Everything you’ve heard is true: Gale Massey’s characters are filled with desires, ambitions, misgivings, and the whole range of human emotions. They are people whose fates you need to know.
Massey’s figurative language is often stunning and powerful, contributing to each story’s plot, characterization, and emotional tone. The opening of “Racine,” for example, describes the inevitability of the story’s conflict and its stoic emotional tone with “The minutes gather at her feet, pooling there like water seeping through a crack below a door.”
This collection illuminates many of the dark corners of what it means to be a woman in a time and place where women are [still] at the mercy of woman-hating policies, whether those are governmental, individual, or family policies.
In artistic terms and in terms of human relevance, Massey’s stories deliver. The short form gives her characters and themes the right amount of space to entice and then surprise. Most of all, these intense short stories succeed as literary page-turners readers will find irresistible.
Thanks to NetGalley for an advance review copy of this short story collection.
Trauma changes the human brain. My experience is that those changes are permanent. I used to be one of those people who believed in “getting over it,” but I’ve come to realize that’s impossible, at least for me. Other people’s anger, loud noises, and sudden movements near my head don’t cause me physical pain, but they cause a profound fear response. The muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten, rage spreads up to the top of my head, and my feet are ready to run. It’s a non-verbal surge, part automatic fight-or-flight response, part memory of black eyes, broken nose, split eyebrows, split lips, and welts inflicted on me decades ago when I was a child and a young woman.
Like a lot of women and girls, I was beaten because of my gender. The violence was personal, but it was also systemic. We live in a culture that accepts brutality against women. It’s been important to me, as an adult, to argue against this brutality, but sometimes, in conversations, the traumas I experienced have stopped me cold. I’ve been unable to reply to people who dismiss violence against women with phrases like “If it was so bad, why didn’t she leave?” It’s a failing beyond the sort of “I wish I’d said X” when we think of a snappy comeback to someone after the fact. The changes in my brain take over and silence me.
Accepting that my gut reactions can be beyond my rational control has been difficult for me, but talking with and helping other women who’ve been victims of misogynist violence has led me to a place of compassion for myself and my failings. The final chapter in the memoir I serialized this year on Medium is one story of arriving at that place. Here’s a friend link to the story that will get you past the paywall.
In the nineteenth century, serial publication was common. Authors and magazines released long stories bit by bit, enticing readers to stay tuned. Often, each piece of the story ended on a cliffhanger, which left readers and listeners eager for the next installment. Perhaps the most famous serial author is Charles Dickens, who somehow kept up with a grueling production schedule to produce classic novels like The Tale of Two Cities — and without the convenience of digital tools.
Are today’s readers too accustomed to immediate reading gratification to be interested in works in a serial format? Or are our attention spans and free time limited in a way that makes the serial format convenient and manageable for us?
This month, I’m experimenting with the serial format by publishing one chapter per week of Walk Away, my 2016 Kindle Singles memoir of my experience with teenage intimate partner violence.
Here’s a “friend link” to the first installment that will open Medium’s paywall for you. Meanwhile, best wishes from my teenage self — who survived with the help of her friends.
In my plantophile investigations, I became mildly obsessed with plants from the mint family. Most are what gardeners call “deer resistant,” meaning they don’t appeal to ravaging herds of deer who can mow down your garden in the blink of an eyeball. Doing research for the poem, I discovered that in botany, bisexual flowers are referred to as “perfect.” How nice!
The poem’s title is “The Mint Family,” but the editors chose another line as their graphic headline. Published December 28, 2020.
THE MINT FAMILY
Upright, with bisexual (or perfect) flowers, open
for business to bees. Aromatherapeutic against
memory’s dead hand. Other uses: teas, salads, salves
for stings. A shield for other greens against rapacious deer.
A shared geometry: stems near-perfect squares
in cross-section. Called Lamiaceae now, meaning deadnettle,
meaning not-a-nettle. Or possibly to nettle without sting,
like jolts of memory that don’t make one shrink.
Their long-dead name was Labiatae, as in labial.
Lipped, moist, impressionable. Easily stung,
yet they overrun gardens in bee balms, spearmints,
and sages. Re-member: no family’s perfect.
Some harp on the dead’s mistakes instead
of their memories, but The Mints come close
to perfect, modeling refreshment and courage,
their flowers unafraid of stings, open to all the bees.
The perfect pandemic novel is a short novel, since our attention spans may be diminished by panic, or loss, or involuntary isolation. It is a novel set in a predictable world unlike the one we now inhabit, in order to offer us temporary relief from the 2020 shitshow.
Piranesi, the title character, lives in a labyrinth that offers the peace of solitude among beauty, interrupted only by brief interactions with “the Other.” He sets himself tasks, some wholly pragmatic, and some philosophic. His ongoing task is to know his world. Our task, as readers, is to discover how he ended up there.
The novel we need now might be one with an innocent protagonist like Piranesi because we ourselves may have become jaded by daily reports of infections and deaths and the callous responses of our government. We may need a likeable protagonist, too, because isolation may have made us unlikeable. Or perhaps the people we live with have become unlikeable, or even intolerable.
A perfect novel for this dark winter has a strange plot, original enough to be compelling, with just enough touchstones to invite us to try making sense of it. And because it is a novel, in the end we find a way through the strange yet familiar labyrinth. We reach a resolution. Sort of.
This is the book that kept me awake in the good way of reading because I believed whole-heartedly in a world, as opposed to the bad way of doomscrolling for jolts of “I cannot believe this bullshit.”
Piranesi, it turns out, is a man who can change his opinions when the facts demand it – a good lesson for us all in challenging times.
I start every day (after coffee) by walking my dogs in a woodsy park near my house. The park is wedged between two well-traveled roads, and the noise of traffic can overwhelm the quieter sounds of small birds. Still, it’s a refuge for wildlife in the area, and I often see deer on my walks.
A poet friend who was also a pig farmer used to call deer “rats with hooves.” He was at war with them over certain crops he grew to supplement the pig income.
Deer have acclimated quite well to living in proximity to humans, well enough to be deemed a nuisance or worse by farmers, gardeners, and motorists. And, the deer have acclimated well enough to see us humans as harmless, or even as food dispensers. A mistake on both sides of the relationship, in my view.
This poem, originally published in Sweet Lit, was prompted by one of my morning walks. Click the play icon for an audio version.
Ones & ZeROES
The doe’s belly ripples, then a placental hoof or knee pokes her skin from inside out. She watches me watch her,
browsing for a hand held out with treats, whatever’s tender or nearby. Re-programmed for curiosity toward humans,
she’s unremembered fear. A new machine can write a terabyte of data every day on five hundred trillion molecules
of DNA. That memory will last ten thousand years. Soon, the deer may see my dog, who never catches them,
as one more harmless thing. Is that the sort of bit she passes down to offspring? Her new fawn rests, wet and dazed, between
deep shade and sun. Such tender prey. Let the dogs run.
I love Florida because it knows how to take the heat. People from Florida can handle criticism, trash-talking, jokes made at our expense, and the outright contempt of others. Florida-bashing is a legacy sport, played for decades by folks who want to believe they come from a much better place. At least here in Florida, we have no illusions; we know we’re flawed.
In the Summer of 2020, while Covid-19 cases surged all over Florida and our governor played stupid, Florida-bashing in the rest of the country only got more mean-spirited and petty than usual.
Well, y’all can keep on with this meanness if you feel called to do so, but it won’t make you any safer in these End Times. You’d be better off taking a few lessons in survival from the Sunshine State, where disaster is a way of life.
There’s the human-made disasters, too: the European genocides of Native people, the enslaving of Black people, the lynchings, the Jim Crow laws, the mass incarceration, and voter suppression and Republicans. Those last two are connected. Somehow, many Floridian families have survived all of these atrocities.
Many of us still vote Republican, even though we know the Republican politicians are more corrupt and incompetent than the Democrat ones. But once those Republicans get elected in Florida, we hate them. The current governor, Ron DeSantis, is rivaling Donald Trump for who has killed the most people via government incompetence. He’s following in the footsteps of his predecessor Rick Scott, who spawned a cottage industry making popular “Rick Scott is an asshole” bumper stickers and t-shirts.
But we have trouble with long term memory. Thankfully, in an emergency, our muscle memory kicks in. When news of the pandemic reached Florida, everyone ran out to the supermarket and bought beer, BBQ supplies, bottled water, and toilet paper. We filled up the gas tanks of our vehicles. Like it was a hurricane.
Like a lot of traumatized people, many of us Floridians have trouble practicing self-care. Out of habit, some of us keep trying to punish ourselves the way some alcoholics keep drinking even though it’s not in their interest to do so. Some of us dismissed the idea of wearing masks to protect our communities from Covid-19 (even camo masks!) because it’s our habit to punish ourselves as well as those around us. Well forgive us for being human. We’re not the only ones.
While we have our share of jerks, most Floridians are friendly, open, and polite. We can’t help it; it’s sunny here. We don’t spend much time with our heads squished down into our necks as we endure biting winds, cold rain, blizzards, or ice storms like you poor folks up North. Instead, we open our arms and faces to the sky and to other people.
We tend to be less judgmental than our neighbors to the North, since there but for the grace of God we all go in some embarrassing “Florida Man” or “Florida Woman” headline, like “Florida Woman Dances Naked with Alligator.” Could be us; could be our grandma.
Sure, it gets hot. But guess what? Global warming means the heat is coming for everyone. We’re prepared. We know how to take the heat because we live in the kitchen.
Florida is beautiful, complicated, and surprising. Some days, I’m so thankful to be here, I kiss everything I see. Except the reptiles.
I’m hoping all our suffering isn’t for nothing, that we’ll reject the ways we’ve been used and abused by the GOP, and we’ll rise up like Adrienne Barbeau and The Swamp Thing to spread love, science, and good will across our state.
And if Florida flips blue in the next election, I’ll be kissing every reptile I see.
Police officers have had racism’s back in the United States since the beginning. In colonial times, law enforcement was sometimes made up of volunteer police officers or private individuals who were hired by a community to keep order. It wasn’t until the 1850’s that the first municipal police departments were organized, but all these types of police have one thing in common:
From the first time an officer of the peace arrested a black person who’d escaped slavery or looked the other way when an overseer or plantation owner murdered a black person, to all the unprosecuted lynchings of the Jim Crow era, to Emmett Till, to the mass incarceration of black bodies that began in the late twentieth century, right up to the police murders of unarmed black people captured on cell phone videos in our current era, law enforcement has enforced racist terrorism.
Today, with the increasing militarization of police departments across the country, law enforcement is, more than ever, literally dressed to kill. Military grade weapons and equipment get to local law enforcement through the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which facilitates transfers of surplus. A series of studies found “a positive and statistically significant relationship between 1033 transfers and fatalities from officer-involved shootings across all models.” In other words, departments with access to military grade weapons are more likely to kill civilians than departments without access.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them. When an institution shows us who they are, we must believe them. The institution of policing is a deadly source of racist violence. No matter how many community policing trainings take place, no matter how many people of color are hired and promoted by police departments, law enforcement continues to kill innocent citizens. It continues to act out its racist policies. As an institution, it is not going to change. It must be abolished.
Let me say that again. Law enforcement has proven it supports racism for the last four hundred years. Law enforcement is not going to change, so it must be abolished.
It is the nature of law enforcement to support the status quo, and the status quo in the United States is racism. That status quo needs to go, and law enforcement needs to be swept out with it.
Who am I to say that? Just an informed citizen, an old, middle class, 97% white lady, the sort of person law enforcement is often depicted as protecting, and I would not call the police to my home or my neighborhood because there is no telling who they might kill or hurt, or what trouble they might cause.
Disempowering law enforcement won’t happen instantly, but many strategies exist to help make policing, and especially racist policing, a thing of the past. Like most big changes, the work can start at home. Locally, we can support and vote in candidates who have a more constructive vision of what community safety looks like. At local city, town, and county meetings, we can speak out on police budgets, and police hiring, and policing alternatives.
Following the police killing of George Floyd, which came hot on the heels of the police killing of 26-year old Brionna Taylor, members of Congress from both parties have proposed legislation to limit police powers including a ban on choke-holds and limitations on military grade weapons. It’s too soon to tell whether these proposals are mere pandering to voters during an election year, or whether these representatives mean business. Letting candidates know which pieces of legislation you support is crucial, as is telling them when their proposals don’t go far enough.
Or, as Dr. Ibram Kendi recently suggested, we can join with other citizens to amplify our individual voices, to “ask the question, ‘Well, who here is challenging the policy that is leading to these racial disparities?’ . . . Every single individual has the power to do that.”
· We don’t need cops to intervene in disputes. We need unarmed mediators.
· We don’t need cops to sweep people who are homeless off the streets. We need affordable homes.
· We don’t need cops to bust low-level dope dealers, or drug users, or alcoholics. We need substance abuse counselors who’ve been there who can share their experience, strength, and hope.
An important step in the abolition process is to bring police departments to an accounting. It’s clear that police forces in the U.S. are dangerous sources of anti-citizen violence, but data about those deaths is notoriously unreliable — because there is no national database keeping track.
According to one source, Mapping Police Violence, police killed 1,099 people in the U.S. in 2019, and a disproportionate number of those victims were Black people.
Keep that fact in mind, and what it implies: Work toward disarming and abolishing police forces must be based in anti-racist policies.
This work is not, by any means, the sole responsibility of Black people. American racism has benefited white people for centuries, and white people must step up now to make amends. A good first step in anti-racist work is to examine one’s own underlying assumptions and implied biases about race and the systems of racism.
In American society, racist ideas attach themselves to people like ticks. The ticks embed under our skin and suck our blood, and unless we see them, we can’t shed them. Reading Black authors, watching Black films, and listening to Black people sharing their experiences can help anyone see those racist ideas, analyze them, and rip them out of our lives. For good.
For the good of all, work to abolish the racist institution of policing.