Nika Ridley: Musing on Pleasure

Photo credit: Benjamin Aronoff of Fogline Studio
Photo credit: Benjamin Aronoff, Fogline Studio

There seems to be some sort of overarching societal expectation that women should simply do without, whittle ourselves away to nothing. That we should serve others, at all times, before ourselves, whether it be emotional labor or actual physical acts of service. This is in evidence in family structure, housekeeping, child rearing, in jobs of all sorts, from manual labor to corporations to academia, and, magazines, dieting, plastic surgery, and, of course, on the Internet. And of course, who better to police ourselves than we women ourselves. And I think that began as a way of keeping ourselves safe, during the takeovers of women’s sovereignty and power and property by the church, the inquisition, the witch hunts. “See, see how good I am I am giving all of myself for the good of others and I am not deriving any pleasure or free time from life, whatsoever. I am not a consort of the devil! But look, that lady over there seems to be enjoying life, and isn’t totally burnt out from constant self sacrifice and self flagellation. Burrrrrrn herrrrrr! (but first let’s all force ourselves on her , torture her, and tell ourselves we are ousting Satan with our virtuous deeds of punishing this witch).”

And you know, for a wild woman who enjoys herself, her life, her power, her pleasure, the fear of being burned whether metaphorically or actually physically is a very real and reasonable fear. But like any behavior that began as a way to keep ourselves safe I think the time has come to realize that this behavior is dysfunctional and no longer truly serves us. It keeps us small, scared, afraid to take up space, afraid to put ourselves first or even to put self care on the freaking list.

I’ve spent a lifetime recovering from the deep dysfunction, denial, and self-destruction that runs inside the women in my family line, baptized within us by the Catholic Church and reiterated by family culture at every given opportunity. See my problem is that I’m too loud, too much cackle and snort laughter, too sweary, too much enjoyment, too sexual, too slutty, too drinky too smokey, too much acting out, too outside the proscribed box, just. Too. Much. And no matter how hard I tried to dim my light and fit into the good girl box my bad girl was still visible. All I was doing was killing myself. My last gasp effort at being a good girl was getting married before having a kid. They didn’t approve anyway because they hated the guy I married. I should have just had the kid and to hell with the “rules” because none of them have to live with my life decisions. Only I do. And boy. That was a hard decision to live with. When I left the shackles of my marriage was when I truly decided I was done with the matrix and I was stepping out and forging my own way, whatever that looked like in all its ever-shifting iterations. It still took me a few more years to learn how to stop giving away every drop I had within me for the “security” of a paycheck and a place to live.

All my favorite people have always been the Wild and Free. The ones dedicated to bucking societal norms, the people dedicated to their own pleasure and the pleasure of their loved ones, to sustainable hedonism. Yes it’s a thing. We talked about it all the time in our permaculture courses and it was an integral part of so many of our designs, that which we love and gives us pleasure will be something we strive to protect, no? Your pleasure is important. Perhaps the most important thing there is in this brief time we are given here on earth. Because if we aren’t experiencing our own pleasure in this life then what the fuck are we even doing here? My pleasure is important, and it is within the pursuit of my pleasure, of sustainable hedonism, whether it be good food, good friends, music, dressing up, dancing, or sex, that I feel most free, and most truly me.


Photo credit: Benjamin Aronoff of Fogline Studio
Photo credit: Benjamin Aronoff of Fogline Studio

Nika Ridley is a wild woman, edge walker, wordsmith, alchemist. Driven by the need to create, she recently quit her full time job as sustainable farmer to pursue the stirrings of her heart and follow the bassy drum beat of her soul. Full time single mama, animal whisperer, earth midwife, and Jill of all trades. She is currently building a tiny home for an amazing woman of vision. She writes and takes photographs because it’s an essential, like breathing.

Adrie Bordelon: The Price for Healing This Sliver of the Past

adrie-lester2I expected an uncrooked path. Or rather, I had made a box for myself labeled “perfect” and climbed in for shelter. Or maybe perfection was an island I was rowing towards, in the the marsh where the creeks twist and refuse straight paths to any destination, where the musky cloy of rot is omnipresent, even when covered by water. Because I was not perfect, but I absolutely believed that if I was, pain would end, freedom would be won. One who was perfect was inviolate, untouchable by anger or grief, would never be lonely. I would know how to find the straight, unobstructed, path, if I worked harder, thought smarter, practiced more often, rid myself of selfishness.

I was thirteen when I first read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step. I loved it, and I did find refuge in the teachings. And I found, like many, ways to turn those teachings into a weapon against myself. Here is the present moment, notice it, make peace with it, accept it. I listened to that teaching, and what I heard was “Suck it up.” What I heard was, “You are an ungrateful, greedy, selfish bitch if you are not happy right here and now.”

I skipped the very critical part about noticing the present. To accept what is here we have to see it first, and by the time I found Buddhism, I had already been studying for years in the school of no-feeling, blank wall, stone face, ice queen, stop crying.

The worst part about acknowledging the present was that the past came alive and would no longer be ignored. The past had been waiting for me to slow down, to stop cooking, cleaning, creating, tending, feeding, hurrying just long enough so that it could grab my hand and then I would understand who I was married to -I was married to my past.
Once felt and known, I was filled with anger far beyond what I had believed kind, loving people had. I wanted to burn up the past but it refused to light. I wanted to go back and slap myself in the face, wanted to say, Stand up for yourself and get the hell out now, but she was too busy trying to get it all right, too busy being strong. She was hurrying down the steep stairs and out the door to light the ovens at 3 am, she could not pause to consider what a revolution loving herself would be. When the world was filled with hate and starvation and climate change, when the poor population of New Orleans was being locked in to a hurricane, she would not consider the power of her own present. There was work to be done, and it was all outside her.

After leaving my spouse, as I began to walk myself into a future I was creating, I constantly felt the pull back to self-immolation through busy-ness. That first year my two phrases were “go slow” and “do something different.”

When the children screamed and stomped, and I wanted to scream louder and shut down their nuclear factories of emotion, I prayed and breathed and stepped away, then came back and listened to all that lightning and heat. I said, You are really mad, and after that eternal dragging five minutes, their armor split open and they cried and came to me for hugs and kisses and told me they loved me, and I began to breathe again.

Go slow, do something different. That first winter, Ella hated her coat. A beautiful new purple down coat that we had picked out together, but she protested every time she had to wear it, and I grumbled inside with the stew of her ingratitude and my lack of money, and the “problems” of whiny white kids. After months of this, she found a gaudy gold winter coat at the thrift store, with fake cheetah trim. She begged me for it. But you have a jacket, I said, a better jacket. Please, Mama, I hate that jacket, she said. And I remembered an ugly pink and purple jacket my parents bought me for Christmas, two sizes too big, and how I had constantly left it home, happier shivering, it was all wrong but I couldn’t tell them and hurt their feelings, and anyway there was no money for a new one.

Ok, I said. The price for healing this sliver of the past was a $5 gold jacket that made my daughter’s cheeks pink and giggly for weeks every time she wore it.

I have a photo of myself at her age, a newspaper clipping of myself at a May Fair, with a flower crown on my head. I am looking right at the camera and I am almost smiling. It looks exactly like my daughter. I put this photo up on the wall of my room – remember, this girl is your own little girl, and these girls will be women and mothers someday, they are all here and one and we are co-creating them all, who will we be? Go slow, do something different.


adrie-lester1Adrie Bordelon writes and works with herbs in western MA. Her work has previously appeared in Peregrine, Albatross, The Essential Herbal, and Ibbetson Street Review. Her poem “In the Liminal” was awarded second place in the Robert P. Colleen Poetry Competition. She studied creative writing at Bennington College and the SC Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities. Visit her at and

Jennifer New: The Power of Silence

jennifer-new-moon“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having heard it.” – Allen Ginsberg

The phone call has a specific order. There are 12 students on the call. We each get ten minutes to talk about our current practice and how it’s been to return home following our retreat together. The two teachers reflect back what they hear us say and provide suggestions. The only unknown is when you’ll be called upon to speak.

I know these people; they have become dear and intimate friends in a very short while. We speak a similar language and hold similar values. And yet I find myself dreading my name being called. Often I get nervous on these big group calls and even jot down notes about what I might say, but today it’s different. Today I am utterly blank. And trying to fill ten minutes with this mental void sounds horrible.

As part of a 500-hour yoga training with an emphasis on the psychological and spiritual sides of the practice—no handstands, and pardon me, but fuck crow—this is a group of direct speakers, a small army of truth seekers. After a year of talking by phone and two weeks of stripped down intimacy, it’s quite perceptible when someone is prodding at the truth or circling it but hasn’t quite landed on it. And it’s just as clear – Ella shattering that glass, a Tuvan throat singer harmonizing with his own voice – when one of us sets down a total truth. You can feel it in your body when this happens. A tingling YES rises up from the core.

On the phone call, people faithfully answered the question about their current practice, sharing how they are meditating and breathing, what they are eating, their relationship to loved ones, challenges with work. Then one friend simply said, “My practice right now is just to feel.”

A feather lightly dropped in a pool of golden light. It was as though she’d dropped a feather in a band room in which everyone was warming up their instruments—doing scales and moderately trying to impress the bassoonist in the next row. As the feather of her words floated down, dazzling in its simple beauty and quietness, the whole room stopped. Yes. Truth. Praise that.

I wait for my name to be called. I’ve decided what I will say but am still working toward the courage. There’s a start and stop as my name is called but someone else requests to speak because she needs to leave soon. When I finally unmute my phone, it feels like I’ve been standing in curtains and am now walking to the middle of the stage, right into the round glow of the spotlight.

“I’m not sure I can explain why, and it may seem weird,” my voice sounds a bit wild, “but I don’t think I can speak right now. I really can’t talk right now.”

My teacher Jovinna isn’t phased. She asks if I’d like to speak after everyone is finished. I’m pretty sure that I won’t, but I say sure she can try me. Forty-five minutes later when I’m again asked to step forward and stand into the light, I only duck my head out from behind the curtain – no thanks!

Silence, it turns out, isn’t an easy course.  We are supposed to want to speak – to take up space. It’s part of the messaging about power and personal growth. Going against that grain meant holding shame for not being clever enough to have ten minutes of material. It meant holding regret at letting my fellow students and teachers down in any way. It meant holding, once again, multiple feelings of lack.

And yet stepping forward and claiming silence also felt like power. It was my most authentic voice at that time.

I am not a big talker, although I live with one. My husband can pontificate with the best of them. On a trip to California last year, he got into it with a bartender, swapping the kinds of stories that I knew could go on for hours. To amuse myself, I walked around the corner to a bookstore and stayed until it closed, buying one book on my way out. When I got back to the bar, the two of them were still going back and forth and hardly paused to note my return. Finally, Chris stopped long enough to ask if I’d gotten anything. Without a word, I laid the slender blue book on the bar:  Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. To their credit, they both got the literary punch line and had a long laugh at their own expenses.

I’ve sometimes wondered if my quiet is a sign of a lack of imagination or a dearth of smarts. I know that it has something to do with shyness, as well as with a lack of interest in the non-essentials. If I were a character in a Mamet play, my repeated line might be: “Tell it to me straight.” No bric-a-brac, no detours, just the straight line, please.

I also see how talking is a sort of armor, a way in which people protect themselves via their wit. As though to say, “If I just keep talking, no one will see me.” It’s also a way to spin conversations, playfully or less benignly, toward a hoped for outcome. Talking is a veil and when you remove it—either with a yank or by softly pulling it down, folding it up, and setting it aside—the person behind it is often momentarily undone.

I am hardly mute. In fact, when my husband isn’t talking and when he is in a happy and centered place, he is an amazing listener. When he brings a quiet presence to our conversation, sprinkled with a few questions, I open. Layer by layer, the words start to swell and spill. As my words are accepted with curiosity and calm, more follow. Before long, I am amazed by the fully formed ideas and sweet emotions, the passion and imagination, and, yes, the intellect.

In August, when I was on retreat with my yoga group, this relationship to speaking ebbed and flowed. I’d feel shy or somehow less than another person and clam up. I’d feel seen and connected and talk freely at length. I wasn’t sure what would happen, however, when it was my time before the group and explore a pattern I wanted to shed. I had listened with awe and humility as others had so directly, so bravely spoken. Now, sitting between my teachers and looking out at a group of faces whose only intention to was hold me and meet me, my story turned out to be about feeling powerless. My anger, both at real people in my life, as well as at entire cultural systems, such as healthcare and public schools, came flowing lava like. I started with a Billy Idol sneer, but as the tears streamed down my face there was no more room for posturing, only fury. I yelled. I swore. I growled. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!

In the hours afterwards, I didn’t speak much. I longed to fall into a silken silence. I felt heard. I felt washed.

Now it’s a month later, and I am still longing for that quiet. I came home to school starting. To walking the dog, emptying the dishwasher, and the existential crisis that is modern grocery store shopping. Quiet has been found in moments, seized and protected at unlikely times.

When it came time to talk to my group by phone, my ten minutes did not feel like an opportunity to roar my roar, or even to sob with people who love me. Rather, it was a place in which I could bravely choose not to play by the rules that had been established and to accept instead what was most authentically mine in that moment:  silence.

jennifer-newDeeply embedded in the Midwest with a longing for the Pacific coast, Jennifer New juggles her teenaged kids, a university job, and yoga teaching. She walks a path of authenticity and truth, while still trying to find the world a beautiful and kind of hysterically messed up place. 


Gavi Elkind: Belly of the Beast

Gavi1You may not have known me then, but I used to be 50 pounds heavier.

Can you imagine it?

I used to be a lot of things, actually.

I used to be a soccer player, a goalkeeper: aggressive and ruthless, spitting and kicking and scratching and throwing my limbs between the ball and the net, fueled by a competitive spirit so entirely at odds with my persona off the field that I sometimes couldn’t tell which was real and which was masquerade.

I used to be a tomboy with baggy ripped jeans and a backwards cap and big dreams of playing baseball with the boys.

I used to be a piano player, and a good student, and the sweetheart of a boy with a beautiful tattoo of a sun on his forearm, and maybe a kinder and more attentive friend, too, and certainly a more dutiful and doting granddaughter.

I used to be so many things. But, as the song goes, one of these things first.

So, I used to be 50 pounds heavier: broad-shouldered and wide-hipped, embarrassed to occupy the middle seat or share clothes with small-framed friends, a master of long shirts and quick humor to distract from my fleshiness, unaware of the tempting malleability of the human form. This would come later.

And then I reached a moment—20-years-old and living in Madrid, squeezing into pants with zippers that left angry marks on my belly and sobbing in the cramped dressing room of the H&M on Calle Velázquez—when it became too much. I became too much.

I lost so much along with the weight: my chubby childlike generosity, the agony of being the largest girl in any room, the intrepid spirit of a person who always said yes to too much of a good thing. And there were things that could never be lost, no matter how many pounds or years slid away: insecurities about the softness of my arms and the bulk of my calves, the vicious taunts of my inner critic, my insatiable impulse to whittle and erase.

There were things I gained, too, even as I quested for less: tiny things that actually matter like the fashionable sections of clothing stores, vanity that had only ever seemed like an unattainable luxury, attention in wanted and unwanted ways, and the secrets of molding and manipulating a body. But I will never gain back the lack of inhibition I once enjoyed inside my larger skin, or the hours spent sobbing in so many dressing rooms all over the world, or the subsequent years of trying to teach my body to be nourished by hunger and willpower alone.

And it’s really a misleading expression: losing weight. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, so all that weight—a quarter of my being that vanished as the portions shrank and the miles increased—must have taken new form when it slipped from my frame. Perhaps those pounds of fat reappeared as the terrified thoughts that keep me awake as I run my hands over my thighs in the dark and worry that they are larger than they were yesterday. Maybe the excess skin that once lingered around my stomach now occupies the shape of my fear at the prospect of eating more than I think I deserve. Perhaps I am meant for a lifetime of bruising, bloody battles with the parts of myself that I have gained and lost along the way.

Or maybe, just maybe, I can spin straw into gold. Maybe I can write a new narrative for this body I’m blessed to occupy, this body that comforts and heals and tends and bleeds and explores and dances and climbs and aches and grows. Maybe I can revisit scars and stretch marks and old photos and excruciating memories and render them fresh, clean. Maybe I can end the war against my hunger, broker a peace deal with my waist, declare victory against the menacing voices that encourage me to eat less and move more. Maybe I can teach myself how much I want my body to matter—not in pounds or dress sizes, but in its capacity to be a kind, strong agent of love and change.

Maybe, just maybe, I will one day write a different story, one that starts with this:

You may not have known me then, but I used to waste valuable, unrecoverable energy and time worrying about my body when I could have been loving it preciously for the tender, worthy vessel it is and using it wisely to build and create and express and embrace and serve and live.

Is it so hard to imagine?

Gavi2Gavi Elkind is a San Francisco native writing her next chapter in Boston with her husband. She loves reading, singing (karaoke), playing ukulele, New England summers, and sunflowers. She shares words and photos at

Mani Schwartz: Claiming What’s Mine

lion1I’ve been putting off writing this post for months. Not intentionally, mind you. I meant it when I told my wife I’d write a post for The Roar Sessions, but every single Goddamn time I thought about sitting down to write, I would go clammy and slightly nauseous, and the stack of books that is always waiting for me at the bedside seemed too enticing to resist, and then I’d feel tired and run-down, and hey! Netflix! So I’d watch something instead of writing, thinking that surely the next morning I’d feel refreshed and alert, and then I would feel inspired to sit down and write.

It never happened. As a writer, there are few things more distressing than not being able to find the words to express yourself, and I haven’t been able to find the words for much of anything or anyone for quite some time. Because here’s the truth: there are no words for the ways I roar as of late. The roar is in my body. It’s in my fight. It is in the sharp intake of breath and the bite of the lip that chokes back the sob before I push on through and do it anyway (whatever the it of the moment happens to be). It is in my fury that I have nothing to write about except chronic illness, because the last two years of my life have been consumed by fighting for my wellness. I don’t want to write about the symptoms I live with, or the steps I’m taking to restore myself to health and well-being, and I certainly don’t want to be anybody’s inspiration porn.

And then it hit me. This is what I want to bellow out, deep and loud, and clear as a bell. My body is my own. My experiences are mine alone. My thoughts and feelings, the immense grief and pain and anger I’ve experienced while fighting for my health? Yeah, those are mine, too.

Also mine? The almost irresistible urge I have to counter everything I wrote above my launching into all of the reasons I have to be grateful. To smooth it out. To show you the big picture. See? I’m not all anger and negativity! I’m a good person! I count my blessings!

And I do. Many, many times a day (on most days) I thank G-d and anyone else who may be listening for all of the goodness in my life.

But why, as writers, and as women, do we feel the need to constantly clarify and highlight the positive traits and attitudes we possess any time we share some of the uglier parts of our lives? Why are we so afraid of being judged as anything less than perfectly optimistic and strong and cheerful? I’m a very happy, optimistic person over all, but for fuck’s sake… does that mean I never get to have a moment of despair or self-pity without worrying about the world judging me?

And why, as readers, do we assume that we can read 500 words, 1,500 words, 10,000 words, or 100,000 words of someone’s writing and suddenly feel like we know them and have the right to make assumptions about who they are and how they are? How can we read an essay, or an entire blog, or even a memoir and not realize that we are only getting a small part of the big picture? It seems kind of crazy to me that people who seem to be otherwise intelligent and compassionate human beings so quickly lose sight of something that seems so obvious. Think about your own life, your own family, your own issues and personality. Could you ever sum up the whole of it in print?

When lions roar, it’s usually for the purpose of establishing boundaries. Each pride has their own turf, and roaring is an intimidation tactic. The sound carries for quite a distance. It’s a way of saying, “I am here. This is mine. You’ve been warned.” It’s like the first two of the three steps in the human equivalent of ethical self-defense when protecting what’s yours:

1. Ask them.
2. Tell them.
3. Make them.

My life, my feelings, and the whole of my experiences are mine and mine alone. As a writer, and as a woman, it took me a long time to mature into being able to state this unapologetically, but I’m there. If roaring is an establishing of boundaries, I’ve found my voice. It is loud, clear, and it carries across the entire world.


RoarMani Schwartz is a writer and artist.
She is very happily married to the poet and teacher, Jena Schwartz.
She has three beautiful daughters and two cool step-kids.
In real life she lives in Amherst, MA.
Online she lives at: and

Martha Batiz: A Roar In Your Second Language Might Be The Strongest Roar

Martha_Batiz2Every writer has heard these words: “Find your voice.” What does that mean? And what does that mean particularly when you’re trying to write in a language that’s not your mother tongue? You can never really learn to speak without an accent, but can you write without an accent? And the things you want to say—what you need to rave, rant, and roar about—will they matter?

My love for the English language started when I was nine years old and began learning it at school in Mexico City. I attended the German school, so I was already quite fluent in German when I tackled English for the first time. It seemed so easy—have you ever tried verb conjugation in German? Irregular verbs in English were, forgive the cliché, a stroll in the park. As a young teenager (or rather, what nowadays is defined as a “tween”), I became addicted to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts cartoons, Garfield and, yes, the Nancy Drew series. From those early stories, I went on to discover great books: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. By the time I finished high-school I was already an avid reader in English, another one of Shakespeare’s adoring fans, and I knew that I wanted to study English literature at Mexico’s National University, UNAM. My love of theatre made me read many American and British plays in those days: Harold Pinter, Sam Sheppard, John Osborne, David Mamet, among others, were my favourites. As I began my undergrad studies, my love for literature written in English grew exponentially. I was given the chance to—which is a euphemism for made to—read William Faulkner, followed by the Romantics and Victorians (Wuthering Heights remains among the top in my list of favourites), all the way back to Dryden, Shakespeare—of course—and his contemporaries, and even Medieval works, such as Everyman—the great allegoric tale where the main character is summoned by Death and told that he cannot bring anyone along, except for Good Deeds, but the problem is that Good Deeds is almost dead herself, because the man neglected her so throughout his life.

As a result of all this reading in English, when I began writing in Spanish my mentors said that my syntax was off key. I needed to read more in my own language. They were right. I had neglected Spanish the way Everyman had neglected Good Deeds. But the most I managed back then was to alternate one book in Spanish, one in English—I just wasn’t emotionally ready to give up my passion for Gothic literature (Melmoth the Wanderer, Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, and most of all, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the book I have always wished I had written).
It is therefore very understandable that my absolute literary hero is an American writer: Joyce Carol Oates. I wanted to be like her when I grew up—fully knowing how preposterous this sounds, ill equipped as I will always be to reach such greatness. I realize now that what I truly wanted—and still want—is to write engaging fiction, the kind that moves the readers and makes them feel compassion, sadness or repulsion at what is happening in the story. Repulsion is a good thing—any emotion is, for that matter. I aspire to have the readers walk out of my stories with a different mood than they started off with, to make their stomach churn, even make them want to cry a little. True, achieving this in English for a non-native speaker is hard, but in Spanish it is not easy, either.

Immigrating is, in my view, a little like learning to walk with a prosthetic leg. The ghost limb is your faraway land, ever present but unseen—felt but not to be touched. It hurts. But once you learn to run again, you are a whole new, stronger person. And that is an important lesson to learn: to know what loss tastes like, and choosing to use that feeling in order to better enjoy the taste of choice and possibility. For me, this process involved finding the way to make my blood flow (and boil) in English as naturally as it does in Spanish. I knew that if I accomplished that, I would truly belong here. And what triggered this process, and turned it from a mere concept or goal into a serious commitment and course of action, was the translation process of my first novella or novela corta, Boca de lobo (The Wolf’s Mouth). I was already working as a literary translation professor and never anticipated the process would be so hard and frustrating at times. Finding the right words to convey in English what I had written in Spanish was painful because what I really felt an urge for was to simultaneously improve on the original. This is a big no-no for literary translation, unless you are the author, of course, and even though my editor had hired a translator, I couldn’t fight the urge to meddle with my own work. After all, I was the only one who knew for certain that timbales were not to be called kettledrums in my book (what a hideous word, “kettledrums”!), but the more musical word, timpani. I was lucky to have great friends and a careful editor who oversaw my work and helped me fine-tune it. In the end, when I compare both books now, I like the English version better. This is what made me decide I want to pursue this new adventure, skip the translator and just write in English myself (which, as a professional translator myself, I know is a big contradiction that borders on betrayal). After all, they say it is always better to read a story in the language in which it was originally written (and my mother’s idea when she enrolled me in Mexico City’s German school was for me to be able to read Goethe, Schiller and my beloved Bertolt Brecht in German, a gift for which I will forever be grateful to her).

Writing in English has been a liberating experience so far. If I write about a character that is very different from myself, it is easier to do it in English. Why? Because the character is not to speak as I do, or think as I do. These transitions are easier for me to make in English; I can play pretend much more at ease. There’s plenty of room for me to hide and yet still be in control. In Spanish, I’m naked—my emotion is raw. I use that same emotion when writing in English, but the sheer effort to create an atmosphere or a credible dialogue in this language makes me forget how vulnerable I feel. I find refuge in the process of concentrating on the nature and the essence of the words I’m choosing—their textures and hues, flavours and sound. For example, when writing my first short-story fully in English, without a previous Spanish version to guide me, I narrated the story of a Latin American survivor of torture who came to live in Toronto and met a survivor of torture in Iran. I would like to quote a fragment of the story here in order to illustrate how, for me, writing in English has implied rediscovering the language and its endless sinews. The main character, Marcela/María, is writing a confession and reflecting upon her new life, away from home:

“I need to go back to the letters, back to writing the list, but it’s so hard. It’s much nicer to just stand here by the window. The streets are almost empty, which is strange considering it’s Saturday, and the storm is scheduled to begin later this afternoon. I can’t help smiling when I see someone walking their dog and the dog is all dressed up. If Aunt Clara had heard about dogs wearing boots, she would have laughed until her jaws hurt. Some dogs’ boots are nicer and cozier than mine. Farah thinks it’s funny, too. She belongs to a group of survivors and refugees who get together every once in a while to comfort one another. She has asked me to come along, but I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I can endure listening to their stories. And I would be so scared to find someone from my homeland, what would I say then? What excuse could I give? How could I ever look them in the eye? With Farah it’s different. We can laugh at dogs wearing matching boots and coats, and if we feel like it, we can also talk, but mostly we don’t anymore, and that’s fine. She doesn’t know my entire truth. Nobody does. The moment my words have a sound of their own and leave my body they will be impossible to take back. And I’m scared to confront them. In English there is a word or a name for almost everything. Refugee, or PTSD are some of the first I learned. When they are pronounced out loud, people seem to understand, they turn benevolent and generous. Nothing wrong with that, but what do they really understand, I wonder? Unlike me, most of them do know where their loved ones have been laid to rest. There is another convenient word to go with this, too, which I was taught upon arrival: closure. What an unbearable, cruel word. A pain so big can’t be closed down.

Many times I’ve wondered about what Aunt Clara would say if I told her that people in Toronto actually live in basements. And that, when I refused to rent one, all I had to say was, “I’m a refugee and have been diagnosed with PTSD, so I can’t live in a basement, thank you.” Very polite, very politically correct. I am a fast learner. Nobody needs to know what happened – or if anything happened at all. Aunt Clara would have understood, though. She too would have rejected the basement apartment.

I got sick at work once. There was a mouse underneath one of the desks, a little brown mouse. I screamed so loudly I scared everyone. I ran to the washroom and locked myself in; I felt like my heart was about to break free from my chest. I threw up all over my clothes, and was practically out of breath when the paramedics arrived. There’s a name for that, too: panic attack. Farah looked me in the eye, she knew there were no words to describe what had driven me to the washroom. “Whenever you’re ready,” she’d said, “I’ll be there.” Hence today’s call, the letters and the list. I will take her at her word. Our English is equally awkward, but I have learned since I arrived in Toronto that all languages become the same when spoken through sorrow.”

I have come to realize that, in the end, it is the power of shared human emotions that blurs the borders erected by language. The process, however, is not always necessarily painful. It can also be fun, because trying out words in a different language is like trying out new clothes. Some of them fit, some of them don’t, some of them feel downright ridiculous, but when I’m caught in this process I’m never afraid of experimenting and making mistakes. Why should I? I’m allowed to. It’s not my first language, after all.

Writing in English also allows me to host another dream, which is for my work to, eventually, reach a wider audience; to stop writing from the margins or being considered a “rare” author. This is also congruent with my identity as a Hispanic-Canadian (or Mexican-Canadian) writer. Like all other immigrants, I yearn to work in my field and be successful one day. Working in my field means having a writing career, and I think that will be even harder if I don’t write in English. There is translation, of course, a craft I respect, enjoy, and teach. But I’d rather translate other writers’ work into Spanish (or English), and focus my own energy in finding my own voice and giving the loudest roar in this, my second language.


Martha_Batiz1Martha Batiz was born and raised in Mexico City, but has been living in Toronto since 2003. Her articles, chronicles, reviews and short stories have appeared in diverse newspapers and magazines not only in her homeland, but also in Spain, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Peru, Ireland, England, the United States and Canada. Her first book was a short-story collection called A todos los voy a matar (I’m Going To Kill Them All, Castillo Press, 2000). Her award-winning novella The Wolf’s Mouth (Exile Editions, 2009) was originally published in Spanish both in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico (Boca de lobo, in 2007 and 2008, respectively), and was launched as an ebook by INK Press in the summer of 2015. A new short-story collection titled De tránsito (In Transit) was published in 2014 in Puerto Rico by Terranova Editores, and received a special recognition in the International Latino Book Awards in San Francisco in 2015. She holds a PhD in Latin American Literature and is an ATA-certified literary translator. Besides being the founder and instructor of the Creative Writing in Spanish course currently offered by the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, she is a part-time Professor at York University/Glendon College, where she teaches Spanish and Literary Translation. In 2014, Martha was featured in Latinos Magazine and The Globe and Mail among the Top Ten Most Successful Mexicans in Canada. In 2015, she was chosen as one of the Top Ten Most Influential Hispanic-Canadians.

Lisa Leshaw: The Culture of Beauty

Makeup“You’ll love her. She’s got a terrific personality.” A statement made by a well-meaning friend arranging a blind date for you.

Translation: She’s not beautiful by any means so by highlighting her good nature your friend somehow is attempting to soften the blow.

Why is it even necessary to soften the blow if in fact the old adage “Beauty is only skin-deep” holds true?

Because we (unfortunately) exist in a society that places a GIGANTIC premium on beauty from the time we are born.

Have you ever come across advertisements for photographers specializing in baby/toddler pictures? The gallery of faces appearing before you is mesmerizing. One baby more beautiful than the next. What ever happened to the perfect average-looking baby; the ones the majority of us know, love and cherish?

From the time youngsters are mature enough to understand we (as the keepers of important life lessons) are pressured into passing along the message that beauty does not really matter because it’s what’s inside that actually counts.

Oh if that were only the rock solid truth plastic surgeons would not be generating billions of dollars in annual income.

Many years ago I produced a mini-documentary based upon posing a simple question to a set of 637 strangers encompassing nearly every age group, culture, demographic, political affiliation, religion and walk of life.

“If you were to receive a compliment which one would you prefer?”

“You are one of the nicest persons I have ever met,”


“You are incredibly beautiful”.

Before you go ahead and read the results make an educated guess.


77.9% of the respondents would have much preferred being told they were beautiful.

My first reaction? What a tragic and sad commentary on our world.

My second?

Why should I have expected the outcome to have been terribly different if being beautiful is synonymous with grander treatment and greater rewards and an abundance of accolades?

Are we not pre-disposed as human beings to seek attention and approval from those around us and avoid rejection at all costs?

Maybe we are really programmed from birth to choose beauty over brains and admire it and covet it and treasure it and become obsessed by it.

Perhaps we are deceiving ourselves into believing that we can preach a different ideology that is based upon the goodness in our souls and the beauty in our hearts rather than in our faces.

Beautiful people seem to be the recipients of extra time and attention devoted to them.

Beautiful people appear to have substantially more opportunities offered to them.

Beautiful people are probably more likely in my estimation to have many more gifts bestowed upon them.

Beautiful people from my vantage point are far more handsomely (pun intended) rewarded than their average-looking counterparts.

Does it not make sense (common) then for the rest of us to actively try and seek the same?

People Magazine devotes an entire issue to the “Most Beautiful Man and Woman”.

It sells out like hotcakes similar to the ‘Sports Illustrated Swimsuit” issue or viewership for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show.

Of course this lends credence to the notion that we still reside in a sexist society where men’s views of beauty dictate desire.

I would love to see a magazine gutsy enough to choose a beautiful man and woman based upon inner qualities that could be quantified such as charitable work and heroism and open-mindedness and non-judgmental behaviors. How about rewarding compassion and kindness, decency and tolerance. Any takers?

Until we as a society place less emphasis on beauty as being a valued and intensely sought-after commodity it will remain important whether politically correct or not.

We are compulsively bombarded by daily messages about beauty in all aspects of social media and song lyrics and magazine covers, etc. etc. etc. etc……….

We (the regular everyday really good people) do not determine what beauty is.

Our definitions, views and perceptions of what constitutes beauty have been shaped by a few at the top and most of us seem to go along for the ride.

Why is that the case? Perhaps it is time for the majority to take a stand and say we would like to revise the definition of beauty to be more inclusive and incorporate that old adage mentioned earlier.

Who decides what beauty is anyway?

Our world is in the midst of revolutions. Ordinary people are standing up and speaking forcefully. They are taking the initiative.

If we can revolutionize hundreds of years of political protocols why not work to change the way beauty is defined?

Maybe we are in the throes of trying.

Plus-size models are now referenced throughout the social universe.

Yet referencing models as ‘plus-size’ seems to diminish their status. It’s as if their worth is less than those of their not plus-size counterparts.

As a mental health professional I am too aware of the generations of waif-like young girls we have produced who resort to binging and purging to survive.

Who is to blame? What industry is responsible for dictating body-image?

Are we not tired of parading our little girls in beauty pageants teaching them to wiggle and strut? What are these impressionable young ladies learning about beauty?

That it matters a lot! That it garners money and trophies and celebrations and hoots and hollers and tons of applause and happy mommies and daddies!!!

How about a ‘beauty is only skin-deep’ pageant? Hand out awards for sweetness and sensitivity!

How many people have you come across in your life that you can say with conviction are comfortable in their own skin?

Sadly, it is probably a fairly low number.

Because let’s face it…..

What we see in the mirror governs our lives (perhaps it should not but it often does).

What we see in the mirror is directly influenced and distorted by what we are told is beautiful.

When we don’t see what we’ve been conditioned to want we take enormous measures to obtain it.

If we could only learn how to judge ourselves without relying upon the opinions of others.

May be then we might be able to dismiss beauty as an all-encompassing characteristic and overcome its stranglehold.

Imagine for a moment a world with Eleanor Roosevelt still walking about.

By all accounts she was not a very attractive woman and yet she capitalized on her lack of physical beauty by helping others to see themselves in their best light possible and taught an invaluable life lesson; “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.

So there’s hope.

Someday aging female anchors may not be relegated to the sidelines because they are no longer considered beautiful and beautiful draws ratings.

Someday men with gray beards will not be considered distinguished while women their age with gray hair are told they need to dye their hair.

Beauty will remain important until we decide otherwise and that might require a cataclysmic change of view.

We would have to start from the beginning indoctrinating our preschool children that inner beauty is the ultimate goal.

Educators could teach this lesson on a daily basis and report cards could reflect grades based on gestures of kindness and acts of support.

Or we can continue to live in a society that embraces outer beauty at almost all costs.

You decide.

Lisa-LeshawLisa Leshaw is a mental health professional specializing in women’s issues, addictions and blended families. She conducts parenting skills workshops, motivational seminars and empowerment circles for women throughout New York.

Dana Schwartz: Grief Roar

Dana1What ever happened to the grief roar? I’m talking about the public kind, performed at funerals, led by women.

Think back to any old Italian mafia movie. Bereaved women pulling at their hair, beating their chests, attempting to leap into open graves. What seems like a dramatic, almost comic reaction, used to be the norm.

In Ireland they called it keening. It was the job of the keener, a woman, to cry and sing over the body. Keening put the woman in a type of trance. A liminal place, between the living and the dead. She became a conduit for the other mourners and helped send off the dead.

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?

Keening or lamenting was not exclusive to Ireland. Many cultures across the globe used to grieve this way. Greece, Israel, China, Africa. Loudly, publicly, unapologetically. But over time, grief has been muted, subdued, silenced.

To me, this is another kind of loss.

I was sixteen when I attended my first funeral, my maternal grandmother’s. She had a sad drawn out death, spending the last year of her life wasting away in a nursing home after a series of strokes. She was paralyzed and mute. People said her death was welcome. A relief. She’s in a better place, they said. She’s no longer in pain. Perhaps this was true for my grandmother. But it doesn’t negate the grief of those left behind.

The funeral was in Pittsburgh, where my grandmother lived most of her life, where my mother was raised. We began the six hour plus trip in furious silence. My father was wearing his favorite shirt, a red short-sleeved polo. When my mother asked if he brought a change of clothes, he said no. I remember witnessing their fight from the backseat. I understood the logic of his argument. It was summer and terribly hot. Why should he sweat to death in a suit? My mother raged at him for a while before giving up. She turned toward the window and folded up into herself. This shutting down, turning inward, is part of my DNA.

By the time we reached Pittsburgh I made a decision. I would not cry at the funeral. This was not from a lack of sadness. It was from too much. I could sense a wave of grief rising at my back. It was tidal.

Grief is messy, complicated. There are many competing emotions involved. Sadness, anger, shame, guilt, and regret. I felt the presence of all of them, but the biggest was something I could not name at the time.

Fear. I was afraid of losing control. In public. If I started to cry at my grandmother’s funeral, I might not stop.

I had years’ worth of collected pain – plenty simply from being an adolescent, but also from my mother’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and my family’s stoic stance. The dam holding it all back was fragile. Perhaps I took a cue from my mother, and folded myself up.

I remember how hard it was to not cry. Harder than crying. I swallowed my tears, I ate up my pain, and in turn, it ate me up.

No one will see me cry, I told myself as I stood at the gravesite. But my eyes welled up anyway. I chewed up my lips and the inside of my mouth until they bled.

A few years later there was another death. My cat had been killed by a neighborhood dog the day I moved into college. My father waited until family weekend to tell me. He came alone, since my mother could not travel. We were in his hotel room. I can only imagine his dread at telling me this news.

The surprise and horror made me burst into tears. I wept bitterly, terribly, and could not stop. He receded into the background while I raged and tore around the hotel room. My pain was so big I could not contain it.

The next day I took my father on a tour of the campus. We took pictures for my mother. Smile, he kept saying, and I tried. But looking at those pictures now, the pain is so obvious. It pulsed through my skin, shone out of my down-turned eyes. We never spoke about that night, but I never forgot it. For many years, it held the tarnish of shame. Now I see it as a kind of gift. I had given voice to my grief.

In an article titled, “The Power of Lament,” Rabbi Goldie Milgram illustrates the topic with a poem. Here’s an excerpt:

A lament must be
heard, honored, and looked into
to see what you need.

When a lament moves on to become
part of your sacred history,
no longer the foreground of your daily life,
then healing has begun.

When we don’t release, we don’t heal.

I grew up in a family, and a culture, that viewed excessive displays of emotion as weakness and stoicism as strength. I thought not crying my grandmother’s funeral was powerful, but it took away my power.

During my research for this article, I came across the Mos Def song, “Bedstuy Parade & Funeral March,” and the opening lyrics remind me of keening:

Turn the drums up
Turn my vocals, too
I hear myself a lil more

Our grief needs to be voiced. Grief turned inward is like patient poison. It sits and waits, it eats and corrodes.

What leads me through sorrow are my words. When I write, I release.

In a world where subdued grief is the norm, you must find other ways to lament.

My stories are my keening, my roar.

Dana Schwartz lives with her family in New Hope, Pennsylvania. She writes about creativity and motherhood on her blog, Writing at the Table, and has been published in several anthologies and literary magazines. Her latest endeavor is an online journaling course, Crossing the River: Writing Through Grief, coming this Fall 2016.

The course is inclusive to all types of grief, and will offer in-depth writing prompts through online videos and live workshops. For more information about the class, the free introductory seminar, or to be placed on the waiting list, visit The Gift of Writing.

Stacy de la Rosa: The Roar of Ravens

Stacy-RavenI’ve often heard people say that having children changes you. I don’t believe my children changed me, I believe they revealed me. In fact, my firstborn revealed my roar in a rather unconventional and certainly unexpected way.

Right around the time she turned five years old I began to have these odd flashes of disturbing images play over in my mind – this was also the same time the ravens began to come around my home with voice lessons to share. The arrival of the ravens is a story for another time but in this story, something about my daughter turning five triggered my brain to recall a repressed memory of myself, also at five years old, being sexually abused by an adult caretaker.

Everything about that experience and what I have since discovered and learned about repeated sexual trauma has revealed what happens to the psyche, and the wounded child, when our roar is silenced early on.

My own experience has taught me that repressed memories will often become triggered in women when their children reach the same age they were when the original trauma took place. The beauty of this activation is a result of the body and brain knowing it’s time to essentially return the memory to its rightful place after years of literally being kept in the dark for purposes of survival. With proper support and guidance the repressed memory can eventually become integrated into the whole of your story.

My daughter turning five activated the frightening free fall into my own deeply dark shadows, blinding shame, and accompanying internal rage. I’ve had the privilege to seek out tools to excavate my voice and begin to own and integrate the repressed, complex, and severed parts of my childhood narrative that have kept me silent all these years. I’m also learning how to fiercely protect and love my inner five year old terrified child back into wholeness, holding her safely up to the light and returning to my body.

My daughters are now 8 and 6, and part of mothering them includes re-mothering myself with the same compassion, love, and forgiveness I extend to them –  a process that is not at all linear in its progression but much more fluid in its expression. In a way I feel that I am mothering three children. One of the ways this happens is through nurturing voice– the old adage of children should be seen and not heard is exactly that – old and expired.

In our tribe of three, roaring looks like feeling safe enough in your environment to express your full range of emotions, to not stifle your voice for the comfort of others and to ask for help when you are uncertain. It looks like howling when you are in pain, or grief, or afraid, or ecstatic, or joyful, or angry – to self-express as a doorway in to the landscapes of your own inner jungle – to honor your raging wars and your shimmering wonder. It looks like knowing what you need and asking for what you want. For me, nurturing and honoring voice is a daily experiment where the lessons are seen as a practice and the reward is claiming a certain ownership of your life.

It’s a big container to hold and an often challenging one, but I am not interested in raising my girls to hide their humanness – my intention is to keep us wild in a world that prefers its women tamed and shamed.


Stacy-de-la-RosaStacy is a photographer, artist, space holder, and seeker of the soul in all things. She helps women remember themselves through the healing process of imagery. You can find her at and