is no where in the world I would rather be.

I am restless. I want more of a connection with my family. I want to be a part of my niece’s and nephew’s lives. I want my daughter to have people around that she can vent to when her parents are driving her nuts, people who will understand because I drive them nuts, too.

I am confident. I am a skilled writer. I am a knowledgable parent. I am an intelligent woman.

I am frightened. Every day, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing.

*If someone asked you how you are, and you were to answer back authentically and honestly, what might you say? Get out your timer and write.*

Writing Prompt: Office Party

It’s 9:30pm. The bar has been open since 6pm, and I mean open–free to order whatever we want without it costing us a dime. Sure, there were appetizers and salad and rolls and entrees and dessert, but they were spread out over the last three and a half hours, unlike the drinks that were downed in a few gulps and ordered again from the quick-handed bartender. Now the tables have been cleared and moved; the floor is bare. Dance music blares from the speaker in the corner. Who is brave enough to dance in front of their coworkers? Correction–who is drunk enough to dance in front of their coworkers?

The answer is soon clear. A man from sales with greasy hair wearing a fancy suit takes the floor; a skinny straw protrudes from the rim of the tumbler in his right hand. He shuffles his feet and scoots across the floor, giving a twirl here and there so the bottom of his blazer spins out from his hips. He doesn’t seem to notice the bystanders lining the perimeter of the room outright pointing in amusement and disbelief.

![](/content/images/2017/12/guy-dancing.jpg)

Soon enough, there’s another middle-aged white guy on the dance floor with him. He dances with more arm movements, probably not trusting his feet to stay coordinated with his level of intoxication. His face is serious; he is clearly focusing on what he’s doing. At first, the two men dance in their own spaces, but once they stumble into each other’s bubbles, they take advantage of it. The first man puts his arm around the second man’s waist, and together they march in a circle.

I sit on a stool at the edge of the room and stare and laugh, but I also tap my toe and nod my head to the beat, jealous that these men have the inhibitions that allow them to enjoy the upbeat music and the wooden dance floor. Yes, that inhibition came in the form of, like, ten cocktails, but they have it all the same. Booze isn’t leaking from my pores, but I still have the desire to do exactly what they are doing–let loose, have fun, blow off some steam without caring what anyone else thinks about it.

*Did you attend an office holiday party this year? Did you let loose or follow social decorum? What does it take for you to allow yourself to have a little fun?*

Baby, It’s Stuffy Inside

One of my favorite holiday tunes has always been “Baby, it’s Cold Outside.” It’s catchy. It’s cheeky. It’s cozy. It’s coy. It’s all the happy “c” words.

But in recent years, it’s been rather tarnished for me, since people have assumed the common opinion that it’s a “rapey” song, in that the man in the song is trying to seduce an unwilling woman into having sex with him. And with sexual assault such a prevalent and important topic in today’s world, we absolutely shouldn’t dismiss this song as harmless if it’s not.

But I think it’s mostly harmless. Did you just hear a record needle scratch vinyl? Are you doing a double take? How could Jenny, Feministest of Feminists, possibly be offering a defense to such a misogynistic song? Because I like it a damn lot, folks, and I’d like to keep listening to it during the Christmas season and not feel like I have to turn in my Feminist card.

I recently read [a (summary of a) defense of the song](https://pizzabottle.com/61145-bb-cold-outside/), which suggests that, for the time period in which it was written, the song is actually about a woman “exerting her sexual agency.” It makes good sense here. What are her reasons for wanting to leave? They’re all socially based. She’s worried about what her parents are thinking, what the neighbors will say. But when she reflects on her time with the gentlemen, she admits that “this evening has been so very nice” and he’s “really been grand.” She seems to have enjoyed her time with him and perhaps doesn’t really want to leave, especially because she dawdles, accepting another drink and cigarette. She likely wants to stay with him in some capacity but is too afraid to give into her own desires because of the backlash it will cause with those close to her.

If we knew more about the nature of their relationship, the scene set up in this song might be an experience we’ve all had—the clock ticks later and later, and we know we should go home before our parents notice we’re gone or because we have to get up early the next day, but the allure of this interested individual or the warmth of their embrace or the temptation of their sculpted body really begs us to stay. She says she “ought to say no, no, no”—she knows she should be responsible, but really doesn’t want to be right now. She wishes she “knew how to break the spell,” in that she wishes she could get over the temptation to stay and just leave, but she’s too drawn to him to do the “logical” thing.

From her point of view, I think feminists everywhere would encourage her to buck the system, to blow off her nosy neighbors and judgey parents and do whatever she wants to do. If she wants to stay longer, stay longer! Don’t make up a stupid excuse to cover your tracks. Be proud of your sexuality and embrace it, sister! Don’t hide behind social expectations and gender stereotypes!

Yes, indeed, this song could actually be EMPOWERING for women everywhere if read from that point of view, instead of victimizing as people see it now.

And I think the reason people see it as victimizing now is because of the man’s point of view and what he says. Because, as is still true with most men today, this guy is totally unenlightened.

![](/content/images/2017/12/babyitscold.jpg)

First off, he calls her “Baby” throughout the song and implies that it’s his responsibility to look out for her. Apparently he believes she isn’t capable of making it home without freezing to death or getting pneumonia, so of course she must stay with him so she stays safe. Because a woman mature enough to be involved in a sexual relationship isn’t mature enough to actually be able to take care of herself. Pul-lease.

Second, when he’s not calling her “Baby,” he’s calling her “Beautiful,” which makes one wonder, does he even KNOW her name? He’s completely caught up in her looks alone, complimenting her hair, her eyes, and her lips; he never once entices her to stay so they can continue to have philosophical discussions about the meaning of life or so she can continue to tell him all her favorite jokes. He really doesn’t seem to care a lick about what kind of a person she is; he’s simply interested in the warm female body in front of him.

Third, the language he uses to toward her is totally gaslighting. His excuses of “what’s the sense of hurting my pride?” and “how can you do this thing to me?” implies that she is causing him harm by not staying, which places the blame on her for the fact that their relationship isn’t moving forward, causing her to feel guilty. Talk about getting pressured. He really turns up the heat when he demands “Baby, don’t hold out,” “hold out” being a common term for withholding sex, again implying that she’s the one at fault here, that she’s keeping something from him that he wants. How dare she not do every little thing the man wants? If she’s not careful, he’ll leave her for someone else. And all the rest of that kind of garbage.

But really, the trump card here is that the woman in the song, at one point, says, “The answer is no,” and no matter what her intentions, whether or not she’s playing hard to get, joking around, or is totally serious, that’s where the song should have ended. That’s where he should have said, “okay,” and walked her to the door. Because a clear address of “the answer is no” means her answer is no, no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” about it. No more excuses. No more blame. No more guilt. No more teasing. No more singing. The answer is no.

So yeah, even with a feminist reading, there’s still plenty that’s misguided in this song. But the issue I have most is people making snap judgments. Things aren’t so black and white. They’ve taken a two and a half minute song and labeled it with one word, when there’s so much at work here. I’m not saying that people who label it “rapey” are wrong; I’ve clearly given them plenty of evidence here. I just want people to discuss it a little more, be thoughtful about it, dig a little deeper into the meaning behind the lyrics, and tackle these important topics with reason and rationality, just like I want them to do with anything else they see and hear in the media. Because if it’s anything we could all use a little more of this holiday season, it’s reason and rationality.

Writing Prompt : Twinkle Lights

![](/content/images/2017/12/christmas-lights.jpg)

Christmas twinkle lights set a mood. They hypnotize in the way that a glowing fire or rolling waves can. There is something that draws us in. Something that mesmerizes. Something that keeps us looking though the view doesn’t really change.

When I was younger, I strung them along my ceiling and I’d write furiously in my journal by the dim light, recalling the events of the day, the boy of the hour, the challenges of my young life. It was relaxing and nostalgic. It was like writing by candlelight without the smoke, the smell, the fear of soot and melted wax leeching onto my prized possessions. It made me feel cozy and warm and safe, my own little space dark to the rest of the world but illuminated enough only for me.

And there’s a romance to them, too. A romance of transforming an everyday space into something slightly more magical, slightly more exotic. In the dimness, rooms can change; furniture looks different, shadows hide the mess, the imperfections. Instead of the same old room in the same old house, I can imagine I’m in a cottage in the woods up north, not a soul for miles.

There’s a literal romance to them, too, when all the lights are off except for a string of glowing twinkle lights. Snug in the arms of my lover, wrapped in a warm blanket, snow lightly collecting on the window pane, it’s easy to forget that there is a world outside of that one moment, and we are both happy to stay as we are all night long.

I don’t know why, but it seems twinkle lights promote love, not only with lovers, but with our families. They create a mood that erases the past and the future; they freeze time so we can live in the present, happy where we are, happy who we’re with, as long as there are twinkle lights.

*Do you love twinkle lights? What is it you love about them? What is your favorite aspect of the holiday season? Get out your timer and write*

Instincts

When Amelia was about a month old and started to struggle with sleep, a well-meaning friend recommended I read a book called *Babywise* which outlined a strategy to get a baby on a schedule so they’ll know when to expect sleep and thus go to sleep. I devoured that book in a day, hopeful that the solution to my problem was in those pages and life would soon get easier. I implemented the steps the book outlined, but Amelia wasn’t cooperating with any of it. I was confused. The book said all I had to do was this, this, and this, and Amelia would be on a perfect schedule. I did this, this, and this, but nothing really changed. In fact, it got worse.

I racked my brain, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Certainly I must have missed something. I scoured the internet for forums about the book and read hundreds of comments in hopes to mend whatever errors I had made. What I found only confused me more; everyone seemed to have different opinions about what worked. People even had opinions on whether or not the method itself even worked. I felt so lost.

Some of the most useful advice I got around this time was to trust my instincts. However, I wasn’t able to find it useful when I received it. In fact, it made me feel more hopeless. “What instincts?” I thought to myself. “I have no instincts. I’ve never done this before. I have no clue how to be a parent.”

It took me almost the whole first year of Amelia’s life to finally understand that Amelia is not a formula. Books and websites try to tell parents that if you do this, this, and this, you’ll get the same definite result. But the only other useful piece of advice, true advice, I’ve ever received about parenting is that every baby is different. Babies are not formulas. They are humans. Some days they’ll be tired and they’ll nap easily and on time. Some days they won’t be tired and they won’t nap. Some days they’ll be tired but they still won’t nap. Humans have free will. They do what they want and feel how they feel and nothing anyone does can change that.

I felt such a relief when I finally came to that realization. I felt like I was finally at peace with not having control over Amelia. There wasn’t a logical reason for everything she did (and even if there was, it would be impossible for her to tell me), and that was surprisingly comforting.

Then I got cancer. And I read another book called *After Cancer Care* which outlined a strategy to keep cancer from coming back. I devoured that book in a day, hopeful that the solution to my problem was in those pages and life would soon get easier. Much like *Babywise,* there were steps outlined in the book which required me to revamp my entire diet and make time for meditation and exercise every day. What days I don’t spend 8 hours or more at the library, I’m a full-time mom of a 14-month-old who only takes one nap, so the extra time to buy, cook, and eat healthy food, exercise, and mediate is not something I have just laying around. At first, I tried to do it all anyhow, but after a month, I burned myself out, unable to keep up with the hard work of keeping cancer away.

I’ve gotten the same advice about cancer that I got about parenting—trust my instincts. Listen to my body. It’ll tell me what I need to do. But guess what? I didn’t hear anything. I have no instincts. I’ve never done this before. I have no clue how to keep cancer away.

I know in my head that it doesn’t matter what I do—that if cancer is going to come back, it’s going to come back; there’s no foolproof way to keep it at bay. I could follow that book’s instructions to a “t” and yet cancer may knock on my door yet again. I have to keep reminding myself that these books, like parenting books, are written after the fact, when everything turned out okay; they have the advantage to say “see, this works.” In my opinion, they got lucky that it worked *for them* (which doesn’t, by default, mean it’ll work for me). They don’t waste their pages talking about the doubt, the questioning, the hopelessness they faced as they conducted their experiments. If they did, they wouldn’t be credited as “experts” and they wouldn’t sell any books.

So I have to keep reminding myself to use my mantra for parenting Amelia on myself—I am a human, not a formula. I can do this, this, and this, but it will be no guarantee that life will turn out perfectly. I will have good and bad days, energetic and lazy days, healthy and toxic days. The best strategy is accept that I can’t do everything and, instead, do my best and hope for the best.

That’s my instinct, anyhow.

Writing Prompt: Lump

I felt a lump in my right breast one morning. My then-boyfriend, now-husband Chris was in the shower. The light blue of the early light shone through the white blinds of the large window overhead. I stretched and, without purpose, my finger poked my breast. It touched not soft, pliable skin but a hard, definite mass. I began to feel the area more earnestly, more vigorously, to confirm my suspicion and look for anything else that may be hiding.

The bathroom door opened, and my exploring fingers dropped to the mattress. Chris’s silhouette was dark against the harsh light that flowed out from behind him. He climbed back in bed, droplets of water still clinging to his chest, and kissed me softly on the mouth. I smiled and said, “My turn.” I swung my feet to the floor and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind me.

As I continued to press the lump with my finger throughout my shower, I considered my situation. Breast cancer was genetic—this I knew—especially when it was in your maternal bloodline. My mother had cysts in her breast before. She had biopsies before. Nothing was ever malignant. I heard that breast cancer could skip a generation. I was 23 years old, a year out of college and a year without health insurance. I had spent the last year working small jobs as a receptionist and a waitress. I just started a new desk job, but the insurance was expensive and I had to wait a while before I could sign up for it. I had been going to Planned Parenthood for checkups and birth control for the last year. I decided to wait and see what they said at my annual exam in six months.

That evening, in the quiet of our apartment, I told Chris that I had felt something in my breast. I took his hand and showed him where the lump was. He tapped it a few times with his finger, then said gently and genially, “It could be a lot of things. It’s probably nothing.”

“Yeah. I’m sure it’s nothing,” I replied.

I didn’t mention it to my family. I didn’t mention it to Chris again. But every morning and every night, when I lay in bed, I pushed my finger into my breast over and over again.

When my grandmother finally went to the doctor and she was diagnosed with cancer, they explained that they needed to cut off her breast to keep the cancer from spreading. “If it has to come off, then take it off,” she told the doctor. So they took it off. If she had any negative feelings about this prognosis, she didn’t let on. There was no use crying or throwing a fit. It had to be done, so she did it.

When I finally went to the doctor and got my lump looked at, and they told me I needed a mammogram, I scheduled a mammogram. And when they told me the mammogram was inconclusive and that I needed a biopsy, I scheduled a biopsy. I went to my appointments and I did what they told me to do.

And then I went home and cried, as I imagine my grandmother did.

Perhaps she cried sitting up in bed in the middle of the night when my grandfather was sleeping. Perhaps she cried over the kitchen sink washing dishes as he was outside tending his garden. Though she had a strong and loving marriage, I suspect she mourned privately. She wasn’t vain and she wasn’t weak, and I would never imagine that my grandfather would accuse her of such characteristics if she cried in front of him. But I suspect she didn’t. Because I, too, cried in the shower, in the car, anywhere I was alone.

After her surgery, my grandmother had a padded bra so it appeared that she still had both breasts, but I’m sure when she bathed or undressed, it would take her a second to face herself in the mirror. The scar on my breast left by my biopsy made me feel as though I was diseased or perhaps no longer a whole woman. My breast was imperfect, mutilated. And as I looked at it in the mirror, the fresh wound, I was face to face with my mortality and wondered if this was how my grandmother felt.

*When were you faced with a scary medical situation? Did you avoid it? How did you feel once you learned what it was? Get our your timer and write.*