A Conversation with Ashley Hajimirsadeghi

This interview was conducted by Madisyn Parisi, Chief Copyeditor of Grub Street, and has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Ashley and I met up on a chilly October afternoon. She had come straight from her job at Towson’s career center, and we trudged up three flights of stairs in Towson’s commons to find a quiet place to talk about her writing. I was excited to dive into her vast collection of work, and before we even found a table, we had struck up a conversation about multimedia work, men who get mad at her on the internet, and The Dropout on Hulu.

MP: So I guess just starting off, when you sit down to write a poem, where do you start developing that idea? Do you usually have a line or a concept?

AH: For me, I get obsessed with a very singular image or word, and then I build the entire poem or piece around that. Like I was writing this flash fiction piece the other day, and I was really thinking about the Iranian women’s movement and burning film reels, so then I combined those two to create a flash fiction/poetry piece that was based completely around that image. Going back to edit, I wanted to keep that central. I don’t cut that out.

MP: Do you feel like you ever take a different turn from that initial image or realize something’s not about what you thought it was about?

AH: It depends on the way the story and narrative turns out, but I’ll go back and edit and see how the story grows. Sometimes our children grow up, and they don’t become what you expect them to be, and we have to adapt to that.

MP: You have to love them anyway?

AH: Yeah.

MP: Most of your poetry is in the first-person. When you write, is that speaker generally you, a character, a combination of both?

AH: It’s not me. I like to use “I”, and I’ve been switching more to “you” lately because it’s more interrogative — like, you, look at yourself. But I tend to use “I” because I feel like that drops the reader into the narrative. “I” is someone who’s real because if you say “she” or “they”, anything, they’re not a real person to the reader. Also, I tend to use very fictionalized versions of my own life. I’ll take pockets of things that I’ve experienced, then blow it into something fictionally-spun.

MP: So you’ve published two chapbooks now, cinephile and cartography of trauma. Did your process change a lot between the two of them? Do you feel like they taught you different lessons?

AH: I think for me, especially because I’m in grad school studying the world a bit more — cartography of trauma, a lot of it was poems from high school. That’s the interesting part. Poems from cinephile were like sophomore year of college, so just growing up and being like… I wanted to sell some stuff because I did a lot of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton confessional-style poetry when I was in high school. Then I was like, “I want to see beyond myself, see how I interconnect in a broader way. Like, what does it mean to be a woman in the US? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American woman? What does it mean to be a woman in the world?” Seeing how to use poems. And that adjusted my style because then I realized, hey, a lot of the time in writing classrooms we’re taught a very Western-specific way of writing. So I started reading poems from traditional Chinese, Afghan, and Persian poetry, trying to break free from the conventional western mode of storytelling. Because even in a novel, the way we think of the three-act structure, that’s only in the West, that’s a Greek thing. In China and East Asian literature, it’s just a rise and fall. A rise and fall. So my technique has been more informed by being a quote-unquote “global citizen”.

MP: Do you travel a lot?

AH: Yeah, I lived in Korea for a bit. I was posted in India last summer. I went to the Caribbean a lot growing up, and I’m a global humanities student now, so I study the world and world literature. But I hope to travel more. I grew up low-income, so we never really got the opportunity to travel, and I got these state scholarships to go other places and learn about other people, and that changed my life. 

MP: Being Iranian-American is a pretty central part of your identity and your voice. Are there specific parts of your writing that you trace back to that identity?

AH: I feel like there’s this inherent sadness that comes with being Iranian-American because you see what’s happening in Iran right now to women and even growing up in the diaspora, a lot of the men treated women horribly. Especially in the community I grew up in, abuse was normal. So I really decided in my work that even though I’ll acknowledge the male perspective, I want to ground myself in women’s voices because they’re not allowed the chance to speak often.

MP: I get the impression cartography of trauma is about all that, right?

AH: Kind of. But also just thinking about…women’s history is so messed up.

MP: A lot has happened. So when you write, you want to give voice to that female perspective. Do you want that same thing for your audience? Is your audience young women, Iranian-American women?

AH: I think it would be women in general. I hope men can read this and be like, “Wow, this sucks”, but I also give a lot of people too much credit. Yeah, no, they’re not going to. But I am thinking a lot right now about how niche certain genres are. Like poetry. People say, “Oh, it’s too hard to understand.” So, I’ve been thinking about accessibility in poetry and writing in general. People are like, “Yeah, I don’t read. I just watch Tiktok.” So just thinking about how to make it more accessible in a way that people will see it. Social media’s playing a big role. But also using big words and stuff, people won’t understand.

MP: I was going to say, your work isn’t very lofty like something you might expect from someone with your degrees and writing history. It’s very easy to understand.

AH: Well, I came from working-class parents. I wasn’t exposed to theater or art or poetry growing up. I never even took a writing class until I went to Carver down the street. So, just growing up working-class, and also not taking writing classes in undergrad. That shapes you. When you take a lot of writing classes, and you’re taught, “This is how you should write.”

MP: You don’t become a workshop writer or an MFA writer. You become something else.

AH: Yeah. So it’s about self-education but also this idea of — I think this about academia too — PhDs and all that, a lot of that stuff isn’t accessible. It’s written in a way you can’t understand it. It’s only for academics.

MP: So do you like that you’ve found yourself in a different space than that?

AH: Yeah, even though it’s hard. It’s unconventional. A bit of a rough way to get published. Because you see people younger than you getting published because they subscribe to the model. For me, it’s realizing it’s a process. Like Toni Morrison wasn’t automatically famous, she was  like 38 [39]. 

MP: But you’re also in this Instagram space. I feel like the poetry community at large hates “Instagram poetry.” Rupi Kaur, those sorts. Do you consider yourself in line with those poets, do you think you’re doing something else?

AH: I don’t really like Instagram poetry because it’s bite-sized, and a lot of it doesn’t have depth. And also Rupi Kaur was accused of plagiarizing a lot of her work. So, it’s good to share information that way, but it’s also dangerous, too. It’s kind of like seeing Facebook news and believing it’s all true.

MP: So a lot of your life right now is about writing — you’ve got Mud Season, your poetry, reviews — what do you do right now when you’re not writing, to refill the well or just take a break? … Do you take breaks? You’re looking at me like you don’t.

AH: I do like to read, but at the same time it is kind of studying. So I guess you could consider it not work, but I do genuinely enjoy it. 

MP: Is that about the furthest you ever get from writing?

AH: I used to watch movies, but now it’s my job… it’s not as enjoyable anymore. I garden, too. I like to grow our own food. It’s very serene. There’s one writer in the Caribbean, Jamaica Kincaid, who writes a lot about gardening.

MP: I feel like there’s a lot of metaphor you could get out of that. 

AH: Yeah, definitely. There’s this book called Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit. She wrote about George Orwell. He had an obsession with his rose garden. He saw it as an allegory for the end of the world. It’s very fascinating how people get attached to their gardens.

MP: Talking about that Orwellian idea, I think a lot of people in the world right now, especially writers, feel that sense of doom about the world and their work. Do you feel that way, or do you think you write with optimism?

AH: People tend to think my work is very pessimistic and sad, but I tend to look at it as progress and optimism. I work part-time at New Perspectives Theatre Company. I spent this whole two years building a database of women playwrights. A lot of these women were forgotten. Their stories never had the chance to be told. If they did write plays, they were considered dainty, feminine, docile. Seeing all these playwrights across the world made me realize that a lot of them were writing about women’s issues at the time, so the fact that I can have a platform to put my work on, or even write it, feels like hope to me. Because if that’s ever taken away from us, then what’s the point?

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an Iranian-American multimedia artist, writer, and journalist. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Moon City Review, The Cortland Review, DIALOGIST, RHINO, Salt Hill, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor-in-Chief at Mud Season Review and a contributing writer and critic at MovieWeb. Her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com

Grub Street featured in Poets & Writers!

Last month, Poets & Writers released a spotlight on poet Abigail Chabitnoy, who was published in Volume 71 of Grub Street!

In their monthly Literary MagNet series, Abigail and writer Dana Isokawa discuss her writing process, Indigenous background, and all of the journals she has work published in, including our very own Grub Street!

We are proud to be a part of Chabitnoy’s publishing journey.

Read Abigail Chabitnoy’s work In Grub Street here.

Abigail Chabitnoy Reading Two Poems Appearing in Volume 70 of Grub Street

 

 

 

You can read Abigail’s poems “A FOUR-PART APOLOGY FOR MY CONTINUED BEING”, “A PERSISTENT DREAM OF LARGE BODIES  OF WATER & EVERYTHING THAT MIGHT BE WAITING WITHIN”, and “A PRONG OR SHARP POINT SUCH AS THAT ON A FORK, OR ANTLER” in Volume 70 of Grub Street, out now. You can also view her poetry comic on pages 150-154 of Volume 70. Click here to view Volume 70.

 

Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan 2019), winner of the 2020 Colorado Book Award for Poetry and shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Lit HubRed Ink, and elsewhere. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, and currently she is on faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Denver Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

Sick-Com

Comic by Tony Senatore

Bio: Tony Senatore is a current Dulaney High School Senior in Baltimore, Maryland. He will be attending the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in the fall of 2020, majoring in animation. His passion is in cartooning and character design, as well as short animated films. His Instagram handle for further information is @Tiredcartoonist

Praying Before Idols by Wendy Swift

On our first night living on Tuller Circle, my sixteen-year-old daughter and I assemble what will become our kitchen table for the next fourteen years. The surface is constructed of pine-green tiles set in oak, and—because it is higher than average table height—I buy four stools upon which my three daughters and I will crowd together each night while we eat cheap food. I am like the single mom Cher plays in the movie Mermaids—with dinners that more closely resemble hors d’oeuvres, made festive with party toothpicks, rather than nutritious food generally recommended for teen growth spurts. I follow the table’s assembly instructions, using a special screwdriver included in the kit to fit the bolts in place. I align the legs with the supporting beam, creating a structure that can stand upright without toppling under the weight of dinner dishes. We laugh over the incoherent directions and the bizarre illustrations while I am reminded of the absurdity of attempting to fit together a new life for which we have no blueprint. The two oldest girls get the master bedroom to help ease their transition. I want them to feel positive about this new arrangement and somehow believe a room with a bathroom and a TV will ameliorate the loss of their father, their home, their honor. When one family member goes to jail, the entire family joins him.

Earlier in the day, friends and my brother loaded vans and cars to make multiple trips across town from our old home to our new apartment. I was grateful for the help, but at the same time embarrassed by the obvious mess in which we had been living, now laid bare to witnesses. There were stacks of Penthouses(another of Danny’s addictions) and dense dust that has accumulated behind our bed because it never occurred to me that I might vacuum that wayward space. Random objects are hastily thrown into garbage bags, including wedding gifts from a marriage that had taken place twenty years earlier. Most of our belongings were sold in the weeks leading up to this day, and what remained I was giving to friends or leaving on the street. These were needless objects that represented years of pointless material accumulation with no place in my new life. I was happy to purge.

The next morning, I leave for my first day of work at the Traveler’s Insurance Company. My education prepared me to be a teacher, not an insurance executive, or even someone with a smattering of knowledge or interest in death benefits or annuities. A friend has helped me get this job―it’s temporary without benefits but I needed something quick since I had been home for many years raising my daughters. My job is in the Communications Department responding to emails. The Internet is a new technology in 1996 and very few customers know how to use it. I will end up spending a good deal of my days emailing friends with subject lines like: “Lost in Space” or “A Long, Strange Trip.” When I arrive at the office on that first day, I call a friend and ask him to drive across town to check on my kids. We don’t have a phone line installed and I’m pretty sure there is nothing in the apartment for my kids to eat because I didn’t  have time to grocery shop after moving, unpacking and assembling the table the night before. Can he see what they need? Maybe bring them some food? And please tell them when a man arrives and says he’s from the phone company, they can let him in. My friend acts like a courier, brings food and gives the kids a few bucks in case there’s an emergency. I’m not sure what emergency he imagines. The only emergency I know of is the loneliness and despair that is setting in as the reality that our family will never be the same begins to take form. I don’t think a few extra bucks will help since money was what brought us to this place to begin with.

Our new routine includes expensive collect calls from prison. I tell my husband to call less. We can’t afford it.  He says he’ll get his sister to give me money for the calls because the calls are his lifeline and I cannot take that from him. He says I’m cold and insensitive because I don’t seem to care about my husband in prison. I want to say that’s what happens when you embezzle over a million dollars. We were married for twenty years and I am just now beginning to listen to myself. 

I was a “good” girl once―raised in a family that valued integrity and moral conduct.  I was pious. I went to Catholic church with my father and brothers. I kneeled and prayed. I sat demurely with legs politely crossed at the ankles. I went to confession to admit childish sins. I was good at being a Catholic, so good that I won a Catechism contest and was awarded a plastic replica of La Pieta.I took it to my bedroom and plugged it in and sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the glowing image of Jesus held in his mother’s arms after dying on the cross. I stayed that way most of the afternoon until my mother came home from work.  She told me I had to bring it back. I didn’t understand it at the time, but my mother was Jewish and praying before idols was not permitted in our home. I felt Mary’s grief as I trudged back to Catechism class to return my prize.

Our yellow Lab, Jake, struggles to adjust to his new surroundings. He is accustomed to hanging out in the yard, untethered by any leash. That is strictly forbidden in our new neighborhood of affordable units. To help ease Jake’s anxiety, I take him home to our old house on Hoplea Road. Alone, he languishes in the yard. For the time being, the house is vacant and Jake doesn’t realize we no longer live there. While I am at work and the kids are at school, he spends those first few weeks pretending nothing has changed. I envy his wanton disregard for our circumstances. It won’t be long before Jake will need to confront the limitations of living in a multiple housing unit where his comings and goings are carefully monitored by neighbors who hate dogs. 

On Saturdays, we drive to Enfield. This is a medium security prison, not like the maximum detention center where Danny first began his internment three months earlier. Here, we can sit around a table rather than speaking to him through glass with the aid of a phone. In this prison, the walls are weirdly decorated with life-size images of Road Runner, Sylvester Cat and Tweety Bird, painted by the prisoners themselves. I like to imagine the conversations they might have had while painting Looney Tunescharacters, wondering how long they will stay in hell. We wait in a room with the other families while the prisoners are paraded out of a door, one at a time, each wearing an orange jumpsuit. Danny swoops the girls into his arms and lightly kisses me. He looks unfettered, if not a bit thinner, but that’s to be expected. After about an hour, the kids are restless. I have been crying. It is time to leave. Later, Dan tells me that if I can’t stop crying, I should have someone else bring the kids to visit. The next time we visit I sit silently while he chats about the classes he is taking and the basketball games he plays during rec time.  

I think about trading places with him and wonder who got the better end of the deal. 

Wendy Swift is a graduate of Syracuse University. She teaches creative writing and is the Director of theCenter for Writing at Cheshire Academy, an international day and boarding school located in Connecticut. In addition, she is the In-Briefs editor for the Bulletin, a publication of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering. Her work has been published in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Adirondack Explorer, Litchfield County Times and Long Island Woman.

Bread of Life by Laura Bass

From December of last year onward, I have thought about bread every day, without exception. It started about six months after I got married. I cried a lot those first few months, and though I would always tell my husband that I didn’t know why I was so upset, I can tell you now that I was afraid that I’d gotten married too young, before I’d gotten to know myself. I couldn’t list things that I liked to do on my own, anything that wasn’t secretly something I’d borrowed from my husband, something he’d introduced to me while we were dating or engaged. 

I have it written down in my journal, where it all began. On the left page:  “I am still trying to figure out who I am and what my passions are, but I am struggling to explore… I don’t know what I like. I don’t know how to express what I don’t know.” On the right page: “Remember that poem about Jesus being a vampire, due to his association with blood? Do the Eucharistic mirror: Bread”

And so, about six months after I got married, I stalked a girl on Twitter so I could ask her about a poem.  Over a year ago I’d heard her read it at some poetry award ceremony, and though the poem stuck with me, all I could remember about her was that during a question and answer session afterwards, one of her friends had said that she often talks about a soda parlor on Twitter. So last Christmas I sought her out. Apparently, Twitter doesn’t approve of someone making an account (not even bothering to add a profile picture or bio), scrolling through the followers of a soda parlor and direct messaging an individual. I got flagged for suspicious activity, but after I messaged her, she sent me the poem. She had compared Jesus to a vampire, made Him a run-away obsessed with the drinking of His blood like wine. And I wanted to write about bread. That’s where it all started. I wanted to write a poem like she did, but about bread instead of wine. More tame, I thought. Less sacrilegious. Jesus is bread just as much as He is wine. 

            By some miracle, then, my mind began a diet of bread. After the sacrament had been passed around at church, I immediately closed my ears, ignoring sermons to focus on googling bread things on my phone, letting my mind drift between the etymologies behind “crust” and “loaf” and “crumb.” I read about transubstantiation and cannibalism. I read recipes and tried to find art. I wrote some poetic lines, and thought about writing more. I watched the episodes from the Great British Bake Offwhere they only made bread. I made bread. I tried the religious ones like challah and matzoh, but also baked soft pretzels and naan. In an art class I painted a loaf of bread and it was really challenging, but I learned that the smell of oil paint and the smell of yeast are equally pungent.

I fell in love with yeast. It’s a gross word and kind of a gross thing, but it is inherently creative. Those tiny tan pellets I had always used and watched my mom use are yeast, but delivered in a form that is comparatively new, in the history of humans making the oldest form of crafted food. Yeast is bacteria– little live organisms we invite into the loaf, either by measured tablespoons of baker’s yeast, or by just letting them settle in from the air. They eat the flour and sugar and burp out the bubbles that, when baked, make that fluffy pattern, called the crumb. But before we as a culture started demonizing gluten, we demonized the yeast within bread. Around the time of the industrial revolution, Louis Pasteur discovered germs, and panic broke out surrounding bread. Since nobody wanted these germs in their food, bakers and mothers turned to baking soda and baking powder to chemically produce those bubbles needed, and bread was leavened by chemicals instead of by life itself. 

Bakers now are turning back to naturally leavened dough, using the bacteria in the air as humans have done from the beginning of humanity. And I tried it too. I built a sourdough starter, based more off of my own feel for something I knew nothing about than on any recipe or instructions that I had read. In a glass jar I mixed flour and water (and just a tiny bit of yeast to kick start it), and each day would continue to add the two. A sourdough starter is very much like a pet– you feed it daily, you build a relationship based mostly on you just staring at it, and you name it something so that it hurts when it dies. My husband named it “Scoob,” and it lasted one week, after making two very small loaves. I can only guess which of my blind experiments killed it, but I am a little relieved I don’t have to worry about taking care of it every day. Scoob was time-consuming, and it’s easier to just use yeast pellets anyway.

I daydreamed about the first loaf of bread, that first leavening. Adam built an altar, and then next to it he built an oven. While perhaps God boomed instructions down from on high, and maybe He sent down Martha Stewart as an angel to show them how, I prefer to think of the first loaf as a beautiful accident. Adam and Eve let their children try to grind the flour with their weak arms, and then pushed and pulled the dough between them. At first they made pancake-flat bread that had no salt and one had to growl a little as they tore at it. But someone, and I hope it was Eve, left dough out on a warm rock one day and forgot about it, perhaps caught up in this new experience where she cried whenever she saw her babies and their fat cheeks. And the air did something different to the dough. Given the time, the life that had been on Eve’s skin and in her fingers as she had kneaded the dough began to grow and multiply. What a godlike power, to make something grow through touch. Did Eve feel that guilt again, for trying to be like God?

I think about Cain and Abel, staring in wonder as the dough rose, eyes wide as they tried to see the imperceptible, like trying to see the life within grass that makes it grow. Yeast is like the Holy Spirit: invisible, inflicting growth. So maybe Abel was the only one who was watching?

I made so much bread. I fought inside myself between the homemaking scent of dough in the oven, the pride I felt over a swirling, beautiful crumb, and the hate I had for my body, knowing bread was the enemy. Bread has the potential to be so nutritious, as the books I read told me, but I knew I wasn’t doing the right things to make a good loaf, a complicated and nutritious loaf. I used cheap flour and it takes less time to use yeast pellets and just call it good. But I knew I could get so much deeper, if I wanted.

I follow a couple of sourdough breadmakers on Instagram, and they all describe their work in these mathematical terms: “100% whole grain freshly milled blend of hard white spring/warthog/ spelt mixed at 72% and bassinaged up to 90% during autolyse/ fermentolyse… then completely ignored for a 6.5 hour RT bulk. Bench rest was rushed and shaping was punctuated by aberrations in the kids’ bedtime routine (including being headbutted by a six year old who is closer to my size than any other six year old you’ve ever seen, completely deflating one of the other loaves).” Look at that jargon, kneaded right into this mother’s life.

I love the auditory qualities of jargon, though I’m always hesitant to use jargon myself. One time, I helped collect sound as my husband filmed a short documentary of a Magic the Gathering event. I pointed a gun-shaped microphone at some men who kneaded their cards like they were casting spells (which I guess is the point), sliding and slipping their deck around like an animal puffing out his chest to intimidate his opponent. I’ve never played Magic, and so the way they talked was so interesting because it made no sense to me. It obviously had the  potential to be understood, but I just let words slide across my ears, and made sure I was capturing all their sounds. I guess I bring this up because the biggest part of this whole bread thing is what it means to me from a religious perspective, and there is nothing I know that is more full of jargon or acronyms or recycled terminology than my church, my faith. I could make you, reader, play a guessing game at what I do believe, and avoid vernacular. I try my best to translate, though. I sometimes wish I were Catholic, or the etymology of “Catholic.” That I were universal, and universally understood.

Bread is almost universally associated with the hearth, the home, the mother. I think about my mom every time I think about bread. She used to bake all the time. She made loaves of whole wheat bread, and sometimes I helped. And by help, I mean that I would sink my hands deep in the bucket under the end of the counter that was full of kernels of wheat, and let them slip slowly from my fingers. After a few minutes of this, my hands would be soft from the chaff and tingling from touching hundreds or grains. The wheat then went into my mother’s grinder, which was a wooden box that made the lights in the whole house flicker when it roared to life. I would lift the lid and my mom would pour them into the broad funnel, where each kernel would jump about and then drop into the dark and dangerous hole in the center. My mom always warned me not to put my finger in there because, “The grinder doesn’t know the difference between a finger and some wheat.”

Ever since my dad stopped eating carbs and sugar (due to a totally serious fear of contracting a fungus that will take over his body and control his actions, like a zombie virus) my mom has stopped baking bread. It goes bad before she alone can finish it. I remember as a child I would only eat her earthy, brown wheat bread if it had just come out of the oven and was drowning in butter, only then. I hated bringing her crumbly sandwiches in my lunch, and I know it hurt her feelings. I know what it’s like to bake a pie and bring it to a hangout with your friends, and you’re the only one who has a slice. But baking is a sacrifice, which makes it a great metaphor for Christ. 

I learned about things that I wanted to write but couldn’t find the best way to do so. Like how at Easter, we talk about how Jesus, the Bread of Life, is Risen, and I wanted to laugh at the pun. Or how when I was looking into the etymology (I know I’ve mentioned this a lot; it’s the history and origin of words, and is like a second religion to me) of bread words, I found that the word “Lord” comes from an old English “hlaford,” or loaf-guard. And though the term wasn’t applied to Jesus until the King James translation of the Bible, it’s a beautiful translation of the name of God, since He has said that He is the bread of life, and will feed us. The old English word for servant comes from this same relationship to bread, and means loaf-eater.

These more recent months I have been attracted to the concept of communities. It bled over from bread very easily, because bread is a community food. It’s designed to be broken and shared, and it brings those who eat it closer together. Makes sense why it’s used for the Eucharist, for communion.

The time I felt most alone in my whole life was during the first few months of this year, during church, sitting in a congregation of at least 250. We had tried, my husband and I. We’d brought cookies to neighbors, we sat next to couples and introduced ourselves. I’d even taken a page out of some psychology-based hacks off the internet, and literally asked my neighbor if I could borrow a cup of sugar, but she just texted, “Sorry, I’m not home right now.” 

One Sunday someone got up and spoke about how they had just moved into the area (months after we had) and they were making so many friends and had gotten assignments in the church and were loving it. I stood up and left then, crying my way up the aisle. In middle school, when a girl cries, she is swarmed by half-friends, and one mom-friend will rub her back and whisper “give her space” to the other girls. What I mean is that crying in middle school at least gets you attention, but in this bizarre place, nothing happened. After that day I stopped going to that congregation. Nobody ever checked up on me or my husband. We disappeared and nobody noticed. I was a tree falling in a forest, trying to make as much noise as I could, because I did not want to fall. 

I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I Googled what makes a community, and I read the definitions from social scientist to psychologist. I took notes. I thought about things like initiation, trying to guess what might be initiation for a church community. Looking back, I realize that I was already initiated, at least by the books. I had gotten baptized, hadn’t I? What more was I supposed to have completed? I’m still bitter. In my journal, right next to my list of the factors of a community, I have a quote from Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” I think I was entertaining the idea of an internal community. I have these separate elements within myself–body, mind, spirit, conscious and subconscious. Could I be my own friend? Or maybe I was thinking about bread again, and how Jesus, the perfect example, is symbolized in the communion, which I watched each person in that room eat every week I was there. I watched them partake, and then Jesus was in them. Each of those people were visibly and literally integrating Jesus into their lives and yet I was being lost, left out, despite doing the same. Shouldn’t we all have been gathered as one, as the Body of Christ?

I read a medieval riddle about bread, but it was basically an overt metaphor for male genitalia. It turns out bread is sexy. As a wedding present I received a great big red kitchen mixer but it sits in its box in my closet, never opened, because my kitchen is too small almost for the toaster we have. I can’t complain too much though, because I have come to develop a relationship with kneading. I could recommend yoga to any stranger, but I would recommend kneading dough to my friends. It’s a sensory and sensual experience. I take my rings off to keep them clean, and I scoop the dough from the bowl, trying to catch all the flour at the bottom. I drop the mass on my counter, careful to keep it within the either oiled or floured area. I think about how taffy is made. It’s pulling taffy, and it’s pushing bread. I sink my hands in and push the dough over and over, the scent of the yeast in the dough, and I think about how I don’t have enough patience for sourdough. I think about things like saturation and hydration–things I’ve learned are important for a good loaf, things that I have chosen to ignore. I drop my lump of dough into a greased pan and slip it into the heat of the oven. Baguettes, when they come out of the oven, start to sing. They pop and crackle as they start to cool and contract, and I like that.

Adam Gopnik says, “Stovetop cooking is, at first approximation, peeling and chopping onions and then crying; baking is mixing yeast and water with flour and then waiting. The difference between being a baker and being a cook is whether you find waiting or crying more objectionable.” I waited, and let time bring levity to my pain. I’ve found a new congregation, one that has older ladies with European accents and babies who stumble around sucking on their own fingers. There are girls my age who don’t terrify me. We get together on Sundays and have tea together. Someone came over and gave me a loaf of bread, just to be nice, and I almost cried after the door shut.If someone asked me what I like to do, I could say a few things that are all for myself. I like reading, doing yoga, writing, and making new food in my crevice of a kitchen. I like watching black and white movies, and being a socialite at work and at church. 

We’ve hit our first anniversary together, and I talk to my husband about the difference between transubstantiation and transelimination. I feel more at home in my body. But the biggest aspect of my life that changed as a result of this obsession is how I feel about God. My feelings started out as ambivalent and, I’ll admit, apathetic. But as I read about bread and its role as the staff of life, a chaotic fear settled into my mind as I realized that God is so distant, and so unlike me. I felt a desperate need to understand God, and a terrifying knowledge that it is impossible.  When I was a child, I imagined God was a giant so large that I could curl up in his hand, like a mouse-sized cat. Now I just imagine a sort of amorphous entity who exists somewhere above my ceiling. A watch-clock god, a fly-on-the-wall god. He hovers above my headboard, He hides behind the chapel rafters. 

Jesus, though. Jesus is the man. He’s the superhero, the best friend. He’s the holiest of holies and also the most accessible. But Jesus told us to pray to the Father and prayer is hard because it doesn’t do any good unless you say it out loud, and it’s really never any real good unless it’s in a group, where you know someone can hear you. Why can’t I just whisper to Jesus, instead of trying to form a telepathic link with the God of the Universe?

I thought about bread being re-formed. A loaf is made to be torn apart, to be split between people. Jesus was the same way. The Catholics believe that one piece of the eucharist is Christ wholly, and so I thought about how many pieces of bread, or wafers or crumbs are set apart as the body of Christ, and what would happen if each person, each member of the body of Christ, brought their pieces together and re-built His body, like building that temple in Babylon. So many people claim to have a splinter of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, that was found by Saint Helen and later divied up as gifts to bishops and cardinals who had pleased the Pope. If those were all brought together too, would the giant Jesus-golem fit on the giant recreated cross? Maybe that sounds more science-fiction than anything else, and maybe it doesn’t make any sense at all, but it does go to show how confused I was about God. I wrote and wrote trying to figure it out.

I had never allowed myself to explore my faith so freely before. I wrote things like: 

Blood. A name. Bread like a stone

Blood has a tang like iron

Bread made from the dust of the earth, like us.

Dust to dust, unholy to holy to unholy

And

Mary was barren, and God said, “Well, I DID already say she was chosen.”

And Mary made bread and the bread saved souls.

And

I don’t talk to the Baker anymore.

It’s not easy to get bread without talking to the Baker, but he’s not what I’m here for.

I’m here for bread

I read that last bit out loud to a few people, testing the weight of the words as potential lines for this vision of a poem, my end goal. My brother and his wife shook their heads and said, “I don’t get it. We love the baker. We want to be close to Him. I don’t think your metaphor works.”

Let me spell it out then: I believe in Jesus much much more than I believe in God. I can at least imagine a face for Christ. I can understand that He lived and can imagine Him as a child or as a teenager. But God is so weird and so perfect. Perfect isn’t a personality trait. And I don’t even know what God likes to eat. But Jesus? He talked about bread.


Bread of Life

1 Mary, human, the dust of life, or pure flour

1 God the Father, deity, living water. If you can’t get living water, regular is fine

1 bitter cup Yeast, or all the sins of the world 

A bit of olive oil, to remind us that God loves gardens

A bit of salt, untrodden

Knead ingredients together, until the whole is leavened. Abuse the dough as you see fit. Bake for 3 days in an oven, or in a cave. Partake by sharing with friends and family. Don’t leave it in the breadbox, or you will have defeated the purpose. This bread is designed to be torn and broken apart. Do not slice.

ANNOUNCEMENT: High School Contest Winners

Congratulations Samantha Proctor and Lily Davidson, winners of Grub Street‘s writing contest for high school students. Timothy Taranto, author of Ars Botanica (one of our staff’s all-time favorite memoirs), judged.

Sneak Peek of “The Boy Who Drew Halos” by Samantha Proctor

When I met her, it was dawn. Her chickens had come out, and the light that traversed over her fragrant driveway, where the sleepless bring life to the tortured, sprinkled like rose petals over the glint of her forehead. It is said that time is the expanse, a limitless blanket that seems to shroud any other concept in nature. The lightning, the seas, the birds all bow to His song. How lucky I am to exist in the same second of universe as the dry knuckles that lead me through the front gate of a home where spirit thrives.


Sneak Peek of “Saturated Introspection” by Lily Davison

Dark or light wash, it made no difference. Each of us wore denim like it was a second skin. My parents bought me my first pair of jeans when I was three; stretchy overalls with flowers on the front. It was my rite of passage. Don’t eat wild blueberries that you’ve found in the woods without making sure they’re wild blueberries. My lips were royally stained and buzzing with nerves, and my throat was raw and screaming. Beauty and poison go hand in hand I suppose.

To read more, you’ll have to wait for the print issue of Grub Street‘s release on May 8. Samantha and Lily’s full pieces will be available online after the print issue becomes available.