Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Shifting Landscape

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The moment I knew it was time to give up sheep farming is etched into my memory. It was late February and lambing season. Checking the barn, I saw a ewe straining. She was trying to birth her lamb, but the lamb’s knees had gotten jammed behind her pelvic bones so that its head was out and swollen. I caught the ewe, carefully reached in, released the lamb’s legs, and pulled it out. I placed the lamb at the mother’s nose, and she started to clean it off while I pulled out the twin.

The second lamb got to its feet immediately, and so did the mother, turning her attention away from the limp first-born, whose head was so swollen that it couldn’t get its balance to stand. The mother’s attention might get it to its feet, but I could also take it inside the house to keep it warm, feed it, and give it time to get the swelling down. Experience said that if I did that, I’d have a bottle-lamb on my hands. I knew I could not handle that task again.

Earlier that year, in January, the same thing had happened. Inside the house, the lamb took all day to get to its feet, and I fed it with a bottle until it did. When it went back to the barn, we made four trips a day to feed it. Back in January, my eighty-year-old husband did half of those trips.

Now, with snow drifted to my waist, filling back in any path I made, he was not able to get to the barn at all. With my off-farm job and doing all the barn work and dealing with the mountain of snow, I could not handle four trips a day to feed one lamb. I walked away, leaving the lamb where it was.

When I went back a couple hours later, driven to check on it, the lamb was on its feet. The mother had done what was needed. But I had not intervened. It was time to quit farming if I could not do what needed to be done.

Six months later, we sold the farm: three hundred acres, two old barns, and a two-storey century home. We left the care of the land in the competent hands of dairy farmers. We suspected that they would take out the fence rows, thereby also taking out habitat for birds, squirrels, mice, and rabbits and removing trees that captured carbon, but they would work the land with sustainable agricultural practices. We bought a bungalow with a finished basement and a decent-sized lot on the shore of Georgian Bay.

When we took possession of the bungalow, the first thing I did was transplant roots, bulbs, and corms from our farm garden into the new garden. The comfrey and orange lilies I had inherited from the family that had settled and maintained the farm before us. Irises came from the home my husband grew up in and from my parents’ garden. The allium and other lilies I had planted. In each case, I took just part of the root, a few of the bulbs, ensuring the plants would still be there for whoever lived in the farmhouse. And for the wild things that ate from them.

Painting by Brenda Whiteway showing a woman in a doorway, floral wallpaper, and the roots of a plant outside.

Years Passing / Years Beginning by Brenda Whiteway

In our new house, I planted Jerusalem artichoke and the comfrey, loved by pollinators and hummingbirds, out near the road, a place where they could spread without crowding other plants. With the first lilies I put in the ground, also out by the road, I realized that the soil of our new location was clay; I mixed in generous amounts of compost. When I moved to the place I had chosen for the irises, closer to the house, my trowel bounced when I tried to dig. I cleared the mulch and uncovered landscape fabric.

I stopped. I investigated the rest of the yard. I found that under the gravel on the paths was black fabric. Under the mulch around the trees was fabric. Between the hydrangeas, around the ninebark and Russian sage, everywhere, the ground was covered with fabric. Wild asters and colts foot had found enough soil in the mulch to grow above the fabric, but no roots reached through.

I went back to plant the irises by cutting through the fabric. I found dead, grey clay. No worms or insects or roots of any kind. I ripped the hole bigger and put in a substantial amount of composted manure and planted the irises. I worried they wouldn’t survive.

The loam on our farm had been fertile. With plenty of manure to spread and a rotation that included alfalfa and trefoil, the ground was productive. Also, with forty acres of bush and thick fence rows, our carbon footprint was pretty well zero. What we put in the air our trees absorbed. But what about now on my little parcel of land? I wondered what mitigation strategies I could take up in this location.

About this time, I came across an article in a farm magazine about capturing carbon in soil. I realized that although I had much less land, I could intensify my practice and capture carbon in the ground. If I removed the fabric barrier that kept the clay dead, I could regenerate the soil, encouraging plants to flourish. I could capture carbon in living plants and soil as well as the trees on our lot.

That fall, I raked leaves off the lawn and into the garden. I dug them into the ground. Come spring, I carefully cut the fabric and lifted it without uprooting the plants. I dug in the mulch as well as some of the wildflowers that grew in it and were taking over. I planted snow peas around an ash tree. The next year, I decided, the peas would go near the irises. The year after around the lilac tree. They would put nitrogen in the soil while growing, feed us when the pods matured, and get dug into the ground when they were done.

I started a composter. I carefully avoided putting meat into it, as there is a bear and a fisher living near enough, and a fox who visits regularly. The first batch of compost made a tea to be used to water the vegetables. The next batch got dug into the hard ground where I planted the day lilies and old-fashioned roses.

The previous owner left me heavy cement pots. These I filled with herbs, coriander and basil, parsley and oregano. I picked up more pots at the thrift store to plant tomatoes and peppers that I grew from seed under LED lights in the basement. I planted borage in pots and in the empty space behind the shasta daisies, flowers for the bees, and leaves for our salads. I created a small terraced garden for beets and lettuce and zucchini. I don’t grow as many vegetables as I did in the farm garden, but for two of us there are salad greens and some good home-grown veggies. I planted two apple trees. It will be years before they produce, but there will be apples here. Not the wild ones I’ve come to love, but good fruit.

There was a lot to learn. I knew I had to water the potted plants, but I forgot they needed fertilizer more often. That compost tea has come to good use. The climate is different by the bay, with spring coming later. But fall lingers as well. There is a lot of shade, something I did not have on the farm. I’ve marked the sunny spots for next year’s planning.

I’m learning to live with the birds here too. The blue jays and squirrels compete over the sunflower seeds. The squirrels spill the seed for the wild turkeys and a couple mallard ducks who waddle up from the shore. We have no barn swallows but the hummingbirds love the flowers, especially the comfrey as it spreads.

I needed to turn away from farming, to leave the livestock and the buildings I could no longer maintain. I miss the acres of land. But I am still a farmer who watches the weather and notices how the shifting patterns affect what grows. And here, on this bit of shoreline, I do what I can to bring life.


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Hers was probably the fiftieth or sixtieth door I knocked on that afternoon. The sun had set enough that the white doors on the east side of the street were no longer too bright to look at. A dog barked inside her house, so I knew at least someone heard my knock. It’s always a guessing game: how long to wait before I accept that no one is coming. Thankfully, she answered quickly. She had a go-away face, though, her eyes hard and a tension around her mouth as if she were trying to spit me out.

I introduced myself and my organization and moved into the opening of my pitch before she could cut me off. “We’re a local non-profit that does a lot of environmental advocacy at city council and we’re in your neighbourhood doing some outreach this afternoon. I was wondering if you’re concerned about environmental issues?”

Her eyes hardened even further as I spoke, but her mouth relaxed to form the words with which she planned to send me away. “Well of course I am. Everyone is. But I don’t have time right now, so goodbye.” She shut the door before I could say anything more.

Hardly anyone has time to talk, so I was accustomed to this sort of rejection, especially at “cold doors” where the residents were not already on our member list. The closed door did not bother me, but as I moved on to the next house I pondered this woman’s assumption that of course she’s concerned, everyone is. Because everyone isn’t. That is one thing you learn when you try to talk to all the people on one street.

There were some houses I canvassed where the resident (often an older man) told me that he thinks we need more pipelines or, in one case, that he supports Donald Trump. These are the houses where we are trained to say, “Okay, have a nice day,” and move on, because the chances of recruiting them as supporters are slim. I wonder how the woman at the door that morning would have reacted if she encountered this kind of opposition from her neighbours. Would she have left her door open longer to prove that she’s on my side? Or kept it closed, satisfied that at least she cares, and that ought to be enough?

The vast majority of people seem to stop at caring, alleging sympathy, while still ushering me away claiming that this isn’t a good time. These are people with dinner on the stove or on the table, who are trying to bathe their kids, who just got home from a long day at work, who are trying to watch the game on TV. People who have someone on the phone, who are doing housework, who are just heading out, who aren’t feeling well today, and who don’t feel obligated to make excuses to a stranger. These people are me sometimes too, as I rush past a blue-vested street canvasser with my headphones in, pretending that I’m late to class.

Digital art by Katarna Marinic showing a composite being with arms, legs, eyes.

Composite Hybrid by Katarina Marinic

The present is sabotaging the future, and it terrifies me. Yes, the system is rigged by fossil fuel companies and powerful climate-science deniers, but on the local scale, “I don’t have time right now so goodbye” is also a substantial threat to environmental progress. People are so caught up in the quotidian details of getting by that they have no time left to step back and think about solutions to problems that will make it harder to put food on the table and be secure in their home and maintain their health in the not-so-distant future. It’s easier to just avoid the rabbit hole of anxiety. This is both a major obstacle and a call to action for activists.

As another dozen doors shut in my face, or as I burrow deeper into my hood to avoid being stopped for a sidewalk survey, I can’t help but wonder if capitalism did this on purpose. I really do have to get to class on time, just as my canvassees really do have to get their kids to soccer practice. Society pushes us towards fulfilling our individual responsibilities in a way that makes coming together for systemic change highly inconvenient. We are barraged with alarm bells through every form of media, on the streets and in our houses. To breathe, we shut them out.

When I began to get involved in environmental activism in my first year of university, I thought it was about yelling. Get out in the streets with as many people as you can muster! Sneak banners into strategic locations and be disruptive! That way, everyone would have to remember how dire the situation is. It baffled me how people could just go about their lives and not be (outwardly) concerned about climate change. Don’t they know, I thought, that if we don’t do something right now we’re quite possibly going to destroy the planet forever?!  The more I talked to people both in my daily life and while canvassing at their doors, I realized that most people do know, yet they oscillate between denial and feeling overwhelmed. Instead of feeling the urgency of action, they just want the chatter to stop.

Imagine silence. No one pressing for solutions, as climate change lurks in the shadows. It would feel unbalanced, a chasm of potential waiting to be filled with the floodwater on its way to our doors. As activists, we are compelled to lead the charge, banners flapping behind us as we rush to stem the tide, echoes of our rallying cry emphasizing the emptiness behind us and in the pits of our stomachs.

No one will follow us if they only hear our alarm but don’t feel heard themselves.

To grow our movement, we can’t rely on simply convincing people, adding more anxiety into their already-busy lives. Yelling louder won’t cut through the noise. I used to go into conversations with potential supporters as if they were stubborn legislators: a verbal bulldozer, determined to stick to my position and not back down. But effective activism is really about listening. When I listen to people’s concerns, I find that most people already have the motivation to do something.

At the door, it was my job to show people how giving to my organization was one way to make a small contribution to environmental work, and that’s not untrue: for those with more money than time, donations to community organizations are vital to move the cause forward. But off the clock, there are so many other things that people can do. They can vote. They can vote with their money. They can get out and protest. They can go to a beach cleanup. They can have a car-free day or a meatless Monday or bring a reusable mug and cutlery in their bag. Deep into a conversation with one young mom about her efforts to avoid disposable diapers, I fumbled for any information that she didn’t already know, afraid of losing her interest. But in the end, she donated not because I led her to care, but because I stood with her in her struggle to work out her path, accidentally managing to assure her that we are in this fight together.

Yelling about how everyone needs to be actively involved in the solution often rips the environmental movement apart. We are caught in the paradox between being palatable to centrists and acting fast enough to protect marginalized communities. Ironically, these arguments can keep us from both immediate action and slowing down to listen to our neighbours.

As activists, we can’t get so caught up in our own concerns that, just like the woman I met at the door, we don’t have time when people want to talk. As a movement, we can’t let the climate crisis become our everything, causing us to shut out the other parts of life that threaten to overwhelm us. We can’t assume that we have the support of the entire left without doing anything to include them. Closing the door keeps us from building support and making progress. Instead, let’s take a breath. Lock eyes. And listen to how we can move forward together.


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The woman looks up, curious but distracted by the little ones tugging at her skirt. I want to talk to her. I get out of the car and walk over, the translator now knowing what to ask before even saying a word to me. He speaks to her in Mandinka, the language of rural Gambia. He continues to talk and I wait to see if she is willing. Yes. She wants to talk too. And so we begin.

Have the weather patterns changed over the course of your life? I ask. Are things different now than they were when you were younger?

Questions about perceptions of weather and climate are often a part of my research and I’m genuinely curious to learn the responses. Here in the Gambia, however, I can now almost predict what I will hear: the weather is indeed changing.

Yet this particular woman seems to have a lot more to say and I wait for the translator to unlock her wisdom.

Yes, she says, the weather is different. It used to rain very reliably. These people, they are farmers and they could plant their seeds and the rain would come and they could rely on good harvests. But now, now nothing is reliable. The rains don’t come. People plant seeds and they die. It is getting very difficult to farm.

I ask further: Why do you think that the weather is changing and the rains are so unreliable?

She speaks quickly and seems agitated, her hands gesturing. I am eager to hear her explanation but surprised by the words that come from the translator’s mouth.

It is the young girls. They wear short skirts now … exposing their bodies. They don’t show respect to Allah. And so He is angry. We anger Him with this and He is punishing us.

The woman then asks if I could take a photo of her with her twin granddaughters. She scoops them up and hoists them upon each hip.


I first came to the Gambia, the smallest nation on the African continent, several years prior to this encounter. As a Geography Professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, I’ve had the chance to travel to the country on several development and academic trips. The connection with the Gambia had been forged by an historical relationship: my university assisted in the development of the University of the Gambia. Early on, when presented with the opportunity to travel there, I wasn’t excited. Poor and underdeveloped, I thought, dry and dusty. My head filled with stereotypes. But my first trip sealed my love for the so-called “Smiling Coast” and the people changed my perspective permanently.

On this particular occasion, a colleague and I were investigating perceptions of climate change among rural Gambians. The northern and eastern regions of the country are classic Sahel, dry and arid for much of the year and with people relying heavily on the distinct rainy season to grow food. I was curious to know what Gambians were thinking and feeling about changing weather patterns and what explanations they had for the changes. What would they do when the rains no longer fell?


Towards the coast, a group of women gather. During the week they sell produce at market stalls to support their families. They are talking to me about farming, their traditional ways of life and how things are getting harder now.

Before, there was enough rainfall. People were engaged in farming. There is not enough rain now. A lot of farmers have lost hope. Climate change has discouraged people.

Climate change. I did not expect to hear this term. It’s one we in the west use describe the impacts we levy on those in less-developed countries but not one that local people in the Gambia often use themselves. I don’t know where these women would have learned the term and I didn’t probe them. Perhaps it’s becoming more common through environmental education campaigns and the fact that food and water security depend on understanding the issues. It could also be that with the prospect of rising sea levels, in a country that is at or even below sea level, the term is making its way into the media and mindsets of local people. In any case, the women continue….

Government agencies and NGOs, they tell youth to think more about farming and fishing. Is this realistic? The drought is making it very difficult. There is not enough rainfall to harvest anything. So the youth go backway.

Backway is the local term for those who attempt the trek to Europe in search of opportunity and success. On the African continent, the Gambia ranks among the highest per-capita contributors to irregular migrants who make the journey across the Mediterranean. Primarily youth, they risk their lives on routes from West Africa through the desert to Libya; from Libya they get into over-loaded boats that will take them to Italy and other parts of Europe. They know the risks but they still do it, or want to do it, because of the pressures they are facing at home and the successes they have seen of those who have landed on the shores of Europe. So the very cultural landscape of many rural villages is changing. The youth are gone. The women, the caretakers of the villages, are hoping and coping and praying for the successful migrant journey.

Abstract painting by Renée Cohen showing rust hill and blue ocean.

Ocean Reflecting Rust Hill by Renée Cohen

In a rural village in the so-called upcountry of Gambia, I speak with with a group of young girls just out of high school. They tell me their frustrations with those of us in Europe and North America who view migrants as thieves and criminals. The girls want me to know that the boys they went to school with—the ones who left—were the brightest in their class. These boys were unable to secure scholarships to study in Europe and decided to travel the “illegal” route instead. Their boat capsized. They all drowned. The girls were grief-stricken, but also angry.

They were the top students. They should have been able to go to Italy, to Germany, to the UK. Just to study! They were not criminals. They were just boys. Their mothers are left without sons. They are gone. Like they just disappeared. These houses here, this is where they lived. Now they are gone. One, he was my boyfriend. We were going to get married. Now who will I marry and have children with?


I feel like a hypocrite, of course, flying all the way around the world, contributing to the climate changes that so gravely impact Gambians. I like to think I am somehow different and that by asking these questions, by seeking out audiences who willingly listen to these stories, I am not as complicit. I hope that my efforts to educate my students back in Canada, my efforts to lend voice to those who might not otherwise have one, are in some way are my carbon offsets. But I don’t know.


We walk into the dark circular home of a traditional birth attendant. Our eyes quickly adjust from the bright sun to the dark interior. There are only a few small seats and a bed inside.

I birthed a woman in that bed today, the woman says.

I looked at the bed and wonder how the birth had gone. How different and difficult delivering a baby must be in conditions so far from those in the west.

How many babies have you delivered? I ask.

Oh, I don’t know, I have lost count. Many hundreds or thousands, she says, laughing.

We smile awkwardly, trying to imagine the babies who have entered the world and the brave mothers who birthed them in this bed. Even getting to this traditional hut can be a challenge. There are physical limitations to travelling during the rainy season and when flooding occurs. Women therefore prefer to have babies in the dry season, so travel is easier and their planting and harvesting of rice isn’t impacted. Raising crops and raising children—both the sole responsibility of women. But now the extreme heat and the unpredictability of the rains and crops are making pregnancy and childbirth, which were never easy, even harder.


We talk of concepts like mitigation and adaptation in the discourse on climate change. But how can women in rural Gambia mitigate or adapt to their new realities? In my travels, I haven’t seen many options. “Adaptation strategies” can quickly become an academic conversation among those in circles of power. Something necessary to discuss. The reality for many, and for women and children in particular, is that they must simply confront new challenges. They must cope with climate change, no matter what. So it makes sense that a lot of the weight of climate change and the new challenges they face are lifted up to God. To Allah. And, ultimately, the blame is often laid on the shoulders of those who have nothing to do with the rains that do or do not fall: girls with short skirts, not the consumption and consumerism of the industrialised world.

Dragging My Soul Across A Hellscape of Broken Glass, or One Woman’s Account of Filing For Disability Support

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Last summer, I quit a performance I was doing with my collaborators in Calgary and booked a ticket home. I quit because my body had quit. My body was having “seizures” all the time, even when we were all three in our Charlie Chaplin costumes, inside the space we’d made to “live” in—a cozy little cell copped from the Chaplin film Modern Times, with a viewing window as in a zoo/museum exhibit. I couldn’t keep the movements from happening, the jerking of my arms and legs, even when the eyes were on us. I had to laugh and wink toward the glass as though letting the audience in on the joke, this Chaplin who has no control, this master clown who’s lost even the smallest amount of mastery over their body.

Later, the tears wouldn’t stop as my neck went rigid and jerky and felt like it’d snap. I barely got myself home, to the place I was housesitting. I barely got myself online, got a ticket. On the plane I held my neck in both hands to keep it from spasming too obviously. I turned my face to the window and cried until I ran out of tear-water. My collaborators empathized, they said it was ok, that I needed to forgive myself, that health comes first. I’ll never forgive myself. I am not a person who quits. I don’t get bested by pain. I suffer through it.

I suffer through, until it’s impossible. I need to dig a grave for the brightest part of me. I can’t act on stage any more, or in small enclosures as Charlie Chaplin, either. I don’t know when my limbs might jerk, or a loud, guttural, noise might leap out. Unreliable. I flew home saying goodbye to myself. I’d delayed this goodbye for so long—at least a year past the point when my hands flapped by themselves on the stage floor as I “lay unconscious” as a—hilarious!—character in chronic pain, in a play that had been written by a mentor of mine. I held my body still with force, to keep more flaps from polluting the performance. Later, she told me I’d ruined her show. Slowed it down. Did I? Added whole minutes with my pauses. Did I do that? Brain fog? Blackout? Did I fuck up that badly, or was I being gaslit? Did it matter? That one moment with my hands moving on the floor without my consent was enough. Unpardonable. It didn’t matter about the rest. If the instrument doesn’t function, it can’t be played in public any more.

I delayed the end of things, long past the point when performing meant giving up everything else. It’s meant that for years—five years, ten. An ascetic existence with all energy bent toward the magic hour on the stage. The rest of life caves in, becomes nothing but flare. All energy consumed in the time with the audience. I was in love with it. There’s something in me that isn’t there until I’m someone else, saying someone else’s words, making new some story that’s been rigidified on paper, making that magic feeling grow in the room under the stage lights, forgetting myself, allowing for other, allowing for a new sense of my physical self—how it stands, moves, where it holds its fear and power. How my voice is habitually caught, and how I can release it in larger, bolder sounds than I’d ever make myself.

I came home last summer in a state of emergency, with a sense of ungroundedness, of floundering. What do I do now? Who am I if I can’t be on stage? Why is my body so reactive? Is this all due to fibromyalgia? Am I possessed? My doctor made an appointment with a neurologist. I’m still waiting, a year later. I went to my naturopath, who, before talking about the seizures, asked me about my financial situation. (Freelance artist. Poor.) She suggested disability support. “Stress makes everything worse.” Asked if my parents could help me. I broke down and sobbed. She offered to treat me for free by email for a while, but I felt ashamed, and her pity unfurled my courage. I haven’t been back since, although it was the naturopath who made the connection between the worsening of my seizures and the medication the doctor had me on. My doctor was astounded at the correlation but admitted it made sense, and we started the dark, autumn-long weaning process where everything got worse and I regularly had the thought that I should die, so as not to be a burden on the world any more.

Throughout that time, I filled in forms, made lists of symptoms, and wrote paragraphs about my pain, my daily routines, why I could no longer maintain employment. As a self-employed, freelance artist working in several disciplines, it took a few months to prove my income was even valid, according to the government. Paperwork designed to regulate the disregulated and make sense of how dysfunctional you are, in comparison to other lives, other bodies—are you sick enough to be disabled? Or are you just sickly? Doctor must file medical report. She said she’d do it if necessary, but most people with fibromyalgia don’t get disability. I said I know, it took my mom three tries and a lawyer. I need this. I’m over a barrel, as they say. (Why do they say that?) I’m over a barrel and have no choices left. Can only write an hour a day. And writing pays nothing. I pay to write! I used to feed the habit with that fat acting cash. Get a film role every three years, put it in the bank and leak it out slowly while I similarly eke out the paragraphs. (Maybe I can still do film. Small roles? Short shoots. They can always fix me in post. Edit around the spasms and twitches).

It’s been seven months since I sent my claim in, and it’s been denied because they haven’t received my doctor’s report. Seven months later, and it’s still in the to-do pile. She’s paid eighty-five dollars from the federal government for each report. I call Service Canada. I talk to a kind and empathetic individual. She’s never heard of a late doctor’s report being the reason a claim was denied. It simply doesn’t happen. I go to the doctor’s office in tears, with a fresh copy of my paperwork and a plan to threaten a complaint to the College of Doctors and Physicians, if need be. My heart is in my lip, making it twitch, it’s in the front of my throat, and I feel queasy. My doctor is a nice person. She means well. I’m prepared to threaten her reputation, if I have to. I need this done, and I need it now, before my window for appeal runs out. I need this—a meagre-yet-steady income that would let me exist. Can a doctor understand this kind of desperation? I need a trickle, a steady trickle. The doc says I’m next on her list. It’ll take two weeks. I’m crying. She’s sorry. She has two thousand patients and five hundred reports due. She says it’s not her fault and not my fault. It’s their fault for requiring so much paperwork. No word from the neurologist on an appointment yet, but “I don’t think it’s life-threatening, whatever’s going on. Fingers crossed.”

What right to care can I expect? What right to be heard, understood, supported? Today, I’ll write to Service Canada with my letter of appeal, describing how my doctor’s been overloaded, and that’s why she hasn’t sent in her report, which they can expect by the end of this month, she’s promised. I’ve always been the type to believe in promises. Then I’ll cross my fingers, and wait four months for the review of my file. There’ll be another denial, this time on medical grounds. The government health advisor will find my body not yet tragic enough. Then I’ll hire someone to help me, someone who only gets paid if you win. The months will stretch on. I’ll keep auditioning for television, voiceovers—if I could land a decent walk-on, it’d keep me in kale and tahini for a few months. I’ll keep trying for translation jobs online, too, ghostwriting, editing—little gigs I can feasibly do. I’ll write grant applications and hope for something good to happen. I don’t know what, or when, or how. Hope keeps me upright and moving forward, even when my progress is so slow, it seems I’m inert. I’ve been dragging my past behind me, but it’s a new era, now.

A second act.

The stage is full up with actresses, strong, smart and hungry. I sit in the audience and try not to spasm. I do my best not to let my broken heart show—my final, ongoing performance.

You Can Do Better Than That

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I was two days away from my thirty-second birthday and giving birth to my first child.

“Push, push! Come on, you can do better than that,” the nurse was yelling at me.

“No, I can’t. I’m giving it everything I’ve got,” I remember saying.

“There’s something to be said for having your kids when you’re younger,” she grumbled.

Everything after that is a blur. My baby boy came out healthy and demanding my attention from his first breath. He weighed nine pounds but the statistic that impressed me was that his head circumference was thirty-seven centimetres.

“That’s a large head,” my doctor later told me. “Good for you, you did so well.”

“The nurse didn’t think so,” I said and then recounted my “moment” in the delivery room. I was still angry weeks later and now so was my doctor.

“Some people still believe that the best time to give birth is in your early twenties. It’s old thinking,” she said.

“Who’s ready for that in their twenties?” I’d had a long labour and a tough delivery.

“Exactly,” the doctor said.

Since then, a number of my friends have had their first children at forty-two and forty-three. I didn’t think that unusual. My mother gave birth to me when she was forty. And back then, that was definitely rare. I was the youngest of three; my sisters were ten and fifteen when I was born.

“Why the big gaps?” I asked my mother.

“Sometimes you can’t plan these things,” she said. “I wanted five-year spacing but after your sister was born, I had a hard time getting pregnant again. But I really wanted a third child so we kept trying,” she explained. “And now here you are, what a gift.”

“Was it because dad wanted a boy?” I asked what I had wondered for so many years.

“Oh, maybe,” my mother said. Her eyes were sparkling and she was smiling. “But he was thrilled when you were born. We both were.”

Looking back, I realise that I have always been around people who were older. It was normal to me. There were my parents, and my parents’ friends; my sisters and their friends. No one was surprised then, that I married a man twelve years my senior. I wasn’t bothered by our age difference too much, although there were times when I wondered if it was a good idea. I remember talking to my mother about it once and our conversation went something like this:

“If on average women live seven years longer than men and he’s twelve years older than I am, I’m going to be alone for nineteen years. I don’t know if I want that,” I said.

“Yes, but remember, those are statistics. You can’t plan your life out too carefully. Sometimes you just have to live it.” My mother adored Eric.

We had been married for ten years when both of my parents moved in with us. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and needed care. My sisters were working full time but I had taken time off the paid workforce to raise my two children. I was at home anyway, so why wouldn’t I look after my parents too?


Holding On (hooked rug) by Laura Kenney


Looking after my parents was not only what I wanted to do, it was what I had been raised to do. In our Portuguese culture, it’s normal, it’s expected, it’s just the way it is.

Our situation was more complicated than most in that my parents didn’t speak English very well. They had immigrated at the age of fifty and their knowledge of English at the time was limited to a few words and sentences. Both of them had started their Canadian life working hard, each of them often juggling two or three labour-intensive jobs. Learning English dropped on the priority list—they had to house and feed their family. After nearly three decades, they could get by in their adopted country, but their English was still broken.

As my mother’s illness progressed, she lost all of her ability to speak English and could only communicate in Portuguese. To have put her in a home would mean that one more time in her life, she’d be unable to talk to anyone. I couldn’t fathom that. So Eric and I invited them to live with us. My sisters helped regularly and, later, there was support from the health system. Still, for a few years, my life was a whirr of caregiving. I remember taking my parents for coffee one day. It was their preferred outing: coffee and a biscotti in the afternoon. As we were walking from the car to the coffee shop, we took up the entire sidewalk. I was in the middle; my mother held on to my arm on my right, and my father, with his cane, held on to her. On my left, I held my son’s hand and he held on to his sister who was then about four years old. We must have made quite the scene. One woman walking toward us stopped and said to me, “Well, aren’t you the sandwich generation.”

Yes, yes I was. My days were full of caregiving from the moment I woke up until I laid my head on the pillow at bedtime. And sometimes I’d be called upon once or twice during the night too. My morning shower was the only time I could guarantee that I would be alone. Sometimes, when I took an extra long shower, there would be a knock on the door, “Mommm! Vóvó needs you!”

I remember crying in the shower one day, thinking, Oh my God, I am going to be looking after needy people for the rest of my life.

That night, in bed, I turned to Eric and said, “I’m going to need to look after you too, aren’t I?”

“Maybe. Or maybe I’ll have to look after you. You can’t always plan, sometimes you just have to live, isn’t that what your mother said?”

“Yes, you’re right. I mean, I could step off the curb one day and get hit by a truck. That would be horrible.” I remember laughing so hard after I said that. I was exhausted.

My mother died after living with us for two years. My father died nine months later. And then, two short years after that, when we were finally recovering from all the grief and were establishing a new normal in our extended family, my sister Maria was diagnosed with aggressive, terminal cancer, and died. She was fifty-six.

Today, I am the same age Maria was when she died. I have taken a leave from work and I have become a student again. So many people, friends and strangers alike, have said to me, “Wow, good for you. A student. I don’t think I could do that, not at my age.”

That baby I pushed out all those years ago has now finished university; his sister is halfway through. Both are adults with their own dreams. Eric will retire at the end of the year and soon after that I hope to get my degree. No part of our lives follows the expected trajectory. We seem to live life by the seat of our pants and, most of the time, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Africa: An Apology

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Dear Africa,

I want to apologize. I had no reason to abandon you. I had no reason to push you away. I wanted to hide from you. I wanted to pretend that you didn’t exist. But I know you have always been in my blood. Rushing, pumping, flowing.

As a child, I remember enjoying the uniqueness of my family. My mother was an Afrocentric, biracial woman with a strong desire to expose her children to diversity and equal opportunities. My father was a tall, dark Angolan man who was funny and spoke to everyone with a natural grace and fluidity. Our home was filled with beautiful African décor. Our dinners consisted of traditional Angolan foods that stuck to our bellies. The rhythmic sounds of Semba and Kizomba bounced off our walls and I would bask in its comfort. Occasionally, we would get together for parties with other Angolan families in Toronto. There was laughter. Dancing. Music. Food. This was one of my first experiences of community. I was proud of my family and what we represented in our small, southern-Ontario town.

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t. I wasn’t proud of my culture. I wasn’t proud of who I was and where my ancestors were from. I didn’t want to be associated with Angola or known as African. For a long time, I disconnected myself from my African bloodline. To this day, I am unsure why.

There was shame; maybe I thought you were not good enough. There was ignorance; your standards of beauty didn’t seem to measure up. There was embarrassment; your history hasn’t been victorious. You were the defeated land, the place that had lost every battle. So please understand that a part of me also felt lost and defeated.

I wanted to escape our connection, relinquish our relationship, cut all ties. Almost instantly, I removed you from my life. I told myself I wasn’t African. I told others I wasn’t African. I omitted certain details from answers to questions about my family. The process of removal was not elaborate or complex—I simply decided one day that I no longer wanted to be connected. I pushed you into a dark closet, locked the door and threw away the key.

It took a lot of growing, heartache and inward reflection to accept that my blood is my blood and nothing can change that. I started with forgiveness. To change the lens through which I saw you, I needed to forgive the person who represented you: I needed to forgive my father for his growing absence in my life. With time, Africa, you no longer represented an estranged relationship. You were part of me that I had neglected for years.

Today, I see your beauty. The face of my grandmother. The faces of the Mandume women whose tribal blood runs through my veins. The faces of the Mwila women whose dreadlocked hair resembles mine. When I catch my own reflection, I see your details in my face. My eyes, nose and lips resemble that of your beautiful warrior people. I share their blood. My daughters share their blood.

Africa, I now long for the opportunity to meet you. To step onto the lands my father called home. To smell your air. To touch your roots. To feel your sun. I admire you. In a world of constant flux, you continue to prove your resilience. I stand still in your waves of strength. At last, I stand still in your undertow of tenacity. And I no longer run.

You make up everything that is great within me. My blood is thick with your culture and rhythm. My blood pulses with your wild tenderness; your mysterious softness. An unstoppable current of unchangeable identity. I am grateful to have finally found peace in your arms.

With love,
Ciana Paulino

Unapologetic by M. Falconer

Mabel’s Fable

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Once upon a time on a warm autumn night, a girl was born on a farmstead in Craigleith, Ontario.
Orchards surrounded the farmhouse and the air was ripe with the scent of blood and fallen apples.

The doctor observed the baby lying in the palm of his hand. Said, “Best not to feed her. Just leave her on a pillow near the open window. She’s much too tiny to live through the night.”

But the baby didn’t die. She grew into a woman who was small, but mighty. When she turned sixteen, she left the farm for the city to find work. She waited on tables in a café where she could watch the ships come in as she poured re-fills of thick, black coffee. She had a child. Years later, her child would have a child. Me.

This much is true.


Both Cinderella and Snow White are victims of wicked step-mothers: sharp stab of poisoned apple in the throat, the burn of lye on red-raw hands.

Step-fathers or step-grandfathers (even secret ones) rarely figure in fables. We therefore don’t know how they would relate to the main character. Good or evil? Divine or dastardly?


Gill Road is named after my great-great-grandfather, Perry Gill. He begat Whitford and Ermiza who begat Anne who begat Clarence, Howard, Alberta and Mabel. There’s a pioneer cemetery down the hill from the farm. I play among the weed and wildflower, reading the tombstones like braille. Grandma says she has a little sister sleeping under the moss. There’s no marker because she died before she was baptized.

Didn’t God want her?” I ask.


In the farmhouse kitchen, molasses drips thick from the measuring spoon into the broad-brimmed bowl. Outside, barn swallows chatter and help hang laundry on the line. Grandma, in her mint-green dress and daisy print apron, shows me how to measure the bran, sift the flour, fold in the buttermilk. I run my finger along the side of the bowl and lick the batter from sticky fingers. She says, “I had four marriage proposals you know. One of them was from a millionaire.”

Grandpa sits at his desk while we bake, Bible open, scratching out his Sunday sermon.


“Fewer than one in four Americans now believe the Bible is the actual word of God and should not be taken literally word for word. Similar to the 26% who view it as ‘a book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.'”
—Gallup Poll 2017


In 1969, with the slogan “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” Pierre Trudeau’s government introduced the Omnibus Criminal Reform Bill, legalizing abortion, divorce and birth control.

But in 1949, section 251 of the Criminal Code implied that women who have abortions could be charged with breaking the law.

This didn’t stop Grandma from trying. Twice.


Mabel’s lover visits her in hospital, a wave washed to shore only to pull out again on the next tide. The baby begins to wail, scared of the man’s faceless shadow silhouetted against the wall. He ignores the girl, says, “I’d marry you Mabel, but I don’t want a child.”

After he leaves, two different nurses offer to adopt the baby, so Mabel could be free to run away with the handsome Irish? Greek? Italian? man who had come to visit. The faceless man hadn’t begged, and he only asked once, and this was not enough for the woman who survived her first night on earth being left on a pillow to die.


Birth Certificate

Name: Violet Alberta Gill
Place of Birth: Etobicoke, ON
Date: November 12, 1949
Sex: F
Father: ________________


A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.
—Deuteronomy 23:2


Once upon a time, there was a young man named Arthur, who was engaged to be married. He lived with his mother in a bungalow in Etobicoke. A woman and her six-year-old daughter rented out the basement. The little girl’s father never came around and the woman, Mabel, didn’t wear a ring. Even though the woman was ten years older, and his mother thought she was a loose woman, Arthur knew he’d never love anyone more, so he broke off his engagement and asked Mabel to marry him.

Adopting my mother, Violet, would be a small price to pay for true love.


Mom,” I asked, “Why do Grandma and Grandpa both have blue eyes and you have hazel?”


The laws of genetics state that eye color is inherited as follows:

1. If both parents have blue eyes, the children will have blue eyes.
2. The brown eye colour gene (or allele) is dominant, whereas the blue eye
allele is recessive.

Therefore, if a child born to two blue-eyed parents does not have blue eyes, then the blue-eyed father is not the biological father.


Marrying a family is not a bad thing, but can be a beautiful thing. I wish this blessing for you.
Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham


Some believe the expression “Blood is thicker than water” originally derives from the biblical phrase “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” implying that the currently accepted meaning is the opposite of the original intention.


My mom snuggles into my dad’s shoulder as we walk from the farmstead along Gill Road to the general store. “I want an ice cream daddy,” she says to him in her little girl voice. I am eight years old and quiet for my age.


Urban dictionary: Daddy Issues

What a girl has when she is rejected by her father. Often results in her having trouble finding a significant other and trusting people. Girls with Daddy Issues will sometimes marry older men.


My mother carried the secret of her faceless father like a slow-growth cancer. She burned the paper trail to the blood truth. I sift through the cold cinders till my fingers are grey with soot, knees red and raw.


In the orchard, I climb into the gnarled arms of an apple tree and pluck a piece of ripe, red fruit. A snake drops down from the branch above, flicks its forked tongue and hisses, “Tasting of its flesh won’t give you the answers you seek.”

I ask, “Do you know who the faceless man is?”

He moves in and out of shadows. He swims in your blood, and that’s all you’ll ever know.”

“But if I eat of the fruit, won’t I know all things good and evil and all that lies in between

The snake laughs, “You’ve been reading too many stories.”


Fable is a literary genre that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson; however, this style of story-telling has gone out of fashion.


Grandma at ninety-two taps the bedcovers, her body cradled in a field of polyester violets. She beckons for me to lay down beside her. She’s grown tinier still, but heavy with secrets. Her skin smells of lavender and talc. We curl around each other, fetal. A story with no moral and no neat ending, waiting to be born.


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You are the Mom-Friend. The Mom-Friend is always prepared for blood, though not in the warrior sense.

Your friends laugh because you carry a first-aid-kit worth of tissues, menstrual pads and Band-Aids wherever you go. But they’re not laughing when they get paper cuts or when the blisters on their feet burst after a hike. They’re not laughing when their runny noses drip like melting icicles onto their shirt collars. They’re not laughing when they’re trapped in a public washroom stall, calling out to you for help with their pants and undies lying limp around their ankles. Mom-Friend to the rescue.

You are the Mom-Friend. Instinct drives you on. It’s in your blood. Your Mom was a Mom-Friend, and her Mom before her. They were the oldest daughters, the watchful and protective stand-ins for their younger siblings while their parents laboured around the farm or did late shifts at work. You were the oldest daughter and it was a job you took seriously. Little kids are all the same. They scrape their knees and get nosebleeds. Like your mother and grandmother, you’ve learned to get Band-Aids on those knees quickly. You taught your siblings to hold their head up, nose pointed to the ceiling. Don’t cry, you told them. Don’t panic. Breathe. No one dies of a nosebleed, you said, as you gulped down your own rising nausea. The waste bin filled up fast with red-blotted tissues. Habitually, you started filling up your purse with packets of them. Grab a handful at the gas station. Just in case.

You are the Mom-Friend. You are absorbent. You roll up your sleeves and mop up the mucus and blood and vomit and tears. The boy across from you on the train is sneezing. You pass the tissues. Co-worker has a wet cough. Tissues. Later, you reach into your purse for tissues to dry your heartbroken friend’s eyes while you seethe inwardly. How dare he? You ask, you ask, and you ask again. You sponge up the rage your friend holds back. You demand an explanation from the world as the blood of your mother and grandmother and great-grandmother and every woman who had a part in making you boils inside. You want to see that red flow. You want vengeance. But that feeling passes, because you are the Mom-Friend, and a healer first. And right now, your friend needs healing.

Mom-Friend, keep your heart, and your purse, full. Always.

Handknit tissue case by HandmaidenBC


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This Wednesday will be the twenty-first anniversary of the day my brother was hit by a car and killed: his twenty-first deathday.

This weekend, his ghost could buy beer across the border from my hometown, in Maine; this spring, maybe graduate from the University of Heaven-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Luke’s ghost has been around three times as long as he was ever corporeal, and this thought sits awkwardly in my brain, like, how could you have been so young, how could time pass, how could this, how.

He and I are very close, you know. We don’t play with Lego together, like I did with Luke, the child. But he’s been a friendly, near-constant presence these last two decades. Over time, the image of his small body splayed next to the road, a pool of waxy blood by his ear, has lost the power to horrify me—which is, maybe, its own kind of horrifying, how our traumas become a part of us, fixed like skin-on-bones, normal as a heartbeat. But we hang out together, he and I, and mostly I don’t cry anymore, which is nice. The words I-had-a-brother-but-he-died pour out of me quickly, self-consciously casual, and, before their faces have time to fall, I change the subject, as if to say: it’s okay, it’s okay, it was a long time ago, I’m okay.

But then I’m sitting on a hard chair in a doctor’s office, box of tissues conspicuously placed on the table beside me, and I’m there because my heart keeps beating, too fast, too hard, I lose my breath, and it’s not normal, it’s not okay.

What’s so funny and strange about my reminiscing, as I mutilate tissue after tissue, is how little I even remember Luke, the child. I do remember the Lego. I don’t remember the way he doted on me, and I can’t hear his voice saying, “Rae, come play with me,” which my mother tells me he did all the time. I remember the time he threw a snowball at the toddler who lived next door, and I remember him reading in bed with me and my mom, struggling over the word clock, and I remember that I corrected him, his baby sister, that I felt so embarrassed for him. I remember that he could run fast, so fast, and I remember that morning, on the way to school, how he let go of my mother’s hand, and he ran ahead. Fast, so, so fast.

Suddenly, his jacket was on the side of the road, and, in my poor muddled brain, he’d run so fast across the street that his jacket had flown off behind him, incredible! I ran ahead to pick it up.

I remember his death so much more clearly than his life.

I remember wandering down the hall of my house that day, blank, confused. My sister curled up in bed with Luke’s stuffed lion, my dad sitting on the floor in the hallway, head in hands. My mother in the blue chair, broken. I climbed into her lap. She clung to me, and I held her together.

We sat there for years.


The Invisible Child by Justine MacDonald


The hardest part is the what-if. I can’t help myself. Twenty-one years later, and I can’t stop asking that inescapable, desperately unfair question. What if you were still here, Luke? The hardest part is how goddamn real that imaginary world feels sometimes, the world in which he crossed the road, how concrete and graspable it seems to me, as I gasp for breath, sobbing, chest aching. Of course I know what it looks like. Of course I know, for an absolute fact, that it is much, much better than this world. I’m happier. My family is whole. I’m not so scared all the time.

My own son has a different name there, though I’m not sure what it is. As it stands, in this lesser world, his name is Luke. Last summer, Luke fell in the grass, hit his head on a rock. Blood everywhere.

I’m terrified. I’m always terrified.

What if.


But he’s scared, too. Scared in ways his uncle never was. His fear is so familiar to me, it feels almost like my own; I wonder if it is my own, then I plead silently for his forgiveness. My repentance is to bite my lip when the fear clamours to escape. Slow down. Look out. Be careful, kiddo. Every day, I try, and I try, and I fail. Please forgive me, Luke.

Curled up on my lap in the blue chair, he feels so much like mine, and yet he is his own—just as I am my own, and not my mother’s. Still so little, I want to kiss away the badness, hide under the blankets and make-believe the world will never hurt him, that it has never hurt him. He was such a colicky baby. God, he could cry. The nights we’ve spent crying together, Luke and I, holding onto each other, wishing the world could maybe be a little nicer.

This world has failed him from the start, never quite what it ought to be. Same as me.


Sitting in the hard chair in the sterile doctor’s office, I feel that I am coming undone. The disease is in my brain, my chest, it’s inside my heart, and every beat of it pushes the poison through my veins. The cells of anxiety grow and divide until I am made of fear.

How could it be otherwise? Once you know, you never forget how breakable everything is. For twenty-one years, the simple fact that I build my life on the edge of a knife has been lodged in my chest, and if I breathe too hard, the knife starts to turn, and I know that I’m done for.

Which of us is broken? Is it me or the world? Crippling fear often feels like the only sane response to being alive.

But still, my heart keeps beating (too fast, too hard), and still, Luke’s tiny hand is warm in mine. I squeeze it tight, and then—

I let it go. He runs ahead.

Bringing Light to the Dark

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My period arrived when I was fourteen, announcing our future together by settling into my pelvis on a nest of corroding nails. I spent days in bed every month, curled around a heating pad, wondering at the euphemism of “cramps” because what I felt was a deep, greedy, constant pain. Eventually I realized I wouldn’t be able to take time off work every month in the “real world” after high school so I saw a doctor. Loathe to mess with my hormones and go on birth control, with its off-label benefit of easing menstrual symptoms, I accepted prescriptions for anti-inflammatories and painkillers instead. They didn’t work though, and eventually I succumbed to birth control. My auntie laughed at the indiscretion of a home video I’d made, the pills sitting on my bedroom headboard in full view. But I wasn’t using them because I was having sex so it hadn’t occurred to me to be more discreet.

After high school, the pill and the disposable heating pad stuck to my abdomen under my uniform made my monthly pain bearable enough that I could work my serving shifts, in the way that one either slices their tender knees and hands crawling over jagged glass toward bread, or starves. The gynecologist scheduled me for a laparoscopy so she could explore my female interior for fibroids and endometriosis. The good news: she didn’t find anything. The bad news: she didn’t find anything. “Don’t worry,” she said, “most women find their symptoms get much better after they have children.” I clung to that promise for over ten years.

Then, one early morning, bracing my sharply contracting underbelly beside the bed, I told my husband it was time to go. I phoned the rural hospital and a nurse met us at emergency with a wheelchair. “I forgot what this feels like,” I told her, between contractions.

“Oh, I thought this was your first baby,” said the nurse, checking her notes.

“It is,” I told her, “but this is how I feel when I have my period.” I was six centimetres dilated.


The gynecologist was wrong about my symptoms improving after childbirth—they got worse. Where I’d always had physical pain before, now I had other symptoms too. I could hardly focus, remember things or process information; writing newspaper articles required immense mental energy and I was still not sure they made sense. My breasts overflowed my bra, beginning to ache a week before my period and pushing pain into me with every movement throughout the day. I developed a chronic sore throat for two weeks each month that coincided with my cycle yet with my esophagus full of camera, the ENT told me it looked fine. I wanted to dig my nails in at the temples of every person I came across and tear the flesh down their face in strips, while simultaneously wanting to weep for all the beauty in the world. I was constantly nauseated during my period. I saw black. I fantasized about laying on the asphalt in front of our house, waiting for a truck to run me over. I breathed through the uterine contractions pushing fallow blood and clotted tissue from my body, just as I’d breathed through labour. I couldn’t stand to be talked to or touched so I perched on the basement couch clutching my hair, knuckles against my scalp, rocking myself; my husband and kids stayed on the upstairs floor, just so we could survive each other.

I wore a patch on my arm to stop my period completely but had breakthrough bleeding all the time. I saw a gynecologist who promised me a solution and learned seven months later he’d closed my file. I met with the best acupuncturist in the city, unable to watch while he tapped needles into my body. I endured visceral manipulation, the practitioner flirting with me while he kneaded my naked abdomen. A pelvic floor physiotherapist probed my vagina with her fingers, to work tight muscles she couldn’t access otherwise. I met with another gynecologist who suggested I get more sleep leading up to my period. A cardiologist confirmed I’d developed a fainting condition; it was my husband who noticed the episodes usually happened during my period, probably from the loss of blood volume. I heard a chronic pain doctor tell me that I might not be able to fix my period problems and that my period was a disability for me.

The Fetus, the Fibroid and the Fertility God by Kim Cain

We already planned our social lives around my period; on the advice of the chronic pain doctor, I began to plan other things around it too. I told my editor there was one week a month when he would get less work from me. My husband drove the kids to school and got to work late rather than me pausing every few steps on my way to the van to retch or collapsing onto the floor at the preschool entrance again. But my period didn’t always honour our twenty-eight-day anniversary and sometimes, even though I planned ahead for months, I still had to cancel work commitments or family outings when my monthly flu breezed in three days early or two days late.

More than one doctor recommended a hysterectomy but major surgery comes with its own potential complications that I wasn’t willing to undertake. And a uterus is a place-holder in a woman’s body—I had read about post-hysterectomy women whose other internal organs had squatted into the vacancy left by the former tenant, leading to other issues. Besides, the relationship between my uterus and me was far too complex to sever with a scalpel.

I scheduled an appointment with a new naturopath, made it for when I would have my monthly flu; I would have to claw my way to him with hands and nails of will instead of cells, but I knew he had to see me in that state. I had a suspicion, a theory that was more intuition than science. I had never spoken it aloud before. I was beginning to wonder: Is my uterus contracting so hard because it’s fighting the memory of something?

When my mother was a child,
she was raped in her home,
over years.
Her mother was raped before her,
in a time past.

Is it possible the pain and trauma of their most intimate, feminine parts being assaulted has been passed down through their genes, so that my own most intimate, feminine parts rage against the unnatural abuse of the pleasure and life-giving purposes for which they were intended? Does my uterus cringe every month as my mother’s must have, as Grandma’s must have? Have their anguish and unheard cries echoed along twisting DNA strands into our futures since?

I gathered the energy to get out of the van and walk into the naturopath’s office, mumbling a sorry for laying my head on the counter as I checked in. Then I sagged on his office chair, depleted, aching. I told him of my symptoms and that if giving birth naturally without drugs as I had was a ten on the pain scale, I run at a seven or eight during my period.

Then, with my eyes on a poster across the room, I revealed the abuse in my women’s history, asked him if it could be related to my menstrual issues. “My God,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m so sorry.” He took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes, reaching for a tissue. “Of course it’s related,” he said, “we are souls first and bodies second.”

Sometime after that, in a newsfeed, I first heard of epigenetic inheritance—the genetic imprints of trauma passing from one generation to another via DNA markers—and the scientific research suggesting it exists. What if traumatic experiences can be inherited through generations, as an evolutionary adaptation, like a predisposition to the fear of spiders can be? What if muscle memory can travel the nucleic time machine into the future? My own anecdotal evidence confirms it’s so.

I think of my daughter’s uterus forming inside my uterus—the tiny cells knitting themselves together to become her uterine wall, nutrients and oxygen passing from my bloodstream to hers, directly fueling her development. But is that all that passed along, just some vitamins and good fats? Or did our bodies exchange other information in the rich, red, velvety room of the placenta, whisperings of my mom’s nervous breakdown when I was a teen, triggered by the abuse she’d endured as a child? Or mutterings of Grandma’s own breakdown, when my mother herself was a child?

My daughter is eight now, closer to getting her first period than farther. What will it be like for her? Among two generations of family members, most who know of the abuse don’t acknowledge it; some talk a little; others don’t know at all; and some feel the undercurrent that exists, even if they don’t know why. My grandmother knew of my mom’s abuse, because Mom told her.

Then Grandma ordered her never to mention it again,
spanked her,
sent her to confession
and, inevitably,
back to her abusers.

Denial and secrecy about abused women compounds the trauma. Could it be compounding cyclical pain in their female offspring too? I am not the only woman among two generations of my family who suffers each month—one imagines hanging herself, another lost a friend after too many cancelled plans, others have chronic sore throats, and on it goes. As a teen, my mother herself got very sick every month but was forced to go to school still, creeping off instead to her grandmother’s where she could at least rest.

The muzzling of women about rape suffocates their ­­­­­­­­­hearts and minds, distorts their wombs into shadowy caves. And the next generations of hearts, minds and wombs are models of theirs. But each reckoning with the truth of abuse, each telling, lightens the pain for the survivor and lessens the generational load. After all, secrets are only powerful in the dark. The trick is to carry a lamp into that velvety room, and turn it on.