Sunbathing in Cemeteries Book Signing

I loaded up my minivan with my family and boxes of books, the detritus of road trips defying my boxes and tote bags as water bottles, chargers, candy wrappers, and things-we-desperately-need cluttered the floorboards. I was returning to my hometown for a Pies and Poetry event at Mayders and Tayders fruitstand. I get anxious as I cross into Mississippi, like it’s quicksand that I’ll get sucked into and never escape from casseroles, supersaturated sweet teas, and church invitations. That’s not to say that the South doesn’t have its charms. I can’t help but love the magnolias that line the highways at the state line. And I don’t think I can get the red clay out of my soul. The pine trees feel like home to me, even when I desire biodiversity and know there’s not much but pines. The Southern accent slips back into my mouth, whether I mean for it to or not, and my Minnesotan husband catches only about half of my words and less than that from the natives.

And, yes, they did remark, “He ain’t from ’round here, is he?” My pageant smile fell into place. And I forced air that sounded like a laugh out of my lungs. “No,” I joked, “I had to find him on the other end of the Mississippi River.”

I ate key lime pie with my kids, and they sampled the cheesecake, too. Aiden, my eldest, watched me like he’s never really seen me before. I usually exist in the silence and the gray tones of rain clouds. And he was watching me in the colorful walls with people who came out to support a local author and chat with an outlier. I took my anxiety meds before people walked in; PTSD has me watching every move from every person, and it’s a lot to process. I still felt my energy deplete like a cheap battery in a couple of hours. I was happy to catch up with friends and family, but it’s difficult for an introvert with PTSD–a bit like deciding to do a marathon after having knee replacement surgery.

I know the effort is worth it when I hear people with PTSD telling me they feel like someone else understands when they read my words. And I thoroughly enjoyed listening to rich laughter as the tiny town’s only black female minister laughed at my oh-so-real poetry before she bought copies. I, too, felt seen. Female ministers and female atheists are not that different in a small Southern town. We share an otherness and curiosity, a reckless abandon about public perception.

When I walk into book signings, I have a moment before anyone arrives that feels like standing on the ledge of a pit, right before I rappel into an abyss. What if no one shows up? What if they show up and hate my work? What if they show up and heckle me? I breathe and remember an anecdote that Neil Gaiman shared on imposter syndrome. He said:

“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

And I remember I am in good company with the Neils. And I do my job–talking about books, writing, and the things that inspire me.

Sunbathing in Cemeteries

I did a thing. I finally clicked publish on my latest poetry book, Sunbathing in Cemeteries. It’s been about two years in the making as I have lived through the aftermath of domestic violence and my own PTSD. This book explores those issues and tangential ones–motherhood, the South, and dating after a divorce. (Dating after a divorce with PTSD and a fairly high ghost rate the second I mentioned kids.) I have always woven scientific metaphors into my work, but there were more in this volume than in Hell and High Water. When I chose not to dilute the metaphors, I added footnotes in a few places.

This book is called Sunbathing in Cemeteries because it’s the best way to describe my frame of mind as I published these poems. I woke up and took steps to get me closer to medical school every day, sometimes appalled that the world didn’t stop with me and that the sun kept rising when I felt dead. I kept moving forward, deciding that if I am going to exist in this cemetery of who I used to be, then I can at least sunbathe in it. I adore ironic juxtaposition, and I keep imagining myself with a lounger, a hot pink bikini, floppy sun hat, and cocktail with an umbrella, tanning in an old and deeply Gothic cemetery. Things might get better, they might not, but I am determined to live my best life, wherever I am in the healing process.

On a personal note, I have been mentally meandering this summer as I took time off from my pre-med work to address my own health issues, get some of my art out into the world, and travel with my awesome kids. I don’t know if any of you suffer from PTSD, but I have learned that I definitely cope best with a boring routine. Not having anyone demanding lab reports, papers, or studying for exams has left me aimless for a couple of months. Who would have guessed that the rigors of organic chemistry would provide solace? I never thought I’d long for the drudgery of another chemical mechanism. And if you tell anyone I said such a thing, I’ll deny it vehemently. That said, writing new material and getting it published is occupying the puzzle-sorting part of my mind for now. And I hope you enjoy the latest poetry volume.

–Jessi

Back to Writing/Life Update

I am back to my writing–finally. The pandemic was a terrible time for so many people, but for me it was a chance to heal. Just a few months after my attack, the whole world shut down. And the expectations that I would be able to pick up my life as it was disappeared. I’m more grateful for covid lockdowns than most people. I thrived in the isolation with my family and my hobbies and work.

I often tell my daughter that people can be more than one thing. And I have been furiously working to be many things–author, mother, and medical doctor. I went back to school during the lockdown, and it’s been a wild ride. (Everyone needs a biology degree and chemistry minor along with a medical degree to accompany their English degrees, right?) My poetry has become more infused with science than ever–who else is going to write about DNA cleaving enzymes and people that are like ligase? At my core, I want to heal people, physically when they need it and with stories when their minds need a refuge. The little explosion turning my wheels is knowing that people feel less alone when they read truths laid bare by people like them.

And people I meet usually want to put me in a little box that says “Author” or “Aspiring Doctor”. But I’m not having it. Both sides of a brain can work and make beautiful art.

I received rave reviews on my latest poetry book from beta readers and am still reading it, searching for errors that will haunt me if I publish them. And I worked on creating my own cover. I don’t know if you adore ironic juxtaposition, but I do. And poetry books so often have big blocky titles that scream “High Literature”. I just can’t take myself that seriously. I could be the poet laureate and that wouldn’t happen. Or they have the face of a well known, beloved poet. That’s when you’ve made it, right? When you put your face on a poetry book and people think it’s natural? I’m looking at you, Mary Oliver and Nikki Giovanni. But my little book is full of contradictions, the kind that Southerners know about, the sorts that run society and confuse non-natives. So, I put my title in swirly romance novel font with a Gothic cemetery in the background. It’s not a mistake. I want you to feel as jarred as I did, too stubborn to die, but furious that ordinary beautiful things like sunrises kept happening.

And if you’re looking for more of that deliciously Southern ironic juxtaposition with a streak of science, Hell and High Water is on sale for $0.99.

Poetry: Winter Solstice 2021

Context:

This poem is a wish that the universe would take care of justice for me. I’ve been handed a few glorious moments over the years, moments I felt that the Fates were spinning my villains into the corner they deserved and offering me a window to see. For the record, my husband says that the best revenge is a life well lived. And he’s right. But sometimes I still curse my attacker on my bad days.

My attacker’s court date got pushed back, and it’s been years already. So, I wait. And I recently had what I hope is the final surgery to fix the physical damage from the attack. It was a rough one.

Winter Solstice 2021

Does the frost lick your veins like the post-op splints tickle my nose?

Just a little too cold, a little too painful to sleep.

Does the darkness blend into your shot-in-the-dark soul?

I raise another glass, hoping your nights are long and that you forget the wonder of the galaxy. (It’s you who gobbles nanometers.)

I hope you live in the winter solstice and can’t see the fractals in the frost.

I still stand–a tree in the pitch–awaiting morning’s kiss. But I didn’t forget to watch the night undress the light of a thousand stars.

Poetry: Me Too

I wrote this one for all of the women I know that no one believed, whose attackers are free. They privately and publicly fall apart, but I know why. Shattered women live in societies with little justice.

Me Too

I believe you

with your eyeliner cat’s eye,

wine bottle latched to your hand,

goblet neglect.

I trace your hothead Facebook rants,

launching insults with no guidance systems into screens like confetti.

Insanity isn’t a switch.

It’s a stone hitting a windshield and cracks that creep at every stress until the driver can’t see clearly through the shattering.

Poetry: Letting Go

I have been prolific over the past few months and working on a cover for the next new poetry volume. I’ve also been remodeling my house and donating so many things that cluttered my space.

I opened the front closet of doom recently so that I could give the door a new coat of paint. (Do you have a closet of doom? I try not to, but it’s not really a priority. 🤷🏻‍♀️) I had one of those gift wrap/gift bag organizers on the inside of the door. Like an adulty-adult would. And I realized that my gift bag stash is ridiculous. Here’s why:

Letting Go

I learned a secret in my 20s.

You can reuse gift bags.

And I held on to so many.

“I’ll get invited to baby and wedding showers.”

Or so I told myself.

But no one ever tells you there are women who don’t get invited to those events, who are too weird, too awkward, too unaware of what constitutes small talk.

(It’s the weather, isn’t it? I tried that and wound up prattling about lahars.)

I am 33 and trashing all of those bags.

Finally letting go of what isn’t to embrace what is.

Update and Poetry: The Club

October has been an interminable month. It used to be my favorite as I chased down the fall colors, carved pumpkins, and reveled in cardigan and boot weather. I had been dreading the anniversary of my attack and scheduled my book releases and tours to be done before that day hit me.

I tried to block it out with hiking. Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, and other wilderness areas filled my days. I got muddy in caves with my kids. But I’m still me, and the adrenaline still floods me at nightfall, bringing panic attacks and insomnia.

Then, I switched to updating parts of my house. I have steamed wallpaper, patched walls, and left my house in piles of chaotic clutter. It reminds me of being a third of the way through writing a novel. I can see the end in my head, but I’m surrounded by loose threads. And there’s a lot of work to go. Only I can see how it will all work out; I think the rest of the household are humoring me.

I don’t know if you knew, but October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. And I laughed at the bitter irony that I was made indelibly aware of domestic violence in an October. My poems have been darker, like I’ve embraced the month’s black cats, cobwebs, and fishnet stockings and left out the cardigans and pumpkins.

The Club

There’s no glitter here.
And the lighting doesn’t flatter.
But all of the alcohol you can pour is included with a lifetime membership.

We all get our own photo shoots.
We’re models you see—
of blossoming bruises and chokers stuck to our skin.
We skip the lines—
at the ER.
We take off our clothes—
to don backless gowns.
We do interviews—
with men who forgot their microphones.

Our breaths come in ragged gasps.
We have nights we can’t forget
and friends who won’t remember us.

I won’t welcome you to our club,
but I’ll tell those waiting outside to go to hell
when they say you deserved your membership.

Poetry: Worse

The anniversary of my attack is looming, a great maw snapping at the smiles and sunshine in my life. I’ve had an uptick in panic attacks, super hearing, and insomnia. I’m operating on caffeine and stubbornness today. It’s enough. This poem was inspired by me asking my significant other if he thinks I’ve gotten worse. Because for some demented reason, I have to know the truth; I have to pry it out like a rotten tooth.

Worse

“You’re getting worse.”
I wrap my arms around myself as far as they’ll go,
protecting my core like your words are hits.
But they don’t keep coming.

I wait for the conditional get-better-now, stop-panicking
receding footsteps.
But there was no or else.
No if-then.

You pulled me closer
as I apologized for more things I can’t help.
I might as well apologize for the rain, too.
And you stop my torrent
like a shut-off valve in the sky.

Poetry: Un-Days

I know that some of my readers are here because of our mutual love of poetry. And the Where Angels Can’t Follow blog tour is not going to speak to that. So, here’s a new poem I wrote yesterday, which was a hard day for me. I didn’t fall into the hole in my calendar, but I did keep busy with random chores, freezing meals to a ridiculous degree (who needs that much spinach lasagna?!), and finishing the day out with a drink. Odin, the German Shepherd who seems to know when my days are difficult, did not leave my side.

Un-Days

The days we used to celebrate

become holes in the calendar.

Stay-away-from-the-edge,

you-might-fall-in days.


Anniversaries that got crossed out–

absent champagne, flowers, and cards.

Birthdays that aren’t

for people that aren’t.

Days when the world stopped

and our lives fell

into a pit disguised as an ordinary day.


It’s a dubious privilege of aging–

learning how to span the shaky debris over those holes.

I’ll tell you my secret:

don’t look down.

Poetry: Paradise

I recently bought last-minute tickets to hike at Mount Rainier National Park. I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, and after I decided that I was done depriving myself of beauty and the things I love, no one could stop me. So, I hopped on a plane to Seattle and was not disappointed.

There’s a section of Mount Rainier National Park called Paradise. I was there, hiking the Skyline loop surrounded by flabbergasting waterfalls, wildflowers, and Mount Rainier when a woman stomped past me on the trail.

Paradise

Have you ever been to dismal towns called Paradise

and thought the founders lacked imagination?

I have.

But this time, the name fit.

The sleeping volcano dominated the landscape.

The wildflowers filled every spot that no one stepped.

Waterfalls fell with such abundance that no one names them all.

And a woman stomped down the trail,

unflabbergasted by the embarrassment of riches.

Some people are angry even in Paradise.