REVIEW: Present Imperfect by Ona Gritz

Review of Ona Gritz, Present Imperfect. Poets Wear Prada, 2021.

by Liz Chang

As grammarians know, the “present perfect” verb form is used for actions that began in the past and continue into the present moment or those that occurred at an indefinite time. A sense of playfulness with time—or its collapse into the present moment—reverberates throughout Ona Gritz’ new collection of essays. I’d describe this as “playfulness,” even though the subjects in these essays are serious and often quite tragic: a difficult childhood, the end of a marriage, the narrator’s experiences with disability and identity while growing up, and the eventual murder of her sister’s family. As the title implies, this narrator remains keenly aware of how imperfection can increase the value of a memory. She speaks with a gentle self-deprecation, not shrinking from those instances where she wishes she acted differently. At the end of an essay about the heady days of finding new love, she admits: “Here is the part I don’t like telling. While we were kissing in public places, someone else loved me too” (40). The voice of this narrator gains our trust through her willingness to look at herself directly, in all her human fallibility.

Although these essays are poignant, the surprising treat when one reads them is that they do not weigh us down. There’s a delight we feel in looking over the shoulder of this, at times, slightly unreliable narrator (due to her naïveté). In those moments, however, the omniscient present-day voice steps in to let us know how this recalled moment fits into the larger pattern. As a result, the essays feel as though they are telescoping through time, like those delicate papercut accordion books where you stretch the scene out in front of you to keep seeing more detail, as if you are the vanishing point. Halfway through the essay that makes up the heart of the collection (“It’s Time”), about retracing her sister’s last steps and learning more about her and her family’s horrific end, the sister/detective speaks directly to her deceased sister’s grave: “You taught me how to be happy.” Then the narration switches from the distanced second person pronoun to a reclaiming “I”: “Here is where I finally cry. Because, of course, this isn’t your story, but mine…” (76). The courage of this moment is astounding.

Gritz’ nonfiction work is influenced by her poetic practice as well. She has the ability to bring two images together to create a breathtaking magnetism, such as when she describes the heart of the cover image, a mother and child in silhouette, taken by a new photographer (her ex-husband): “…the negative space, its one border made by my chin and my child’s ear…doesn’t it resemble an open-winged bird? Doesn’t it suggest flight?” (34). There are moments that could verge on the sentimental, but Gritz carefully dances away from the edge in a way that avoids this danger. In all, it is the imperfection of this narrator, how she underestimates herself and her insights throughout—while maintaining a tone of open invitation in her voice, to pull up a chair next to her, like a dear friend might—that is the true accomplishment of this beautifully rendered collection.


Some Stuff Ain’t for Sale

Year 2. For the last two years, we have lived and witnessed a level of community that we believe is worth a testimony.

Our testimony is that we’ve witnessed folks bring us cases of water to get through sidewalk sales in smoldering summer heat; we’ve watched piles of love letters and thank you cards and flowers and awards stack up behind our desk from well-wishers; we’ve hosted author readings on street corners and the orchestra in our living room and athletes and artists of every genre lend us their best.

Our community has ensured a few dozen youth have a safe nourishing place to call home–running daily operations, hosting our pop-up shops, book giveaways, and now the trolley tours.

Our community drives us to write more, and build more, and to listen more even in the face of the overt and covert vileness that seeks to take the best of us away from us. Did you know somebody almost got away with me?

Our sister bookshops are a social experiment in sisterhood and even under undeniable odds, we are thriving and flying where it matters most. But, as with any experiment, there are results to report.

The lyrics from Ntzoke Shange’s 1976 choreopoem, for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf, provide context for one of the revelations that we wish to address–

“Somebody almost walked off wid alla of my stuff,” Shange’s character, Lady in Green, says as if swats these words with her hips as she shares about being in love with “a kleptomaniac who was workin hard at forgettin while stealin/stealin all my shit.”

On our journey, we are more and more often finding institutions, corporations, organizations, media engines, and political figures who are way too similar to Lady In Green’s kleptomaniac lover. We are finding institutions that we have “made way too much room for” attempting to seduce us into long term relationships, and even birthing their children, knowing just like “a man who’s ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow” that they have no intentions of true love.

Instead there is a demand for our votes, our dollars, our attention spans, our memories, our signatures, our image and likeness, and all manners of coercion to try to steal our “anonymous ripped off treasures.” But this stuff is mine, Mr. Lousiana Hotlink.

This is not the first time that institutions, corporations, organizations, media engines, and political figures have tried to take off with “our stuff in a plastic bag beneath their arms.” This is how it has gone for generations–through the slavery and the civil war and the jane crow and the jazz and the renaissance and the marches and the redlining and the free breakfasts and the cyphas and the cross colors at every turn taking a dime for things that we didn’t even know we had. “Why dont ya find yr own things,” Shange’s Lady In Green says as she shimmys.

But the warning in Shange’s piece is not for the greedy lover that we have made too much room for; we expect them to behave the way they have always behaved. No, the Lady in Green is calling out to her sisters from a place of both shock and caution. She reminds us that they can’t have us, unless we give us away. That it is our responsibility to hold on to our stuff and to get it back if and when it gets confiscated.

Unfortunately, in the past, while some stood firm in the conviction that “I gotta have me in my pocket,” others were freely given up “our fried plantains/ pineapple pear juice/ sun-ra & joseph & jules in exchange” not realizing that we are the only ones who can truly handle our stuff. Giving it up, generation after generation, is like throwing our stuff in the sewer. It’s like a mammy nursing her master’s baby, while her own children starve. Some stuff ain’t for sale. Our stuff is not up for commodification/publication/classification/gentrification/decoration/replication.

So yeah, we taking our stuff back. We want our rhythms & our voices. We want our open mouths. We want our arms wit the hot iron scars. We want our legs wit the flea bites. We want our calloused feet & quik language. We want our stuff.

Say it loud, like the Lady In Green,

Our own things’/ that is our name.

For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

Concealing Home – ONLINE BONUS

It will happen slowly.

You will go to college only one hour away, and on the first day, people will point out your tongue when you speak. They will make you say



There’s a mowse in my howse

A baeh-throom tal

Wut claehsses are yous taking?

just for their own laughter, and you will comply. You will laugh, too, and feel a pang below your sternum. This, you will learn, is how betrayal feels.

You will learn from your suitemate, who is an acting major, that one of the first rules of the stage involves stripping your tongue so that the audience can view you as being from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. It makes you more relatable and likable, she says.

You will become an actor, blanding your speech in claehsses classes and social circles and campus job interviews. You realize you sound more educated, more respectable, even more wealthy without the nasally “A”s and hard-ass attitude. Like you were born in an unidentifiable elsewhere.

But when you talk to your Mom over the phone or come home to Mayfair, you are back to saying things like


Shuddup, no he din’t



I hafta go

because you miss sounding and feeling like yourself.

But this longing is fleeting. You will go back and forth between roles all four years. You are on campus much more than you are home, and the line thins and thins until it vanishes.

You vanish.

You go to grad school and stand in front of your own classroom and don’t need to switch tongues for the first time. You do not even recognize yourself speaking. Maybe this is your “teacher voice.” But your practiced sounds permanent to the point that when your students and your colleagues and your professors find out where you’re from, they don’t believe you. “Northeast Philly!” / “Really? You don’t even sound like it.”

You will revel in this. In the ability to be both insider and outsider, local and visitor. To say and behave and act like I was born there, but I made it… always followed by the unspoken ‘out of there.’

You will fasten on this mask and take it off for no one. You relish in the taste.

It is why you will deeply hate moving back into your childhood home with your parents after getting a job in South Jersey. Your Dad wants you to stop wasting money on rent. You know he is right, but you will feel a tinge of resentment for those days, that house, even them. For three weeks, you will drive down to Center City after work and look at apartments behind their backs. You will sign a lease for a 450-square-foot studio and tell your parents that night that you’re moving out of the howse house.

You will forget what the pang below your sternum feels like.

In the city, you will give off an air of champagne, even though you wear cubic zirconia. You will take pleasure in knowing that you made it [out of there], that you are living outside of the bubble of broken-down rowhomes, shitty dive bars along Frankford Ave, and your grade school clique. You will pursue as many men as you can solely because they will take you to whatever restaurant you want, burn holes in their wallets for you, all because your tongue is charming, crassless.

It is how you will end up wearing an oversized diamond from a rich suburban boy from an even richer suburban family. How you will say ‘class’ with a long, sophisticated “A” as if you are taking a drag, as if there has never been any other way. How you and your parents will speak on different registers, and you will feel—with the faintest of pangs—estranged from them.

With every open mouth, you will sound like a traitor.

With every softened vowel, you know you are.

Laura Brzyski serves as the health and wellness editor for Philadelphia magazine. She lives in Philly (not a suburb of) with her husband and their dog, Bogey, and always has at least one Stock’s poundcake on hand in the freezer.

Life Edge

Four maple shelves sit on black metal brackets along a wall in the kitchen of my family’s Fairmount home, nestled between two windows that let light into the rear portion of the house. My brother built them from a tree that was cut down on his property in West Virginia. They were installed recently, not long after we moved in, but they look like they have been there for a long, long time.

Before relocating to Philadelphia in the middle of the pandemic, my husband Patrick and I lived in Seattle. East coast transplants to the Pacific Northwest, it was where we lived for almost three decades. We met and were married there. It’s where we adopted our two kids, and where they grew up. It’s a place we called home.

When Patrick and I first considered buying our Seattle house, the kitchen was the biggest drawback. It was small and boxed in. For two people who love to cook and enjoy entertaining, we worried it just wouldn’t work. However, that was the only real issue with the house. The location was convenient, it was newer construction and in decent shape, and our kids each had their own room plus there was a spare room for grandparents and other visitors. Our real estate agent helped us imagine remodel opportunities, so we looked past the one glaring deficiency and bought it.

After a few years, the renovations began. Walls came down. A main floor powder room was removed. A local carpenter crafted custom cabinets and fashioned a twelve-foot island, topped with a single piece live-edge counter cut from a monkeypod tree. A local furniture design studio built a solid, oversized dining room table made of metal that sat on repurposed legs from an old lathe.

For two years we were able to spread out, welcoming friends and family to join us at the island while preparing meals and drinking wine. We crammed as many as we could around the table, tucked into a built-in bench or on extra stools and chairs we pulled from all over the house.

Thanksgiving dinners. Christmas Eve celebrations. Wedding and baby showers. Game nights. Fundraising events. Happy hours near the fire. Annual farm-to-table dinners. Birthday parties.  Date nights. Weeknight family dinners. Our Seattle home saw it all.

Around our table we welcomed friends we’ve known for years, sharing stories we told and retold countless times, and still, our laughter increased with each retelling. There were intent conversations with other parents who were meeting the challenges of parenting while trying to remain sane, and we listened, commiserated, and supported one another as best we could. New friends became good friends over a Sunday brunch. Good friends reconnected over drinks and games late into the night. Anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in the guest room or on the couch in the basement. Coffee was plentiful the following morning.

And then the pandemic struck. Patrick tested positive for Covid-19 just as the lockdowns started, and days later so did I. That same week, Patrick was offered a job at the University of Pennsylvania. Within two months, we sold our house and were ready to move.

In a flash, boxes were packed, travel plans made, and we closed the door on that remodel, completed with such diligence and care, our dream kitchen, perfect in so many ways. Now someone else would celebrate there. Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves and date nights that we had initially imagined for ourselves were now destined for someone else. We drove away from the home we loved, a home I was convinced we would never sell.

We arrived in Philly in July of 2020. Bought a house. Settled in. The kitchen here is fine. Not cramped but nothing we would have dreamed up for ourselves. It does open to the dining room and also onto a back courtyard, where we tentatively hosted family and visiting friends when the Covid-19 rates and vaccines allowed. We toss out ideas to one another about how we might remodel to make things better. But for now, it is good enough.

The kitchen shelves remind me of the island from our Seattle home, but they are something all their own. They’re stacked with plates and glasses and cookbooks, convenient for unloading from the dishwasher and setting the table. The plates and glasses and books came with us from Seattle.  It’s strange to see them here, and also comforting. Patrick thinks we need to buy some new glasses, but I am reluctant to let these go. It helps to see these, reminders that although some things change, not everything does. Or has to.

We’ve cooked two Thanksgiving dinners in our new kitchen. Last June we hosted family to celebrate our daughter’s graduation from high school. New neighborhood friends have come over for happy hour, and Zoom happy hours continue our connection with friends in Seattle. During the shut-in months of last winter, we held weekly video meetings with my parents and brother in an attempt to shore up one another’s spirits. Eating around our own tables in our own homes, we laughed, talked about politics or books, and dreamed up travel plans for when we could see one another again.

My sister-in-law Krista says our house feels warm and comfortable. That makes us happy. It is nice that she and her family can easily drive from Long Island for a day or a weekend. Another sister-in-law Patrina and her family are just a quick drive out the Main Line. We have had more grandparent visits in the past year and a half than the previous five years. It is a gift for our kids to connect more easily with their cousins. It’s also a gift for us to build closer connections with our parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and East coast friends.


And yet–I miss Seattle with an ache so deep I sometimes question the wisdom of our move. The feeling reminds me of the sadness that settled in when I returned to Seattle after a visit to Buffalo, where I grew up. For days, I would think to myself, “You are so far from home.” But after many years, it was Seattle that became more familiar. We learned neighborhoods like the back of our hands. We had favorite stores, cafes, restaurants. Our friends became family and our family members became their friends as well. Our bonds with colleagues deepened over the years as did our kids’ connection with their biological families, most of whom live in the Pacific Northwest.

The sun shines here, not always, but certainly more than it did in Seattle. When it did shine there, the view from our living room window was west toward the Olympic mountains, snow-capped, imposing, and eternal. Nothing compares with riding along Lake Washington on one of those days, sailboats gleaming white out on the water, Mt. Rainier towering in the distance. My bike rides here–along the Schuylkill River, up to Wissahickon Park, and back along MLK Boulevard–remind me of those rides to Seward Park and back. On the way home, the sun sets here just the same, off to the west in shades of orange and rosy pink.

Our lives were there and here, and now they are here and there. We have always been a bicoastal family and that will continue. We will travel back and forth and back again. We won’t be surprised if one or both of our kids returns to Seattle to again call it home. We wouldn’t rule out returning ourselves at some point.

There’s been much discussion of home throughout the pandemic. As the places we eat and play and sleep became where we also work and go to school, many of us felt trapped in our homes. Others found new comfort there, the safety and security of a place that kept the disease at bay, a slowing down from an often-hectic place, a sense of peace. For too many, the financial struggles that went along with the pandemic have made finding or keeping a home especially difficult.

Poet and author Maya Angelou once wrote, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” It’s the longing that I both identify with and hope to more fully understand. How can I be more entirely present in this city where I need to make new friends, learn new roads, understand new customs and norms? When will I feel rooted? How long will it take? What does it mean to be at home?

Last weekend I made a cake, a new recipe, and as it baked, a cinnamony warmth filled our home. Our neighbors came over later in the day, and we went up to the roof deck, watching as the sun sank behind the city. Blue sky turned orange and pink and gold along the horizon and a few stars twinkled on. Everything seemed to glow. We laughed and got to know one another a bit better.  We toasted one another. When we were done, we all made promises to do it again soon.

Christopher Drajem is an educator, writer, and LGBTQ+ advocate. He has taught high school English, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, since 2000. His 2019 collaborative memoir, written with his mother Linda Drajem, is titled Wandering Close to Home: A Gay Son and His Feminist Mother’s Journey to Transform Themselves and Their Family. Christopher currently lives in Philadelphia with his husband Patrick and their two children.

The Simple Truth

Nature’s assorted players stir themselves into motion, from the lowly insects to the elusive reptiles to the lofty mammals. It is early morning, and there are approximately thirteen hours of daylight ahead. Thirteen hours of creaturely struggle and ambition and hope. And choices. Those who make the correct choices will survive until evening. The others, unfortunately, will – today – succumb to the realities of corporeal competition and natural consequences.

I ponder all of this while lying at the edge of dawn on the second day (first morning) of a two-day wilderness hiatus, alone in a small tent, flap open, with my loyal dog Sophie lying halfway in. Her paw is on my arm, and her muzzle is pushing insistently against my cheek, urging me to action. “Nature calls,” she might say if she could speak humanese. Habits must be as strong for dogs as they are for humans. At home, I would now open the back door and let her go outside. Here, we are already outside. But she still wants me to rise and accompany her, as if my presence will provide official sanction for her morning business. There’s an unalterable ritual involved, and it must unfold in its complete form: man with dog, walking, sniffing, walking further, stopping, peeing and/or shitting, turning, and repeating, etc. All creatures have rituals, from the spider-web spinners to the lumberjack beavers to the corporate executives practicing the latest Tony Robbins techniques for business success. Rituals are probably as important for survival as good choices are.

I lie on my back now, part way out of the tent, staring at the green translucence of the trees above, listening to the soft rush of the nearby river, and savoring this groggy yet mindful moment. My mind typically races like this first thing upon waking up. It’s as if, being deprived of reality-based thought during the dreaming hours, the brain is making up for lost time, probing and savoring and analyzing every bit of worldly sensory data it can get its hands on. At times, maybe I think too much for my own good.

The dog has given up on me for the moment and is groping and probing through the trees at the edge of the campsite. Above the rustling, I hear a change in the steady sound of the river. It sounds like a small boat or canoe, with the high-pitched splashing of oars plus the lower rumbling of the vessel as it cuts through the water. I push myself to a semi-sitting position and peek around the edge of the tent toward the river. The stiffness in my joints probably comes from a combination of yesterday’s long walk and the effects of sleeping in the damp, cool September air. By the time I look, the craft has passed and is no longer in sight through the clearing in the trees and bushes lying between my tent and the water’s edge.

As I stand, Sophie returns to me, stumbling and limping ridiculously, oblivious to her own woundedness in the form of a sprained rear right leg. Sometime yesterday evening, she apparently got caught in a hole or lost her footing on the trail or something. I first noticed the limping as I sat by our campfire last night, watching her chase bugs. I say I noticed because the way she’s acting, it seems that she is unaware of any problem and oblivious to any pain. A dog in denial, Sophie disappears again for a few moments into the bushes north of the campsite and returns with her nose ringed with fresh brown dirt. Her fur is wet from the dew that covers everything surrounding us. She then disappears in the direction of the river. I can hear the splashing sounds as she tests the water, no doubt slurping up a few mouthfuls in the process. Sophie is happy to romp and jump with abandon, worsening her leg in the process, the pain being simply an irrelevant inconvenience. I think to myself (here we go again), is it denial, or is it, instead, transcendence? I mean, if Sophie could talk, would she say (in denial), “No problem, I’m okay, really. Let’s go, man.” Or would she explain, “Hey, life goes on. Everybody hurts to some extent. I do not separate myself from my injuries. Rather, I become, or I am, my injury. Okay, let’s go, man.” Canine Zen.

I spread a blanket close to the front of the tent and sit upon it. The campfire is smoldering slightly, so I stir it up and throw in some newspapers and kindling. In no time, the fire returns to life. I add the half-burned log that I moved aside last night before falling asleep. Then, opening the ancient Coleman stove on the ground nearby, I commence pumping, then turning the knob, then holding a flaming match until the fire poofs to life. When I walk to the river to collect water in an aluminum pan, dog frumping along by my side, I look both ways, up and downstream, for signs of the canoe or boat that passed by. Nothing in sight.

The risen sun is brilliant over the river. The light is playing and sparkling on the moving water, part direct sunlight and part reflective light from overhanging branches and leaves. This will be a perfect morning for photography. Maybe I’ll get some good close-up macro shots of the dewdrops on leaves and on the few remaining late summer asters or fleabane or touch-me-nots. I am looking forward to the continuing solitude. This area, being isolated and primitive, doesn’t attract many campers at any time, but now, in late September, I’m not surprised that I am the only overnight visitor. Before returning to my breakfast, I lean down and splash an exhilarating double handful of water into my face.

Back at the blanket, the dog sits by me as I wait for the coffee water to boil, her haunches pressed against me, face across my right knee, eyes turned up toward me. It’s that look of pure adoration and loyalty of which only dogs are truly capable. I remove three eggs from a plastic container, cracking and dumping them into a small flat pan. With the pan over the second flame on the Coleman, I stir the eggs then sit back down to wait some more.

My mind, as I have said, tends to ramble in the early morning, and now I’m thinking of the dewdrops and how, in a close-up photo, they often appear so deliberately placed, in patterned rows along a leaf-edge or neatly arranged around the circle of a flower’s central disk. It is all so purposeful, so well planned. Furthermore, it’s a purpose that can only be revealed to someone taking the time to look and look close. Still, the beauty and the purpose speak for themselves, once discovered. In human affairs, purposefulness — though equally real — is less tangible and more obscure, even to the earnest seeker. Human purpose is also open to endless and conflicting interpretations, and it insists upon its own explanation. How many times do we ask one another, “Why did you do that?” or something similar? With nature’s purpose, however, an explanation is beside the point. It just is. Of course, I’m only speaking for myself here.

As if my musings on human purpose have the power to call matter into being, I hear a decidedly human-like rustling in the bushes. It’s coming from the direction of a narrow trail that heads in a southerly direction along the river bank. I catch sight of increasing shadows and movement in the bushes just before my visitor emerges, dressed in a uniform that immediately identifies her as a park ranger.

“Hi,” I start the conversation.

“Hi. Did you sleep here last night?” As she speaks, she is wiping spider webs from her wet dew-splattered sleeves and from the thighs of her pants.

“Yes.” I reach down to remove the egg pan from the fire and turn off the flame.

“You didn’t happen to see a canoe go by with three people – teenagers – did you? Sometime yesterday, in the late afternoon?” She removes a small notebook and pen from her breast pocket and prepares to record the very next words to emerge from my mouth.

“No. I got here in the morning, but I was out walking most of the day. I thought I heard something this morning, though, which I now guess was you … in a canoe, maybe? Otherwise, I haven’t heard or seen anything unusual.” She’s writing as I ask, “Is something wrong? Are they missing?” I realize in a split second that it’s probably a stupid question, but the ranger doesn’t treat it so. Nor does she confirm that she, in fact, arrived by boat.

“Well, they came in yesterday. A friend was supposed to pick them up first thing this morning about five miles downstream from here, at the Fulton Bend camping area. But, this morning, they weren’t there.”

“Are there any other campsites between here and there?”

“Yes. Windham Hollow. About two miles downstream, near a spot where the rapids get pretty rough. It’s really treacherous now with all the rain we’ve had. I’m worried they may have gotten themselves in trouble. There are notices at every launch point telling people not to canoe down that far unless they are trained and properly equipped. But, you know, sometimes people don’t listen to advice like that.”

“Uh-huh,” I agree, pouring boiling water over a pile of instant coffee crystals in a yellow plastic cup and turning off the flame. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, thanks,” the ranger says absently as if I have just interrupted her train of thought. When she continues, I detect a condescending tone in her voice. “It’s the simple truth. Like they know that the danger is there, but just figure they’ll be the exception. Like they’re invulnerable or something.” She pauses as if reflecting upon her statements. “Well, I’m going to head downstream. I just stopped here when I saw the smoke from your fire. If you see anything, I’d appreciate it if you’d call the park office. The number is on the park brochure; if you have that. If necessary, they can get in touch with me.” She removes a phone from her belt, looking at it closely as if to evaluate its condition.

“Okay, yeah, got it.”

“By the way, I’m Ranger Lazinski.” From reading her black plastic name tag, I already know her full name to be Sharon R. Lazinski.

“I’m Eric Adams. Nice to meet you. I’ll call if I see anything.” I’m ready to shake hands, but Ranger Lazinski has both of hers occupied with the pen, notebook, and phone.

Saying “Thanks,” she turns and walks briskly back down the trail in the direction of her (I assume) canoe. Just before disappearing into the thicket, she turns and – without smiling – says, “Enjoy the rest of your visit.”

“Thanks,” I say in return, with a quick wave.

As the ranger vanishes, my thoughts turn from the three teenagers, and their possible plight, to thinking about how, at any given moment (like this one), there are millions of separate lives going on across the planet, running their separate and diverse courses, sometimes intersecting at accidental and unpredictable moments. Two or more unrelated life stories can thereby become connected in important ways, each affecting the other in, again, an unpredictable, or at least unknowable, manner. So, here is me, here is Ranger Sharon R. Lazinski, here are three teenagers. Our lives are now connected, like it or not. Even though I have not encountered the teenagers themselves, I do know about them, so they are in my life. And actually, even though the teenagers do not know about me (yet?), I am, in a sense, part of their lives, too.

What does this mean? It means that I think too much, about too little, too early in the day; that’s what it means. By noon, these questions will seem irrelevant. I know this from experience.

This latest stream-of-consciousness session, however useless, brings me around to consider the various intersections in my own recent life, which have brought me to this day and this campsite and this glorious place of mostly isolated relaxation and reflection.

It all begins with the fact that I am losing my job. I am being fired. Or, as they put it gently in the insulating world of academia, I have been “retrenched.” I looked up these two words. To retrench is to “cut down, reduce, or diminish.” To fire is to “dismiss from a job.” While the former sounds more polite and somehow acceptable, the latter is clearly more accurate, from my perspective anyway.

At any rate, my college teaching position is being eliminated (not “reduced” or “diminished” but wiped out entirely). Therefore, by default, I will disappear (or be “retrenched”) along with it. They tell me that I should not take it personally; it has nothing to do with me: not my professional performance or my obvious contributions to the college or my potential future contribution, etc., etc. It’s just that, well, I’ve become expendable. In these past five years, I have acquired tenure, earned the respect of students and colleagues, and even been encouraged to pursue the administrative route. Encouraged. Reinforced. Provided with a sense of future and mission. And then, whoops, sorry, no longer needed.

It was a Thursday, 11:00 a.m., out of the blue. I am invited to a meeting, and the bomb is dropped. Wow, numbness sets in, then denial, then confusion, then anger, then an overwhelming sense of betrayal and, strangely, embarrassment. I am embarrassed that I have spent five years of my life with an organization that could do this to someone, based on expediency and economics alone, with no regard for merit or reputation or experience or ability. Is it only in academia that one could get away with such inept, counter-productive, short-sighted management? Probably not, actually. But from the middle of such situations, it’s natural to feel singled out.

Back at the college, it was somewhere between the “confusion” and “anger” phases that I wrote a piece for the college newspaper, which, of course, they immediately agreed to print, given its overtly inflammatory tone and provocative potential. Laced with phrases like “the administration’s disgraceful secret tactics” and “robbing our students of the education they purchased in good faith,” the article described how our university had lied to students, lied to faculty, sabotaged collaborative bottom-up reforms, and insulated itself from input and from the influence of students and faculty in whose name it exists. All to serve the holy cause of numbers and dollars. And on and on and on. They printed the article verbatim, unedited. Soon the local paper called, then the local radio station, then the public station fifty miles away in Binghamton. It seemed that I had single-handedly created the issue-of-the-week. I had, at the same time, seriously angered the entire third floor of the college administration building. This was not what I had in mind, or so I told myself and others. I was as honestly surprised as anyone when this mild-mannered, soft-spoken, normally polite assistant professor turned into a raging media pit bull.

The word “betrayal” became a bouncing projectile in the ensuing verbal war between the college administration and me. They said, in effect, “You have betrayed the college, indeed the whole state system, with your rantings and ravings.” They stopped just short of extending my betrayal to “education in general throughout the universe as we know it.” For my part, I continued to accuse the third-floor gang of betraying me, lying to me, betraying all of us, which ultimately hurts the students, and on and on and on.

So, the whole damn thing just blew up beyond reason and, now, here I am, on a two-day retreat, at the insistence of my loving and understanding wife, in an isolated campsite in a relatively remote part of Adirondack Park. Back home, the sparks continue to fly, but – for now – I am pleasantly and refreshingly separated from all of it. Physically separated, that is. For now.

After my breakfast of coffee (two teaspoons, as usual, for the first eye-opening cup) and scrambled eggs, eaten standing up, I start out with the dog. Even away from home, in a strange environment, the morning dog-and-master walk is undertaken almost unconsciously. This is simply what we do first thing, usually before breakfast at home, without stopping to decide or consider. As the dog begins her goofy limp-dance, I am reminded that this should be a brief walk for the dog’s sake, though she will certainly not agree.

A narrow trail leads east from the campsite toward the river’s edge, joining — at roughly 90 degrees — another trail running north and south about ten feet from the water; it’s the same trail from which Ranger Sharon (what was her last name?) appeared a short time before. We take the southern route, finding that the trail narrows rather suddenly, becoming overgrown with various bushes and small trees at waist and chest level. At this time of day, it is impossible to avoid becoming soaked from the dew. However, the terrain is perfect for the dog who slips beneath the wet canopy just ahead of me. We walk a short way, a hundred yards or so, and I turn to go back just as the dog – apparently distracted by a squirrel or some other real or imagined creature – takes off down the trail, silly-looking bum leg dangling behind. Soon I lose sight of her beneath the brush, but I can hear that she has stopped and is now sniffing and snorting and pawing the ground not far ahead of me. A moment later, she returns with a blue fluorescent-type baseball cap dangling from her mouth.

“Oh, nice find, Sophie,” I say sarcastically, then notice that the cap, clean and new-looking, lacks signs of having been on the ground for any period of time. Walking on, I discover why.

As soon as I see the body sprawled across the trail, I draw in a spontaneous and audible breath. Then, some sort of survival-rescue instinct kicks in, and I am kneeling by the body, quickly but calmly checking for vital signs. It is a male, 17 or 18 years old, with longish dark hair, dressed in a multi-colored flannel shirt and black jeans. Yes, there is breathing. No, there is no blood in sight. No, the body doesn’t look contorted in any way that would suggest broken bones. There are no signs of struggle. In fact, the young man at my feet appears to be simply sleeping. This hunch is confirmed when, as I nudge his shoulder, he awakes suddenly with a moan, a cough, and a groggy, confused expression that is quickly replaced by a terrified look of realization and dread.

“Oh, God,” are his first words.

“What is it? How did you get here? What’s…”

He raises his head from the dirt to speak. “My friends. Julie. Brandon. I think Bran’s dead.” He points feebly back up the trail from which he had apparently come as his head falls back to the ground.

“Can you stand? Are you hurt?” As he seems to make an attempt to move and perhaps stand, I say, “Come on, we’ll go and get some help for your friends.”

I reach down, grasping him by the shoulders and helping him into an approximate standing position. I hold tight to his staggering, exhausted frame as we negotiate the trail back toward the campsite. Sophie, sensing that this is serious business, keeps her distance, lumbering on ahead of us but looking back frequently.

“What’s your name?” I ask, mostly just to make him talk, to keep him awake and, perhaps, alive.


“Okay, Tom, look, everything is going to work out here. You can just rest while I call the park rangers. They’ll get an ambulance in here to…” I stop in mid-sentence. To what? Take your dead friend (or friends) to the morgue? I don’t finish the sentence.

It takes less than five minutes for us to reach my tent. I help Tom to the blanket, where he lies, head on the ground again, staring straight ahead with eyes open in a blank stare. The dog resists the likely temptation to go over and lick Tom’s face or nuzzle against him.

In less than 15 minutes, Ranger Sharon (Lazinski, I am reminded as I read her name tag) arrives at the campsite to announce that an emergency medical team is on the way. When the two EMT vans arrive, the medical technicians (four in all) help Tom into one of them. Someone suggests that I ride along (as a witness?), so I join the ranger in her state-issued, gray Ford Taurus, and she allows the dog to jump into the back seat. Our caravan, led by the ranger’s car, moves up the road toward Windham Hollow. I am aware of a general mood of trepidation surrounding us, like the hint of fog that engulfs the three vehicles as they move with urgent deliberation. As we bump along, tires shoot occasional stones, each with a pop and a smack as it hits a tree or a softer whoosh as the stone penetrates the thick forest brush along the road.

We park at Windham Hollow and move, as a team, down the trail, and through unoccupied campsites, toward the river. It is not surprising to find nothing at or near the riverbank since Ranger Lazinski had only recently searched this area from her canoe. It is deeper in the brush, at least 20 feet from shore, that we discover the two bodies, still soaked and – at first – both looking to be absent of any life signs. A closer inspection reveals this initial impression to be half true.

A male, about 18 years old, taller but much thinner than Tom, is spread grotesquely beneath some branches, with arms and legs at awkward and random angles, a large pool of dried blood beneath his bruised head. This must be Brandon. Even though the eyes are closed, the badly bruised face wears an expression of resignation that seems to reveal the young man’s final reflections upon the life draining from his battered body.

Julie, unconscious but breathing, rests her head upon the right thigh of her lifeless companion. She awakes moments after our arrival. With eyes open, her face forms the same expression of dreaded remembrance that Tom had displayed upon awaking on the trail.

As the emergency team takes over, Ranger Lazinski walks off toward the south as if she has spotted something. Sure enough, she soon bends to pull the battered front end of a canoe from some brush that must be about thirty feet from the water. Amazingly, someone had the presence of mind to drag the damaged canoe from the water after the accident.

Julie is carried to the ambulance that already holds Tom, while Brandon — his body placed on a stretcher and covered head to toe with a sheet – is solemnly placed in the back of the second vehicle. After turning around in the small parking area, the vans pull away. As I stand motionless, watching, an unexpected and nameless sensation comes over me. I become contemplative, not in itself unusual, but, in this case, it’s an empty sort of contemplation. It’s as if the events of the previous – how long, one hour perhaps, a little more? – are infused with significance and deep implications that I can only sense but not yet truly comprehend.

After the EMT vans disappear through the trees, Ranger Lazinski looks at me as if searching for something profound to say. Instead, she comes up with the predictable, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, thanks. Boy, it’s something else, isn’t it, the way things happen?” I turn my head to look out over the scene toward the river as if searching for a clue or an explanation.

“Yeah, well, you know, nature doesn’t play around. But she does play fair. It’s the simple truth.” I turn back to face her and wonder if she is repeating a quotation from somewhere or if she has just manufactured that bit of wisdom on the spot. Then she continues with a shrug of her shoulders and a wave of her left hand, palm up, in the direction of the river.

“I mean, the rules are plain. They’re obvious. Play it straight, and you’re okay. But, buck the natural order – by running dangerous rapids over a rocky river ledge, for example – and you have to accept the consequences. It’s a brutal truth, yes, but a simple one at the same time.”

The ranger walks a few steps in the direction of her car, but I can tell she isn’t finished speaking. “You can depend upon the songs of the birds with as much confidence as you can count on the deadly grip of the grizzly bear. Mother Nature is always true to her word. And consistent, too, with both the good and the bad.”

With the hint of a laugh, she adds, “And that’s something you don’t find too often in the human realm, do you, that consistency?” Then with another short laugh and slight embarrassment at her own pontificating, she concludes, “Hey, maybe that’s why I’m a forest ranger.”

I offer my own muttered chuckle in response and say, “Yeah, well, thanks. I’d better go pack up my stuff. Time to get back to civilization, as they say.” The dog, forgotten these past 10 or 15 minutes, limps into sight at the sound of my call, dripping from an apparent dip in the cooling river.

“Okay, let’s go,” says Sharon. So we climb into her car and drive to my campsite.

With my loyal wounded companion beside me, I make my way down the trail from the dirt road to my tent. The muffled rumble of the ranger’s car, fading with distance, is replaced by the persistent buzzing chirp of the curious chickadee that watches me from a nearby tree. The wind can barely be heard moving the trees overhead while the river broadcasts a soft flowing gurgle.

I sit on the blanket and concentrate upon these sounds like a mantra, relishing their persistence and … what? Conviction? Confidence? My body seems to absorb the sounds, becoming heavy in the process. With eyes closed, I feel my new weight as I sink and settle into the blanket. This is the most relaxed I’ve been during these two days, indeed, in a long time. The sounds wash over and around me, cleansing me and purifying the moment.

In this state of balance and tranquil awareness, I am not mindful of the competing sounds that might exist outside the boundaries of this present calm. I can almost forget the noise that waits, “back there,” to eventually, inescapably, intrude upon this serenity.

Jeff McLaughlin was born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania and currently lives in Chester County. A former elementary school teacher, he has most recently served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at West Chester University. Previous work has appeared in publications including PXV Arts, Listener, and various academic journals. McLaughlin is also a “junk-art” sculptor and singer-songwriter, whose work can be found at

The Night Diana Died – ONLINE BONUS

Editors’ Choice: 2022 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


Was sticky in the streets & I wanted to linger

in the theater with the girls on the screen:

girls called girls for a reason: soft, tragic, funny,

swimming in sweaters that could last a lifetime,

like Diana’s black sheep knit the year she flirted with the horse guy.

But it was midnight. Time to blast our bodies

through the tunnel. That night I wanted to walk for hours

instead, not because the subway was hot

or crowded and certainly not unsafe, but because

it was one of those nights when the outside air

belongs inside and the inside, outside, and it appears

all our structures, even our cells, had failed their most basic function,

to keep the insides, inside, and the outside, out;

The way our rooms fail us now, a two-inch band of ants

appearing next to our air-conditioner; they’ve taken wings,

in hope and preparation for a colony. It’s a poor choice.

Pushing them outside an act of mercy.

Many will not make it.


& so, the night Diana died I walked twenty scorched blocks

until my shoes gave out, like in the blues songs &

I was somewhere strange & it was two

before I made it up the flight of my little breadbox, turned

on the radio and heard how Diana had gone

into another tunnel and not come out. Just

that day I’d been arguing with a friend about the royals &

their worthlessness & now there she went and was gone.

The words ended but the voice went on,

top of the hour, announcing the weather &

that her dying would go on & on &

I listened for hours, open-mouthed. Come morning I still

had no one to meet and nowhere

to be. I used to think the worst fate was this,

to be a being with no people. I now know this

to be true, and yet, that night

did not last, it was not the only night that has tilted

into vision & there have been thousands of tunnels

in the years since that night & not one of them

has swallowed me whole.

Laura Tanenbaum writes, “‘The Night Diana Died’ is part of a chapbook entitled Dear Mother which weaves together meditations on private and public and forgotten griefs. Poems from this chapbook and other of my poems have appeared in Rattle, Catamaran, Aji, Trampoline, and other venues. I have also published essays, book reviews and short fiction in publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Entropy, and Cleaver Magazine. I teach creative writing, composition, and literature at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York.”

In the Wake of Heat – ONLINE BONUS

Editors’ Choice: 2022 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


The summer keeps on swallowing

My loved ones

Whole and crushing

Their bones.


I did not get to bury my brother.

The flowers are all gone       all gone.

The world won’t stop

Spitting my people out.


My city is burning and there is no

Trace of a memorial beyond the parade of black.


Where does life go, in the


A mother’s baby is devoured

And the sun is still hungry for someone

Else’s heart to eat.


The steam wave carries the names

I cannot hold.


The ashes are singing on,

In what a body can join and what

The ground longs to cradle.


We burning up down here,

Where it keeps turning out bullets for

Sons and daughters.


The city keeps eating and,

And the sun keeps shooting,

and the summer keeps smiling as it feasts.


It is hungry out here.

Mikhayla Robinson writes, “I am currently studying English at the University of Georgia, in Athens. I released my first chapbook, Dichotomy, in May of 2020 (Nightingale and Sparrow Press). My work has also been featured in War Crimes Against the Uterus, a reproductive rights anthology, and the Toho Journal.”

Ars Poetica Caught in Eternal Recurrence – ONLINE BONUS

Editors’ Choice: 2022 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


You use the gas burner to set dreams on fire

while stirring beans. You’ve written your name on

10,000 lines yet have nothing beyond

these four walls. In between the job applications,

the taxes, the transmission on the car throwing itself

like an untamed horse, I fold laundry until the creased fabric

becomes my skin. Our 3 a.m. bodies buzz like fireflies

whose only electricity was trapped when the jar lid

twisted shut. You whisper, my life is a series of still images:

us at 20 with bloodshot eyes, hopeful and hungry, summer

sun flushing your face like embarrassment,

the first friend from college dead already.

And I assure you everyone has a God—

the woman next door waters her flowers with the words

of a forgotten prayer, the man at the bus stop makes a religion

of nicotine, gray rings are his angels. And me, I have this poem.

I write her with the same fingers that scroll through your hair

on nights when you can’t sleep. My love, know one day we’ll flip

through our photos and see a narrative, but

for now know that calculus sees infinity in loops.

Forever caught in the spiral of the coffee mug you fill

each morning, swiveling in the shape of my lips as I kiss

you good-bye and hello. Listen to the song. Watch,

the lines of time you see marching on are really the legs

of a ballerina, revolving in some endless pirouette.

Courtney DuChene (she/her) is a poet and journalist based out of Philadelphia, PA. Previous work has appeared in Furrow, The Blue Route and Glass Mountain. You can follow her on Twitter at @CourtneyDuChen2.

Eucalyptus – ONLINE BONUS

Editors’ Choice: 2022 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest



In 1879 Presidente Garcia Moreno
brought silver dollar eucalyptus trees
from Australia

to dig their heels into these hills
to keep things from sliding    further.



In the foothills of the Andes,
in a hush of eucalyptus
gnarled and knuckled bark

beckons me—  lie down
on pillows of hojarasca.

Forest floor soaks up noise,
sponge of days.

Streaks of sunlight anoint
this stained-glass cathedral.

Here you can inhale deeper
than you’ve ever breathed.



My Abuelita, when her name was Deifilia
bundled eucalyptus branches on her way home,

hung their bouquets upside-down
until the cordillera rains would bring el resfrio.

In Guayaquil, when her name was Marianita,
when traditions were all she had left,

eucalyptus and manzanilla hung in her kitchen,
bought from las indias en el Mercado Sur.

Camouflaged in dark green leaves,
she shape-shifted into tropical hibiscus,

caged-bird-of-paradise pressed between
spiral bound pages. The crinkle of Scripture,

fragrance of Vicks VapoRub, her weekly rituals
the sacred aroma         that permeates everything.



The first time, I traveled there
in my father’s Volkswagen camper

the patina on the leaves
reminded me of greenbacks,
copper pennies, the Statue of Liberty.

I wanted to be a forest ranger,
so I could spend all day

in that temple, branches lifted in praise—
lifted to hold back the sky.



I too have been uprooted
brought thousands of miles, expected
to thrive in foreign soil.

Decades later, I learn
eucalyptus trees suck all the water
from Andean aquifers.

My conscience pangs.
My roots are still thirsting.



Now, I still get congested, return
to lush Andean forests, my grandmother’s home

release the trees into the air above my mug

Una aguita de eucalipto, mijita
Gracias, Abuelita

I sip in the now, and breathe—
my ribcage the open and closed lung
of a blessed forest’s unleaving.

Lupita Eyde-Tucker writes and translates poetry in English and Spanish. She’s the winner of the 2021 Unbound Emerging Poet Prize, and her poems have recently appeared in Women’s Voices for Change, Yemassee, Rattle, [PANK], and Ran Off With the Star Bassoon. Lupita is an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Florida and was a Staff Scholar at Bread Loaf Writers Conferences this summer. She is a Poet in Residence at Miami-Dade Public Schools through O, Miami’s Sunroom program. Read more of her poems here:

Fiona Rice Does Not Talk to the Rabbits

Honorable Mention: 2022 Sandy Crimmins Poetry Contest


Dear Mr. Lorcan,


The last time I wrote to you the blueberries were here,

and Mom was showing me how to cut a tomato for the kill.

For one, the blueberry bush devoured my body whole

when I leaned in head first, hoping to find the perfect one for

you. A midnight pearl, musseled between two satiny leaves.

For two, you must use a serrated knife and saw, slowly. In

the kitchen beside the heap of pink seedy guts, Mom had said

garden gnomes do not make good friends. But you listen,

Mr. Lorcan, and you don’t tattle to the walls of the seventh grade

girls’ bathroom, telling them that Fiona Rice talks to the rabbits.

I talked to a rabbit. What was I supposed to do? Benny Wilks,

the eighth grade boy with the window-pane teeth and drawer-knob

elbows, snapped the baby white rabbit’s neck like a toothpick and

left her in a puddle of herself beside your ceramic shoes. She was

dead but she was also safe now—the honeysuckle vine that works its

way down the front fence and hooks around your ceramic pointed

hat was hooked around her, too, as if it were somehow you. When

Benny Wilks was gone, I scooped her soft, crumpled body into cupped

hands like a swallow of water. She needed a prayer or a poem. Leaning

in with my whole body, I said You were small and you were tender. It

made me miss being small and being tender. It made me want to cry,

but I didn’t. When mom saw the small ball of white musseled between

my two hands, she took it out to the dumpster and then scrubbed

my palms to the bone. Now use a serrated knife and saw, slowly, she

pointed to the three tomatoes waiting for their turn. I cut into each

one again, again, again until my hands were soggy with pink seedy guts.

How did you get to standing so still, Mr. Lorcan?


Sincerely, Fiona Rice

Mackenzie Kean is an English major and creative writing minor at Rutgers University. Her love for writing emerged from the poems, plays, songs, newsletters, unfinished novels, picture books, and online magazines she created and shared with her family throughout her childhood.