Lemon Mystery (creative nonfiction)

“How often have you sailed in my dreams. And now you come in my awakening, which is my deeper dream.”
-Khalil Gibran, “The Prophet”

In my dream, I walked with my god through his sacred orange grove. The trees all had white bark. That was important somehow, the white bark coming off like ash, but healthy healthy. The trees were all so healthy.

Today, walking my puppy, I came across two lemons on the sidewalk. It was around the side of someone’s house, not near any trash cans. No wind had been blowing so they hadn’t come on the wind. There was no lemon tree leaning over the fence or anywhere nearby. It was as if someone had been walking that way and dropped these two lemons for me to see and follow like breadcrumbs, but sour and more vividly colored.

I thought of my god’s white barked orange grove and could this have been my god walking this corner, dropping these citrus fruits for me? Do oranges in the dream orchard become lemons on the waking dirty street? Dreams communicate this way in the sleeping and waking dream. Color color, symbol symbol, the promise of a taste. A god that walked that way before you. Mystery.

-M. Ashley

Mom Bling (creative nonfiction)

My dad, divorced from my mother for more than ten years at that point, told me that what she really loves is jewelry. She has the bling gene, as we call it. That’s not what he said. That’s a little too clever, a little too caring for my dad.

She loves costume jewelry, but has a grounding in the real. Always reality on her fingers. On her left hand, she always wears a blue topaz ring she had made. The topaz is set in a simple, modern swoop of solid gold. It’s meant to show off the stone, bold as a blue diamond. The way she wears it, you would swear it was a diamond.

On her right hand, she wears a ruby set in a cluster of diamonds. The ruby is her birthstone. It is pigeon blood red. It is the best you can get.

A little silver ring I gave her. A simple gold chain bracelet on her left wrist.

A touch of reality around her neck too. A shy diamond set in another modern swoop of gold, smaller, more delicate—a stylized teardrop. It sits against a black backdrop, created shadow. The diamond is from her mother’s engagement ring—her mother’s first engagement to my mother’s father.

They took that necklace off my mom when she went into the hospital so it wouldn’t interfere with the MRI. They took her rings and bracelet too.

She had to be in the hospital alone because of the virus. She was there a week. I called her every day, at least once a day. She told me many times about how they had taken her jewelry. She told me many times she was sure she would get it back. She had faith they were good, honest people, and that she would get her jewelry back even though she couldn’t quite remember where they had put it in her room. It seemed she thought about that more than she thought about her infection, her surgery, the second attempt at her surgery, and what life would be like after.

She recovered enough to come home. Once home, it took her another two weeks to recover enough physically and mentally even to want to put her jewelry on again.

She fished it out of her purse. It was all jumbled up in a green, semicircular plastic holder that looked like something you would put false teeth in. All that reality. All her reality. All those precious gems.

She put the topaz on first. This was what she earned, her badass career—the woman she was before retirement who made male lawyers quiver and go limp. The woman who could afford a topaz like that and all that swoop of gold.

She put her ruby on next. This was the woman she was born. Badass in essence from the start. The little girl who chopped down an entire row of bird of paradise in front of her mother’s house because she didn’t like the way they looked at her when she got home from school. She planted snapdragons there instead. Their fierce little faces were sweeter.

The gold bracelet. She fastened that on herself. She bought it somewhere borderline seedy while on a Caribbean cruise—her first. First of many with a group of globetrotting women, badass as she was, exploring everything, planting their flags everywhere.

She needed help with the necklace with the engagement diamond. I tried for more than fifteen minutes and couldn’t get it. The clasp is so tiny, I wondered how she ever got it on in the first place as her well kept fingernails are long and lustrous and mine are bitten to the nubs. It should have been easier for me having my actual fingertips to work with, but it was impossible.

She sighed as I handed it back to her. She looked down. “I don’t like to be without it,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how easily the nurse took it off.”

Finally, she slid the little silver ring with the created pink gemstones I gave her for her birthday on to her little finger. The ring had turned black. Something they injected her with had burned her inside, leaked out of the injection site, ran down her arm, and burned off whatever real silver there was on the ring. This was before the MRI. Before the box. Before she was bereft of everything. Before it was all protected.

That silver ring I gave her—the timid whisper that is my life’s contribution to hers, turned black in her illness—she wears it anyway, right alongside her gold and precious. She wears it anyway.

-M. Ashley

Happy Mothers’ Day everyone!

A Little Stuffy in Here (creative nonfiction)

The breakfast with Jeana at the botanical gardens in Nashville. You never saw so many nouveau riche people in one place at one time. Not one colored face among them.

They all sat on the lower level, next to the wide windows overlooking the butterfly garden, but they were mainly looking at each other, what was she wearing, who was she with, who should we say hello to, what hands should we shake, how many rungs can we climb this beautiful Sunday morning we are spending with our faces buried in our mimosas and our backs to the beautiful garden.

Or at least this was our impression as we sat on the upper level, close to the door we should probably have been grateful they let us through in our jeans and t-shirts. Clean jeans and t-shirts, mind you, but jeans and t-shirts nonetheless. Mine was burgundy and had a baseball style swoosh on it with the words, “Think dark thoughts.” One of my favorite t-shirts of all time, and we were. We were thinking dark thoughts about these people when these people we assumed didn’t want us there, were probably not thinking about us at all.

At the brunch buffet table, this lady in a white dress with heels way too high for a garden… we were in a freaking garden after all… elbowed me over the eggs. Elbowed in the boobs, over the chafing dish full of rubbery eggs. Strangest things. I suppose my low class ass wasn’t moving fast enough and she was at the eggs in a hurry because maybe she had some ass to kiss back at her table right then or the ass wouldn’t be ripe for kissing anymore.

Dark thoughts.

At our table on the higher level, the undesirable section, we were the only table up there after all, the waitress came over to fill our water glasses. Jeana, with her Jeana wit said to the waitress, “How are you today.” Fine, the waitress said. “A little stuffy in here, ain’t it?” The waitress smiled in a way she wasn’t supposed to and said, “Sometimes.”

-M, Ashley

Natively Unquiet (creative nonfiction)

If you threw the Empire State Building into a raging sea, no one would know the difference. Deepak Chopra said something like that, advocating for meditation. I bet the people of New York would know the difference–their skyline sadly quieter again.

But not silent.

There is no such thing. Like time and god, it’s something we conceptualize, track our lives by, aspire to. But there is always some sound. There is always some imperfection. Our own breath. Our own heartbeat. The mortal body regulating itself as it slowly, calmly perishes.

And that’s not a bad thing. Humans will never be gods and humans will also never know silence or be silent. We are the creatures we are, natively, and we are an unsubtle, noisy lot.

When I try to be silent, movies related to the logistics of eternity flicker across the insides of my eyelids. I’ve learned (sometimes) to watch and not participate, like seekers of silence and stillness are supposed to do, but even when the films are silent films, there is still the sound of the flickering, still the hum of electricity to projector that bolts through the physical brain. The slapstick of memory and trauma and dream and inspiration plays itself out and I laugh. As silent as I am, as unmoving as my belly and throat are–still there is the laugh.

That’s probably the foundational sound of the universe–the breath and heartbeat sound even She can’t get away from when She curves back into herself to resettle before birthing herself, from herself, again.

-M. Ashley

Outside My Preteen Window (creative nonfiction)

I’ve lived in three of the four bedrooms of the house I grew up in. I started at the end of the hall, moved across the hall to the front of the house, then back across the hall to the biggest of the little bedrooms, at last. When I lived in the bedroom at the front of the house, my window looked out on the walk, the lawn, the sidewalk, the streetlight that was supposed to be orange but was always broken, the street, the across-the-street neighbor’s house, and the across-the-street neighbor’s house’s front windows–their living room and a little square bedroom just like mine.

I slept with the head of my bed up against the window. I liked to look out through the blinds at night and contemplate the mysteries of junior high vis a vis the mysteries of the mostly empty street, an unhurried car passing once in a great while.

One night, my boyfriend and two of his friends came to the window. They whispered and laughed and sang and coaxed me out without permission. I think it might have been all of 10:00pm. We were doing what good kids walking the razor sharp line between good kids and slightly less good kids do. We thought we were stealing the world. It’s good we thought that.

Just now the thought: I have had romantic experiences in my lifetime after all, or at least this one–and the several times after that it also happened once they figured out I was so easily persuaded. Once they figured out I was just bad enough.

I came to expect them. I prepared myself for it. I dressed. I made sure my hair was ok, but not too ok. When my best friend came to my house for a sleepover, I made sure her clothes and hair were also ok, but not too ok. She was the best of the good kids. To her, we really were stealing the world. She looked afraid when I told her they would come. She went along anyway.

-M. Ashley

Exceptional Vehicles (creative nonfiction)

All you people take driving for granted.

I can’t drive because I’m legally blind and it is one of the most horrible kinds of crippling, or at least I imagine it is. Having never been an independent driver, I wouldn’t know.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a notion to go somewhere and just go. Cold night, playing Freeze Out like my dad used to do with us girls in the car—all four windows down, whoever rolls theirs up last is the winner—but with only myself as competition. I’ve never had to keep myself awake with only myself and the double yellow lolling out endlessly before me in the dark dark desert between here and Las Vegas.

I don’t know what hitting 100mph is like on that same highway, in the middle of the night, when I’m sure the CHP isn’t watching.

Yellow line, lulling you to sleep. Blaring the radio to fight it, Botts’ dots rumbling your eyes open again. The danger. The responsibility. The irresponsibility. The win when you get there somehow, miraculously, safe.

I wish I could stand somewhere alone that I drove to alone that I decided to drive to alone, and that no one but me, alone, would know about it.

Freedom. A grass is greener freedom as my side of the fence is on foot or riding the bus or in a cab or mooching rides from patient friends.

It’s hard to be independent when your broader movements are, by necessity, dependent—when, at the very least, the bus driver is going to know where you came from, where you went, and, if you ride enough, most of what your story is.

I sound bitter.

I am a little bitter.

No one to blame but the DNA. I was born wing-clipped in Southern California. Apparently my genetic material never heard the song “Nobody Walks in LA,” or heard it and thought we would be the exception.

Special genes do make one exceptional.

I am exceptionally half-sighted. I am exceptionally good at scheduling my errands around my friends’ errands so I don’t trouble anybody too much.

I am exceptionally blessed with the gift of the gab and, by lack of automotive freedom, have gained masses of unlikely friends all over the country. There is not much else to do when you’re stuck in transit together, breathing each other’s air, than to become compatriots.

Rwandan refugee cab drivers in Nashville—that ride share guy in DC who asked me what color palm trees are—the Uber lady whose dog just died yesterday—the bus driver who wouldn’t take my ticket without putting on gloves first (she was new and we weren’t virus-stricken yet)—the disability cabbie who brought his family along at eleven at night to pick me up from work, his wife sweetly piping up into the conversation from the backseat—the Pakistani guy who asked me to marry him—the Russian guy who also asked me to marry him—that other guy who asked me to use my employee discount to buy him a coffee pot “for church.”

I suppose all of these, in truth, are my own kind of exceptional vehicle and, once-in-a-while bilious drivers’ envy aside, my clipped-freedom grass is brilliant green because of them.

-M. Ashley

Talk About Disease (creative nonfiction)

It puts me ill at ease when my mom starts talking about my grandparents’ cancer—how they were dying at the same time, in hospital rooms next to each other. Lung cancer.

They smoked together. I’m sure he lit her cigarettes when they were dating. A sexy gesture. A sexy pull. Firsthand smoke to firsthand smoke. Breathing in each other’s breaths. Secondhand to secondhand. Thirdhand smoke in each other’s clothes. They breathed it in when they were dancing close.

Thirdhand smoke in their clothes still, even their clean clothes that my mother had to divvy up amongst relatives or donate after they passed. You never really can get rid of the smoke, the breath, the illness, the cancer. It grows and grows.

My mother’s marriage was falling apart as her parents were dying. My father was useless.

One day, after having worked a full day and spending most of the evening sitting at her parents’ bedsides, my mom came home to find that my father had put my sister and I to bed in our day clothes. She tells me he didn’t even bother to take our shoes off. That’s the part she couldn’t get over.

Unemployed and couldn’t be bothered to take our shoes off.

Unemployed and he would do the laundry at three in the morning with all the lights on in the house and Hank Williams roaring from the record player.

She wasn’t spending her evenings with him. He couldn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum, so he chose Hank Williams instead and, “You did say you wanted me to do the laundry, didn’t you?”

The cancer grew and grew.

My grandparents died and my mom got a divorce in the same year.

I once asked my mom if she was glad my grandparents weren’t around to see her get divorced. I asked her if there was some relief in it for her—in their passing. I don’t remember how she answered. I know she spoke, but all I really remember is the silence while she thought about it.

The hospital was in a rough neighborhood. My mom had to go into the parking garage each night wielding mace. She had a full time job, two kids, one of them (me) disabled, and, as I have mentioned, a useless husband. She is a badass. That’s the her in her I hope to breathe in.

-M. Ashley

Noisy (creative nonfiction)

“Feel the delight of walking in the noisy street,
And being the noise.”
-Rumi, “A Community of the Spirit”

I bet the world would take Gen Z a lot more seriously if they knew the difference between “everyday” and “every day..” There is, at least I think there is, a correct way to make noise in this math we call writing.

Words mean things.

I once got in an almost fight with a therapist because she thought “heigth” was a word. That would have been an unholy kind of noise. A rumbling fist fight behind the closed doors of confidentiality. I may have come out bloody, she looked like she could have been a scrapper, but dammit, I would have been right. I am right. There is no h at the end of the word.

A lady in my group therapy had an albino husband. There was some drama with him at the behavioral health clinic. The therapist leading the group said she heard about him coming in and “acting a fool.” Part of his foolishness being that he whizzed in the corner of one of the therapists’ offices and had to be carted out of there by the po po. He was making all kinds of noise—shouts, grunts, tinkles.

I was embarrassed for my people. When the secretaries for the crazy house see me, do they now think, there’s another noisy albino ready to piss in the corner. Somebody get the gloves on. Somebody get that powder that sucks up hazardous liquids. Somebody get a mop.

I speak quietly, still embarrassed for my people. Lack of pigment doesn’t mean lack of decency man, be a human for fuck’s sake. Be a little quieter, in a dignified way. You are not the kind of spiritual noise Rumi was talking about.

That same lady, married to the peeing albino, in my therapy group, looked ratty all the time. Not throwing stones. I can rat it up in fine style myself. Just a matter of fact she looked ratty all the time. And once she said she didn’t take care of herself because her albino husband couldn’t see her anyway and I didn’t disabuse her of her excuse to look ratty, but unless there was something extra wrong with his eyes that isn’t wrong with mine, yes… yes he can see her in all her ratty inglory..

I’m sure that’s not what made him make the loathsome noise and piss in the corner, but it’s just one more stressor, or an indication of a relationship already stressed because the woman cares more about what he can’t see than what she sees in herself.

I wanted to shout in the street that she should be un-ratty for herself, and damn the pissing albino with his not that bad eyes. Be your own woman. Be you for you. Be beautiful for your own liking. But then I realize, shouting at her in the street would be me making the noise at myself mostly because I too, as I said, can rat it up a lot of the time and don’t like looking at myself in the mirror and I don’t look and the internal noise is something like well, if I can’t see the rat tunes that well, I can’t blame myself for being ratty, which is the same argument this lady had but at her other, which is infinitely better than me having this discussion and blaming my quiet rattiness on myself.

-M. Ashley

Eve’s Naked Existence (creative nonfiction)

“I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.”
-Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

I wonder if, when Eve came along, Adam was as much in wonder with her naked existence as he was with the plants and birds and butterflies and the approved fruits, because we all know he didn’t even think about the unapproved fruit until evil Eve came along.

I wonder if, the seed of evil and rebellion apparently already in her, she was jealous at first that Adam did look at her naked existence with the same sight he used for the trees and butterflies and approved fruit. She was nothing special, or, I should say, she was equally special and no woman wants to feel that. I know it would hurt my heart if a man looked at an orange with the same kind of wonderment he looked at me. I would probably take it as a comment on my cellulite. I doubt I shared that in common with Eve before the fall because I’m sure god didn’t create her with cellulite. Or maybe he did and cellulite is divine and the only thing that convinces us that it isn’t is the evil rottenness that came out of evil Eve doing her thing.

If she had only known that first bite would mean a world full of Adam for the rest of eternity, no longer as enchanted with the orange as he was with her body, but forever commenting on it and, “If I don’t look at the orange with lusty innocence any more, then what makes you think I want to look at your orange skin thighs?

-M. Ashley

A Hill I Once Knew (creative nonfiction)

My Uncle Chuck’s house backed up against one of the humps of Little Mountain. As far as I know, Little Mountain has two major humps separated by two apartment complexes, two tracts of homes, two schools, and, lately, a strip mall, an iHop, a McDonals’s and a Starbucks always bustling with CalState Berdoo students.

My Uncle Chuck’s house butted up against the back of it and there was a small piece of it in his yard. I knew it intimately. He landscaped the crap out of it. He not only planted gorgeous plants everywhere, but he dug great paths and steps into the dirt so my sister, my cousins, and I could go run and chase all over it, minding the ankle-eating gofer holes of course.

We used to love to dig holes in that hill ourselves. My uncle had shovels for us all and, wherever he was working on some worthy project on the hill, there were my two boy cousins and I also working, digging holes to China or, if we were really ambitious, digging a hole large enough for us to sit it. Sometimes that took days, but the prestige that came with climbing into your own hole was well worth it.

-M. Ashley