Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In Loving Memory of CW, a Beautiful Soul

Last month, the morning I left North Carolina, I woke to a text message from my friend Charlie informing me that a guy we had known and loved in high school was dead. After the initial moment of disbelief, I was immediately numb, because I knew in my gut what had happened.

In your 20s, you don't have to go to many funerals for your peers. It's a perk of being young(ish), I suppose. When you DO have to attend one, it's usually due to one of three possibilities: 1) the person has met an untimely death through a freak occurrence, like a car accident or a sudden illness; 2) the person has overdosed on drugs, which is an unfortunate but likely possibility for some people; or the worst of them all, 3) the person has committed suicide.

When I was 17, entering my last semester of high school, AW killed himself, the first suicide I ever encountered. His death tore our school apart: some of us were on his side, while others were vicious toward him and his family. I was friends with his brother, CW, and I was devastated for him. He worked so hard to survive the situation, and the turnout at the funeral heartened me--many others cared, too, and would help CW any way they could. When he made it through the first year after his brother's death, I let out a sigh of relief. The hard part was over.

Except it wasn't. He was the one mentioned in Charlie's text.

Even through the early-morning haze clouding my mind, the realization came to me, though I tried to convince myself otherwise: CW had followed in AW's footsteps and taken his own life. Two days later, I had confirmation of this, and I think my brain stopped functioning for a few minutes, not wanting to accept the answer.

Because CW was only 26. He had a beautiful son and wife, was still very much his own person, and--judging from the huge crowd at the funeral home--was so, so adored. I don't mean to romanticize him when I say this, but to me, he was an aspirational figure; I wanted to be as strong and non-judgmental and cool as he was, and I thought he would always be around, not as some vague teenage memory but a living, walking, talking person I might randomly encounter one day at the grocery store or in a restaurant.

I have said it before and I will say it again a million times, if I have to: if you're thinking of killing yourself, please get help immediately. Call a suicide hotline. Speak with a friend. Take yourself to the emergency room. E-mail me (, if you can't face people you think might not understand you or your situation. We all want you here with us. I promise. And we're all just a few seconds away.

Be safe. Be well. Be strong.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Poet Laurie Ate

So. A thing happened in North Carolina last week.

In the course of normal state business, NC Governor Pat McCrory (no relation to Helen, as far as I know, and all the better for her) was called upon to appoint a Poet Laureate to follow in the very able and completely awesome steps of Joseph Bathanti.

He's just a regular Joe. (GET IT?)

Governor McCrory made his decision, choosing Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as Bathanti's successor. There's a problem, though: McCrory made his decision without following recommended guidelines set forth by the North Carolina Arts Council or taking official nominations. It would seem that he saw fit to move ahead without guidance on this matter, and the NCAC has supported this action. (Bathanti was named Poet Laureate by McCrory's immediate predecessor, Bev Perdue.)

There are four upcoming inductees into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, any of whom would have made an excellent choice for Poet Laureate (full disclosure: I know one of them personally and have met two of the others). As Ed Southern, Executive Director of the North Carolina Writers' Network--to which I belong--points out, "[I]f any of them had been appointed poet laureate in such a sudden and apparently arbitrary way, we would be right to object" to them, as well. Southern is correct, and that's the rub of it: the arbitrary nature of this situation does not agree with any of us, regardless of the merit of the poet's work.

Ron Bayes: poet, homeboy, soon-to-be NC Literary Hall of Famer.

However, as Dannye Powell of the Charlotte Observer points out in an article published on 14 July (link above), Macon, who is a State employee, has been misrepresented as a compelling choice. Macon has neither served as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet--she was a student poet, as I was once upon a time--nor been properly nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Moreover, her two collections of poetry have been self-published; while self-publishing is far less stigmatized than it used to be, it is still regarded warily by the poetry world.

Given McCrory's disregard for the citizens of North Carolina, as evidenced by his terrible comments about liberal arts education and questionable approaches to reforming public education, I'm not surprised by this move on his part. I do think, though, that he has waded into dangerous territory. As funding decreases for the arts and humanities across the nation, more and more writers face financial and societal difficulty; few people--aside from other poets--take poetry seriously. 

But as a friend of a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, North Carolina poets are in a tough spot now. If they protest too loudly, McCrory may take the opportunity to dismantle the Poet Laureate program altogether by way of teaching "jealous" poets a lesson. If that sounds like extreme logic to you, you've clearly never been on the wrong end of an arts/humanities budget cut or faced loud criticism over your choice of major.

We writers tend to huddle together as a result of living under fire. And I would love to have supported Valerie Macon, if I felt she had the experience necessary to serve as Poet Laureate. (She herself does not appear to have any faith in her own abilities, as she resigned from the post less than a week after the announcement.) As it is, I cannot do that. It makes me sad to see North Carolina writers put into the position of having to reject their Poet Laureate, too, because the position is vitally important. I hope that McCrory is able to see the error of his ways and that Macon will have the grace to admit her lack of qualifications and reach out for help, which would no doubt create some goodwill among other writers in the state. 


Images via my own Instagram feed and St. Andrews University.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On Ink and Emotional Trauma

The day after I got my third tattoo, I realized something. This was a complicated epiphany, since it linked back to an issue I'd been having recently. A girl I knew was cutting herself on the regular, and a mutual friend of ours asked me if I could explain the impulse to self-mutilate to him. I told him that although I had never--and would never--cut, I understood that she felt the need to release her emotional trauma through physical pain. As I suffered from the aftershocks of my latest expedition to the parlor, gently cleaning my wrist and trying not to accidentally scrape at the raw skin there, it hit me: I was a cutter.

This isn't the literal truth, of course. But I've been marking time--and emotional pain--with my tattoos. Each of the three coincides with a traumatic event (or series of events) in my life. 

I am 20. I have just gotten my first tattoo, done my by cousin Scott Morrison at N2Skin in Farmington Hills, Michigan. (Scott is now at Avatar in Clarkston, Michigan.)

It is on my right foot and says, "Feet fail me not." One of two things usually happens when people see it: 1) they say, "Oh, that's so sweet!" as if the sentiment isn't deadly serious, which it is to me (more on that in a minute) or 2) they say, "Where do I know that from? It sounds so familiar." (Answer: here.)

One time, a guy at the Wal-Mart auto center sees my tattoo while I wait for an oil change. He looks from my foot to my face, then back to my foot, then asks, "Why would you do a thing like that?" I want to punch this dude. But because I don't feel like getting arrested, I simply say, "It felt right."

And it did. This phrase was chosen for dual purposes. First, it is a reminder to myself: when life trips me up, I have to keep moving. Second, it is a not-so-obvious homage to my hometown, since I can't quite bring myself to get the standard "D" tattoo opted for by so many of my compatriots from southeastern Michigan.

The first purpose is the most important. My significant other has broken up with me on our anniversary. I am crushed, spending my days moping abut the house when I'm not working part-time as an intern at a masonry magazine (bricks and shit, not old men who allegedly hide treasure). Right now, more than anything, I need something real, tangible, telling me that I will survive the experience. And that's how I end up putting needle to flesh the first time.



I am 26. I have just gotten my second tattoo, done by Joe Almquist at Blue Flame in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

In the past four months, I have managed to finish grad school while simultaneously suffering through a mental breakdown. Nothing has been easy for me recently. While I would like to have Scott tattoo me again--he's family, after all--the urge to do something is too strong, and on a weekend trip to visit my friend at her parents' house in the Triangle, I turn to her and say, "Wanna go get a tattoo?"

She won't let anyone touch her with a needle, but that's okay. I don't need her to alter the canvas of her skin, I just need her to go with me. Before we leave, I make sure I have a picture of the four-leaf clover necklace I bought myself as a graduation gift, because this is what I want: a bit of good luck.

Since I started my graduate studies, I've lost two of my three dogs (the first was put down shortly before I matriculated) and my nephew, endured some very bad and scary times at work, seen my mental health deteriorate, watched my aunt battle ovarian cancer, and had so many crises of confidence it's verging on absurd.

When I walk into Blue Flame, I know the experience is going to be incredible. There's a jackalope skull on the wall, and I couldn't ask for a better sign than that, since I want so much to believe in the jackalope. Joe puts me yet more at ease by cracking a joke: “This is my first day on the job, and I totally fucked up on the guy who came in before you.” His professional humor is what I need, and I laugh heartily for the first time in days.



I am almost 28. I have just gotten my third tattoo, done by Alice Underdahl at Valhalla in Southern Pines, North Carolina.

Because it would be too much to ask that I have a normal, quiet, stable life, the tempest continues to rage. My job security is never certain, I'm struggling to get my work published, I've been through a string of sort-of relationships that have torn me up, my grandmother is constantly ill, my aunt has succumbed to the scourge of cancer, my mother is stretched so thin it's difficult to watch, and my depression and anxiety are worsening.

Since the death of my nephew in 2010, a niece and another nephew have arrived. My brother and his wife say they're through having kids. Because I don't want children of my own, these three are my surrogates and the only unconditional thing I have. Everything I do, I do because I'm trying to impress them, and that includes making attempts at getting my life in order. So I've chosen my third--and possibly last--tattoo: their first initials, on my left wrist where their presence will be duly noted from the start of each day to the end of it.

Alice is the nicest artist you could hope to have. She is cheerful and funny, and she lets me ramble about my other two pieces while the needle whirs. When I explain the significance of these three letters, she actually thanks me for letting her be part of the process. It's all I can do not to cry in the shop.

When I leave, I feel calmer, better, stronger. 


Some people choose their tattoos because the art is interesting or intriguing. My choices always arise after much deliberation and personal strife. Maybe this is because I'm a writer: I have a compulsion to chronicle things, fictional or otherwise. Or maybe it's because I want to remember that I'm still standing in spite of whatever it is that's trying to knock me down, whether it's my own brain or life in general. Either way, I have scarred myself, but I have no regrets.

However, not everyone finds this to be the best strategy for dealing with their pain. If you or someone you know is suffering from self-mutilation (whether it's cutting, wrist-banging, or something else), please seek help. There are less dangerous and harmful coping solutions available to all of us, and I recommend you check out what the Mayo Clinic has to say about the practice of self-injury if you need a good resource. You can even talk to me if you want: I'm always available via e-mail at

Stay strong.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On Subversion

I would like to preface this post by saying that I don't necessarily advocate that everyone follow the process I've taken, nor do I think it's the best course for myself; it's just that sometimes shit happens. Hope we're all on the same page.

I hate being told what to do. It's a character flaw, one I'm not even trying to remedy. But it's also a genetic trait, so if I wanted to change--I'm not saying I do, but if I did--it would be kind of difficult. Thanks for that, Mom and Dad.

So sometimes I just do what I want. Does that make me a terrible person? No, because I'm not on a crime spree of any sort, and you're welcome for that, world. I would be the most dysfunctional criminal in the history of ever, which means that you would all suffer greatly. Think of me as Loki, but with less flair.

While I have been known to go off on personal rampages, which often means throwing things around, this isn't what I mean by doing what I want. It's more that I take on projects and see them through without, ahem, having permission to do so. Or I give advice that might not be sanctioned by my superiors. There is a good reason for this.

Subterfuge is one thing--that would be bad, deceptive, et cetera. What I'm talking about here is subversion in a tame sense, not the kind that overthrows governments or whatever. Think of it as circumvention: I'm bypassing certain strictures in order to create a more perfect something--not a union (that phrase is already taken, I think), but perhaps a more perfect, or at least more effective, me. Hell, some people believe I'm weird anyway. Why not keep going and prove myself incredible, too, by subverting everyone's notion of who/how I am or should be?


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Shape of Home

We could find it in a snowstorm: the shape of home.

This is the literal truth. When that white precipitation falls and we bundle into our winter wares, our covered hands resemble our state. Perhaps you've noticed this, too, not because you're from Michigan but because people from Michigan are notorious for using their own hands as maps.

Back when cartography was an inexact science, Michigan didn't look the way it does now--at least, not on paper. The top of the Lower Peninsula wasn't round enough, the Upper Peninsula belonged to Wisconsin, the bodies of water were exaggerated. But we can see those shapes now and still get it.

We always know we're looking at home, even when the map isn't quite right. The mitten may be malformed, the lakes too large, the areas labeled with tribal names instead of county lines, but there they are: our pleasant peninsulas.


All images via the British Library's Flickr stream, which is basically the greatest thing ever to happen to picture libraries on the Internet.