Fiction Fragments: Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Last week, I spoke with Brandon Getz about werewolves in outer space, and this week Girl Meets Monster welcomes Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel.

SSGHeadSheri Sebastian-Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines over the past decade. Spirits, her first novel, is out now from Haverhill House Publishing. She lives in the Northeast with her fiance, the writer Matt Bechtel; her three children; and her two diametrically opposed dogs, Nya, a German shepherd mix, and Kai, a Chihuahua.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Sheri. Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Spirits, last year. 2019 was one hell of a year. What are some of your greatest accomplishments from last year? What do you have planned for 2020, and what are you working on right now?

SSG: Thank you so much! It’s been a crazy year. Publishing Spirits and doing the promotional work associated with that pretty much tops my list of accomplishments for 2019. I’ve read in front of some amazing crowds. I particularly enjoyed my reading at Otto’s Shrunken Head, this adorable tiki bar in the East Village of Manhattan. The staff there is just delightful. You should go the next time you’re in New York. They make a mean Stormy Skull.

In 2020, I’ll probably still be promoting the living hell out of Spirits. Chris Golden once told me it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I’m working on my second novel now. It follows an African vampire named Wekesa. Wekesa experienced the horrors of slavery as a young man. He roams the Deep South, feeding on racists. Sam Rayburn is a single mom who rents out a room to the mysterious Kes. The tiny town of Helms, Georgia, experiences a rash of grisly murders, and Sam suspects her new boarder may be responsible.

GMM: I’ve been a die-hard fan of horror fiction and films since I was a kid and could watch or read almost anything your put in front of me. After I became a mom, the concept of horror changed for me. The Exorcist was no longer scary because of demonic possession. It was scary because a woman with a sick child couldn’t find the help she needed to save her daughter. The Babadook felt like a documentary about being a single parent dealing with mental health issues and a child with behavioral problems. Has motherhood changed the way you view and write horror? What scares you these days?

SSG: I think you’re so right about motherhood shaping our worldviews and changing our fears. When I was young, I was afraid of monsters. I believed there were things out there that could hurt or kill me. But when I grew up, I realized monsters can be destroyed. As a parent, and a single parent at that, I understand that real terror comes from the things we can’t control. My number-one fear is something awful and beyond my control happening to my kids.

GMM: Speaking of the horror of motherhood, your fragment taps into one of the fears most parents share — bad things happening to our children when we aren’t there to protect them. I think we would agree that some parents have an even harder time keeping their kids safe because of financial difficulties and sociopolitical issues like racism and sexism. Your fragment features a woman of color raising two boys. What inspired the story, and does the current political climate have an impact on your writing?

SSG: The current political climate has absolutely impacted my writing! Subversive art is necessary. We both have stories in the forthcoming Dystopian States of America, an anthology benefiting the ACLU Foundation. It’s a cause near to my heart, because the damage done by the current administration is going to be felt for a really long time. There are children in cages, for fuck’s sake. Can we really just turn a blind eye to that?

From Blood for the Soil, by Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Sam tapped the pen against the kitchen table. If she skipped the cable bill for another month, she might be able to pay both the power bill and the car insurance, and she’d still have fifty dollars left to buy groceries for the next two weeks. The laptop glowed in her face as she punched in her debit card number and hit the Pay Now button.

Her stomach roiled. Harper’s hadn’t reopened after being shut down by the health inspector, so her services as a table jockey weren’t exactly in demand. The Beehive Café might be hiring, but Sam couldn’t bring herself to speak to Azilee McVey after the bitter old hag yelled at Nat for trying to sell basketball fundraiser candy outside her over-hyped establishment.

It was more than a little odd to her that Azilee gleefully hosted a carwash for the marching band a week later. She’d driven by to see a dozen or so white kids scrubbing cars and spraying each other, laughing in the carefree midday sunshine. Her boys would always face people like Azilee and cops who are scared of unarmed black boys whose only crime is existing. And her parents. Her blood ran cold.

Failing them wasn’t an option. She logged out of the power company’s website, typed in http://www.helmsherald.com, clicked on the classifieds section, and scanned the site for a way to place an ad. When she found the right form for apartments for rent, she filled in:

Room for rent in quaint farmhouse. $300 a month, utilities included. Smoke-free household. Must be neat. Call Sam at (706) 531-2243. 

She hit the submit button and clicked the X to close the browser.

The clock on her laptop told her it was a quarter past seven, and her heart jumped. The boys should have been home by now. She leapt up and dashed to the door. The crickets had started their evening serenade. Lightning bugs blinked on and off. The sky was navy blue and a smattering of stars punctuated it. The grass tickled the bottoms of her feet as she walked into the yard.

“Nat! Kyle!”

Her voice echoed through the trees that ran the perimeter of the farm. Something metallic rattled in the distance. Sam ran, barely noticing the gravel of the driveway jabbing her feet. The gravel turned to asphalt as she reached the roadway. Two shadowy figures emerged from the diminishing daylight. One lurched. The other walked alongside a clanking bulk. Sam’s legs burned and her feet slapped the craggy ground as she ran toward the figures.

She met them at the edge of the forest. A moan rose up from the dark.

“Mom! Nat’s hurt! Someone hit him as we were turning into Cooper’s. I’ve got his bike. I had to leave mine at the store.”

Sam’s stomach fell. She scooped the younger boy up and carried him, draped across her forearms. He whimpered and tucked his head into her shoulder like a shy toddler. He was heavy, but she shuffled and redistributed his weight until they made it to the front porch. She set him down and knelt in front of him. Blackened blood streaked his shin. A gash on his knee crusted as the blood dried.

“What happened?” she asked.

“This old lady was turning into the grocery store parking lot as we were crossing the street, and she crashed right into Nat. He fell off, and her car crushed his bike. The wheel is so bent, I had to push it home. Is he gonna be okay?”

Sam examined the wound. It was dirty but seemed superficial.

“Let’s go inside and get you cleaned up. I think you’ll be okay. Thanks for taking such good care of him, Kyle. You’re a good brother. We can go back to Cooper’s tomorrow to pick up your bike. So, what did the old lady say about hitting you?”

Nat’s eyes flashed with anger.

“She took off,” he said. “Just left me there.”

Sam hefted him onto his feet. Blind rage warmed her face. Her body quaked as she suppressed the urge to launch into an expletive-filled rant, focusing instead on ushering them both back into the house. Kyle stayed behind in the living room as Sam led Nat to the bathroom.

He sat on the toilet. Sam pulled the first aid kit from under the sink and placed it at his feet.  She ran a washcloth under the tap. Nat’s eyes were trained on the white tile floor. Tears lined his bottom eyelashes, and his bottom lip quivered. She dabbed at the red wounds, careful not to rub or irritate the raw skin. Blood flaked up and left maroon streaks on the cloth.

“What if I died?” he whispered. Sam wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.

“What, sweetie?”

His soulful brown eyes met hers.

“What if I died? That woman. The old lady who hit me. She took off right after she hit me.”

Nat’s breath came in ragged bursts. A single tear streamed down his cheek.

“She didn’t know I was okay,” he said, his shaky voice growing in volume. “I could have died, and it wouldn’t have mattered to her.”

Sam lowered the cloth, placed her hands on either side of his face, and pulled his head to her chest. His warm tears soaked her shirt, and she stroked his hair.

Do you have a fragment you’d like to share with Girl Meets Monster? Send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

The Color of Love

As a writer who happens to be a woman of color, it’s important to me to see myself in books, film and art. Seeing other people of color in important roles isn’t as uncommon now as it was for me when I was growing up, but I am not just a person of color. I am ethnically mixed. My mother is white and my father was black. I was raised by my mother’s family and am more culturally white than black according to the tiny boxes people wish to place us in here in America. I am primarily attracted to men of European ancestry and have only dated and had long-term relationships with white men. I don’t think my ethnicity and dating practices make me that unique, but it has taken me nearly a lifetime to see healthy relationships between women of color and white men depicted in films, books, and on TV. In my nearly 46 years, it has been within the last roughly 10 years that it has become commonplace to see interracial couples in commercials, on TV shows, and in films that didn’t have a darker undercurrent. The specter of racism hanging over that relationship and making it nearly impossible for it to exist.

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I remember being very excited to see Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke’s sex scenes in Angel Heart when I was a teenager, but the older I get the more I realize that their relationship was fraught with many problems, the least of which being that she is murdered. Racism is prevalent in the film. And despite the fact that Harry Angel is aware of racism and segregation in his hometown of New York City, it is even more apparent that blacks and whites don’t mix when he gets to New Orleans. To be fair, the film is set in the 1950s, so Jim Crow is alive and well. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the police officer investigating the string of deaths that seem to follow Harry Angel refers to Epiphany Proudfoot as Harry’s nigger. What should surprise us is that Harry does nothing to defend Epiphany’s honor. I mean obviously he enjoyed her company if his blood-soaked orgy fantasy while screwing her is any indication. So, if he really does like her, at least sexually, and is worried about her safety, then why doesn’t he tell the detective not to call her a nigger? One reason is due to the history of interracial relationships in this country being either forbidden, kept secret or simply flat-out denied and erased from history. But, our history isn’t nearly as lily white as the textbooks would like us to believe.

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Like I said, interracial relationships are becoming more common in works of popular fiction, but who is writing them? Who is performing them? How are they being depicted? This summer I was shocked, delighted, and fascinated by the choice to change the ethnicity of two of the major characters in Charlaine Harris’ Midnight Texas series for the TV adaptation. In the novels, Fiji Cavanaugh, the local witch, is a plump little white woman who is head over heels for Bobo Winthrop, the handsome owner of Midnight Pawnshop. Their relationship is complicated in the novels, but the decision to make Fiji a woman of color on TV takes the level of complication to a much darker place. And, the choice to cast a very dark-skinned black man as Lemuel Bridger was interesting since in the novels his is one of the palest vampires alive. The rewriting of Lemuel’s backstory, making him a slave who kills his master after becoming a vampire, is almost a new American mythology of revenge. The first time I encountered this concept of a slave becoming a vampire as a form of freedom, was in The Gilda Stories, by Jewelle Gomez (1991). But as even Lemuel realizes, he traded one form of slavery for another.

The Color of Love: Bobo Winthrop and Fiji Cavanaugh

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Bobo Winthrop first appears in the Lily Bard Shakespeare series of mystery novels written by Charlaine Harris between 1996 and 2001. Lily Bard is an amatuer sleuth who gets involved in the darker aspects of the community she lives in. Lily’s past is also dark and she initially attempts to stay out of the public eye, but can’t allow bad people to get away with their evil deeds. She cleans houses for a living and is a martial arts student. Lily cleans the Winthrop house, and Bobo is also a martial arts student who sometimes works at the gym where they workout and take classes.

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Bobo is the teenage son of a wealthy well-connected family in Shakespeare, GA. His family is involved in the White Supremacist movement, which Bobo is extremely ashamed of and tries to distance himself from his family once he becomes more aware of their activities and the fact that they have actually had a hand in killing people. Most notably, the bombing of an all Black church in Shakespeare.

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When Bobo reappears in the Midnight, Texas series, he’s an adult and has been running from his family for many years. He bought the pawnshop from Lemuel and had established himself as a regular in Midnight, which means he has a dark past and is intentionally trying to keep a low profile. He’s one of the few human characters in the novels, but his past is dark enough to make him fit in, and his fiance is murdered in the first Midnight novel. Because she has lied to him about her identity and the fact that she’s already married to someone else, he slowly discovers that she was plant that brings back the truth of his past that he has tried to escape from.

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As I mentioned, in the novels, his best friend is Fiji Cavanaugh and she is a small, chubby white woman who is also a witch. Fiji fantasizes about Bobo and having a relationship, but her low self-esteem and body image issues keep her from getting as close as she’d like to the handsome man with the very dark past. And, he doesn’t exactly profess his undying love for her either. The TV show makes their relationship even more complicated by casting a woman of color as Fiji. Fiji and Bobo are still friends. Bobo’s fiance, Aubrey turns up dead and she is married to a white supremacist who was trying to get information about a legendary stash of weapons Bobo stole from his family to prevent them from killing more people. Fiji doesn’t know about Bobo’s past even though they are good friends. Of course, Fiji has some secrets of her own that cause a bit of havoc as the story develops. Bobo is attracted to Fiji and admits that the first time he saw her, he thought he was out of her league. Her kindness and friendship over the years hasn’t gone unnoticed, and when Aubrey dies, she’s the first one to offer comfort. And, when anything happens to Fiji, Bobo is usually the first to come running to her rescue or to defend her honor. And yet, they aren’t a couple.

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It takes the two of them much longer to get together in the novels, but the TV show dives right in and does a mashup of all three books in 10 episodes. Because I read the novels, I had no trouble keeping up. However, the timeline is out of whack, and there are missing characters. I’m doubtful of a second season showing this summer, because, hey, I love the show so it probably won’t get renewed…so  who knows what will happen next?

In the show, like the novels, when Fiji discovers Bobo’s connection to white supremacists and is kidnapped because of that connection, she is unable to trust him for a long time. The truth of his past and the fact that his secret put her in danger causes her to take a break from their friendship. Obviously, casting a woman of color as Fiji gives so much more weight to this revelation.

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She loves Bobo, but knowing that he was raised by white supremacists, regardless of his beliefs and actions as an adult, raises some serious trust issues and makes Fiji reconsider her feelings. It doesn’t help that Bobo is showing an interest in her that goes beyond friendship and he even tells her that he loves her.

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Bobo pleads his case, tells her that he’s ashamed of his family, but misses being able to see them. He’s completely honest with her and is worried that she’ll reject him. But, rather than badgering her and begging for forgiveness and trying to show her that he isn’t like his family, he tries to give her the space she needs to figure things out. His feelings are hurt, but he doesn’t blame her for not trusting him. He continues to worry about her and does what he can to keep her safe, let her know he loves her, and has to wait for her to welcome him back in.

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In the meantime, there’s a demon communicating with Fiji who wants to be her new boyfriend so he can have access to her high concentration of witch mojo. In the books, like the show, one of Fiji’s secrets is that she’s a virgin. In her 30s. Apparently, virgin witches over 30 are not only rare, but very powerful. And, the demon wants to get on that. The entire town is in danger, and the demon keeps encouraging people to kill themselves, because it feeds on death and the more death there is, the easier it is for him to rise out of Hell. In the third novel, Night Shift, when we find out Fiji’s secret, the male characters all volunteer to help Fiji with her…problem. Fiji is beyond embarrassed and totally freaked out that all of the men, including Joe who is in a relationship with another man, offer to take her virginity. In the novel, it has to be performed like a ritual on top of the Hellmouth, which means she has to do it in public with the lucky fella. First time jitters don’t even cover that effed up situation.

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In the TV show, Bobo offers the solution to Fiji who initially thinks he’s crazy. So, after weeks of avoiding being alone with Bobo, Fiji decides to have sex with him. Now, we already know that they care about each other and Bobo can’t imagine…or really even tolerate the thought that someone else would put their hands on Fiji. He’s a nice guy, but jealousy is kind of an issue for him beyond the desire to keep Fiji safe. At least they get to do it in private on the TV show.

The choice to make Fiji a person of color was a bold one on the part of the scriptwriters and casting director. It gives the problem of Bobo’s past more weight and addresses some of the typical concerns people have about interracial relationships. Not to mention the fact that NBC put an interracial couple on during prime time while racists are trying to make America white again after Trump’s election. AND, made white supremacists the bad guys, second only to demons. Stick that in your Evangelical Christian pipe and smoke it.

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What’s really interesting to me is the fact that Fiji never mentions race in any of their conversations. Bobo simply confesses that he was ashamed and that’s why he didn’t tell her about his family. And she says she’s upset because it was a lie of omission. He lied to her. She doesn’t say anything like, “how could you lead me on and let me fall in love with you when you were raised by racists who you’re on the run from?” His lie almost cost Fiji her life.

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But, once Bobo has deflowered her and chased the demon away…literally with his penis, all is forgiven and they become a couple. In the TV show, Manfred has more of a hand in defeating the demon, but in the novel, some much needed sex magic does the trick. Bobo’s white penis saved Fiji’s life. You read that right. Fiji’s salvation came in the form of a white man’s penis.

Let that sink in for a moment.

As a woman of color who has dated only white men, I have had the misfortune of dealing with racist relatives who make off-color jokes about my sexual proclivities because apparently black women’s vaginas are a source of fear and mystery, reminiscent of the Dark Continent itself. My exes who had never dated anyone other than white girls/women before dating me were either making huge mistakes or conquering some unknown territory according to some of their friends and family members. So, seeing Bobo and Fiji warmed my heart because I want them to be together. Despite his past, Bobo really is a good man and truly loves Fiji. And, let’s face it, they’re a hot couple. If NBC nixes a second season, my dream would be for it to get picked up by Showtime or HBO so that Fiji and Bobo get a lot more sex scenes. No, like a lot of sex scenes so they can try lots of different positions. And, that would also open up the possibility for Joe and Chuy to have a few sex scenes. Because Bobo is hot. Manfred is hot. But Joe Strong makes my mouth water.

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As hot as Bobo and Fiji are as a couple, seeing them together and knowing Bobo’s backstory caused me to remember some uncomfortable parts of my own past. Bobo isn’t going to be able to take Fiji home to meet his family. That isn’t an option. Part of me envies that fact. Meeting someone’s family for the first time is usually fraught with fear for me. Fear of past hurts, fear of further rejection, fear of actual physical violence. When I was a teenager, I called my boyfriend’s house, and his father told him that his nigger was on the phone. I was only 14. No one’s father has ever said that to me since, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t thinking it. And, it is certainly always on my mind each time I meet the friends and family of a new partner.

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You may ask yourself, why would I continue to date white men if I harbor fears like that? And my answer to you would be, because you can’t choose who you are attracted to or who you love. Maybe the real takeaway from Midnight, Texas shouldn’t be that Bobo’s white penis saved a black woman from damnation. Maybe the takeaway is the fact that people come into our lives and regardless of our pasts, regardless of our differences, we can’t help but fall in love. I’m a cynic and the fact that Bobo’s penis saved the day isn’t something I can completely ignore. None of the penises I’ve encountered have ever been magical enough to save me from certain doom. In fact, they probably caused me more trouble than anything else. I think most women would say the same regardless of their dating preferences. But as cynical as I am, I’m also a hopeless romantic who still believes in love. And, I also firmly believe that the color of your lover shouldn’t matter as long as they love and respect you.

Happy Birthday to Me: Self-Reflection and Self-Love

still-alive45 years ago today, I was born during a snow storm to a single mom who had every reason to be afraid of her new role. She was about to get divorced from her abusive husband, my birth father, and she was a young white woman living in rural Pennsylvania who just gave birth to a bi-racial baby. The doctor, believing that she was a threat to herself given her choice in sexual partners, gave her a tubal ligation so she couldn’t have any more children. I’m sure he believed he was doing the right thing, but he never bothered to ask her what she wanted. In fact, her parents gave the doctor permission to perform the procedure, “for her own good.” That’s how I came into this world. Born on Valentine’s Day 1972 in a blizzard to a woman who was subjected to physical and emotional abuse, sexism, and racism.

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Despite our rough start as mother and child, we’ve both survived and have many interesting stories to tell. She wasn’t always prepared for her role as my mother, and I don’t hold that against her because I struggle as a mom, too. Being a mom isn’t easy, but it’s especially difficult when you do it without any help from a partner. My mom was a single parent until I turned five, when she remarried. She worked full-time, but lived at home with her parents who not only condemned her choices in men, but also treated her like a child until I turned four and we moved out. So, for the most part my grandmother raised me. I don’t doubt that she loved me, but she was often misguided in how she showed her love. For instance, one of her first nicknames for me was “my little nigger.” Shocking, right? Well, here’s why I think it’s shocking. She genuinely believed that since people were obviously going to call me “nigger,” if she used that word as term of endearment my feelings would never be hurt. I’m just going to stop right there and let you soak that in.

Why am I dredging up these painful stories on my birthday? Well, because birthdays should be about taking a look back at the previous year or years of your life to get a sense of where you’ve been and where you might be going. Birthdays should have a certain level of self-reflection, so that we gain a better understanding of who we were, who we are, and who we hope to become. And, if like me, your birthday is on Valentine’s Day, you can spend a lot of the day wondering why you’re still single.

People often tell me how much they appreciate my dark sense of humor. Here’s a little secret, without my dark sense of humor, I never would have made it this far in life. Laughing at the things that make me and other people uncomfortable and finding beauty in darkness and the things that dwell there have been a part of my survival toolkit for as long as I can remember.

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I have suffered from depression since I was a child, but it was never officially diagnosed until I was in college. I’ve been in and out of therapy ever since then and plan to stay in therapy, because I don’t think there will ever be a time in my life when I don’t need it. It is only recently that I have begun to look closely at the events in my childhood that shaped me into the person I have become. A sensitive woman plagued by self-doubt who constantly fights to keep the shackles of low self-esteem from pulling her down into the depths of a depression she cannot claw her way out of even if she wanted to. My past experiences and relationships with family, friends, lovers and strangers have made me strong and taught me lots of valuable life lessons. I use my wit and creativity to interact with a world I often want to hide away from. I am an introvert with a desire to meet new and interesting people. I have MAJOR trust issues, so if I allow you to enter the wall I’ve built to keep pain at bay, don’t take that lightly, because I have a supply of bricks to shut you out at a moment’s notice. I am a loyal friend, a generous lover, and my love extends to ALL of humanity. I’m often disgusted by the behavior of my fellow humans, but my understanding of the darkness that dwells in our hearts has given me a solid appreciation of monsters and how they sometimes behave better than we do. We shouldn’t fear monsters; we should fear what creates them.

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A few days ago, I had a tarot reading done by a friend who envisions me as being trapped in a circle or cycle that is preventing my next stage of growth. But she reminded me that all I need is a small crack in that circle to let the light of creativity and hope into my life. She told me to try some different ways of approaching my writing, which I’ve been struggling to do lately. She told me to remember to breathe, and take time to take deeper breaths so that my brain and body can function properly. She also reminded me that I am strong and have faced many obstacles and overcome disappointment and heartache many times. I already have the tools I need to figure out what happens next. She told me to use the following mantra and imagine myself opening up to the endless possibilities that life and the Universe have to offer:

I am a powerful creator. I manifest with ease.

I’ve been saying this to myself regularly over the last few days and I’m beginning to feel better. I’ve been trying to reconnect with my power source, and pay closer attention to how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. She also reminded me that I can choose what I give power to – people, situations, objects – I can decide how to feel about whatever is happening to me. She recommended that I sit down and list my intentions, the things I want most to happen in my life and the kind of people I want to attract and spend my valuable time with this year and for years to come.

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I haven’t started writing that list, but I’ve been thinking about it. I’m going to spend some more time drafting and editing that list over the next few weeks and months. This is a time of healing and growth for me. I know I need to schedule time alone and do the things that comfort me and make me happy. I need to give some serious thought to how people make me feel. If they are a constant source of stress or anxiety, and take more than they give, they can no longer be part of my life. I’m cleaning house – my heart, my mind, my body, my soul.

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While those early experiences, and other horrible experiences I don’t feel like mentioning right now, had a hand in shaping the person I have become, I am choosing to move forward. I want to leave as much of that negative bullshit behind me as I can. It has no place in my future. I don’t want to be a prisoner of my past. I have too many important things to do with my life. I have stories to write. I have adventures to plan. I have new friends and lovers to meet. And right now, I want to channel my energy to healing my heart, to writing and publishing, and finding a career that matches my passion and doesn’t simply pay the bills. I want to be open to receiving the love I want and deserve. I want to travel and discover new stories to tell. And, I want to show myself the same amount of love I give to others. I’m going to keep believing in true love – even if my true love turns out to be me. Actually, I’m hoping my true love is Tom Hiddleston, or Michael Fassbender, or David Tennent, or Tom Ellis, or at the very least someone with a sexy accent. But honestly, I’d prefer one of the fictional characters they portray. Just kidding. Sort of.

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So, on the first day of this forty-fifth year of my life, I am ready to live the life I crave. A life I have the power to create for myself.

Self-Reflection: 2016’s Shit Show

Remember how last week I was all like “I’m gonna blog every day in December and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit…”? Well, it is December 9 and I haven’t written a new post since last week. To be honest, I feel a bit hung-over. Not only do I feel like a zombie as I slog through my day job, maintain my household as a single parent, recover from NaNoWriMo, and gear up for the holidays, but 2016 has been a confusing and soul-sucking year so far. Over the past few years, I have had some monumentally shitty things happen to me, but in the grand scale, I feel like I’m on par with most people. Shitty things happen to people all the time. I don’t think I’m any worse off than others, and I certainly don’t view myself as a special snowflake that deserves extra attention or sympathy. At the end of 2014 and 2015, I invited both years to fuck off to make way for the coming year. I feel like I owe 2014 and 2015 a heart-felt apology, because despite all the improvements I experienced in my personal life – better health habits, better self-care, more creative projects completed, and better friendships cultivated – 2016 was a colossal shit show. Or, the year that was a dumpster fire.

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At the beginning of 2016, I was doing really well. I felt better about myself and the world in general. I was feeling stronger. More confident. I decided to take better care of myself and took action to lay the groundwork to do so. I was beginning to appreciate my own company after months of grieving, perhaps ironically, the loss of a toxic relationship. And then, 2016 said, “I think you’re feeling too good about yourself. What can I do to fuck that up royally, and maintain a consistent flow of complete fuckery to keep things interesting?”

What makes 2016 a shit show? Here’s my Calendar of 2016’s Dick Moves that kept me emotionally unbalanced from beginning to end.

January – November 2016

January 10: David Bowie Dies

January 14: Severus Snape Dies

April 21: Prince Dies

June 24: Britain Votes to Leave EU

July 7: Huffington Post Reports 194 Black People Killed by Police

August 28: Willy Wonka Dies

November 7: Leonard Cohen Dies

November 8: Donald Trump Wins the 2016 US Election

November 18: Sharon Jones Dies

And here we are, almost two weeks from Christmas Eve. The holidays are quickly approaching and it’s time for some self-reflection before 2017 shows up. I’m not going to get into New Year’s resolutions just yet, but I do want to take a closer look at some of the things that did go right this year that don’t require additional grieving. Happiness is totally still a thing and within your reach.

Self-love became a priority.

After several years of feeling like I had almost no control over where my life was headed, and feeling like a prisoner in my own mind and body, I made a decision to take my life back. I had been making strides in the right direction since 2012 and 2013, but then I got sidetracked by things that weren’t good for me. Namely, a 15-month toxic relationship that made my self-esteem drop to an all-time low. After 3 months of therapy, I found the courage to walk away from that relationship in June of 2015. It took several months of slowly weaning myself away from that emotionally destructive situation, but after 21 months of therapy and a lot of personal growth, I feel like a new person. Not quite my old self, but perhaps a better version of her.

Through therapy and LOTS of self-reflection, I made some decisions to change my life for the better. One of the first things I did was disable my OKCupid and FetLife accounts. There was too much noise coming from both of those accounts, and because of the nature of the relationship I was in, I was attracting a lot of people I didn’t really want to meet. And, even if I wanted to meet them, I wasn’t in any emotionally safe state to put myself out there and open myself up to new wounds. Second, I started spending a lot of time by myself. On purpose. And then I listened to my inner voice until it started saying nice things about me. Third, I rejoined Weight Watchers for like, I don’t know, the millionth time in my life. The difference this time was that I was only doing it for me. I didn’t have a special occasion or person that I was working toward. I wanted to lost weight and become healthier to impress myself. Crazy idea, right? So, in April I joined Weight Watchers, made a commitment to attend meetings, or at least weigh-in every week, which I have, and I’ve lost 30 lbs. In the process of making better choices and evaluating my habits, I started getting up at 5:00 AM and going for walks at least 3 times a week. A few weeks back, I decided to ramp up my walking and began using the Couch to 5K program to increase my activity and try running. I’m not pushing myself or condemning myself when I can’t keep up with the program. I simply tell myself, “Hey, maybe you can’t run as far as you’d like right now, but you’re making progress and you’re out here in the dark and the cold making an effort to improve your life.” Positive self-talk actually works. Who knew?

So, aside from feeling better and losing 30 lbs., I also made a decision that I would start trusting people again. When people I didn’t know very well showed an interest in getting to know me better, rather than building a wall around myself, I opened myself up and let them in. Was it scary? Fuck yeah! Is it still scary? A lot of the time, yes. But allowing those people into my life has taught me some things or reminded me of some things I forgot about myself. Good things. And now, I have a few more really cool friends who care about what happens to me and look forward to spending time with me. Without imposing any weird or destructive expectations. They’re genuinely good people. Genuinely good people I love.

I cleaned my bedroom and clothes closet.

This may not seem like a big deal, but my bedroom had become a constant source of stress for me, because it was a dumping ground for everything that I didn’t feel like getting rid of or putting away. Between donating clothing and throwing away items that were no longer of use to me, I purged 13 garbage bags worth of burden out of my life. And, since I was steadily losing weight, I got rid of a lot of my plus-sized clothing. Last year at this time I was wearing a women’s 2XL winter coat. This year I’m wearing a women’s large. It’s not a plus-sized coat. It buttons without being tight. I’m calling that a win. I found boxes of smaller-sized clothing that I hadn’t worn since the last time I lost a lot of weight. I’m glad I kept them, because I have great taste in clothing. Jeans, sweaters, dresses, shirts, and of course, coats.

Writing became a priority (again).

This year I have written more than 250 haiku poems. Three of which were selected from publication in a new feminist literary magazine. Hopefully, I’ll have more concrete details soon. I wrote nearly 42,000 words during NaNoWriMo last month and have gotten close to completing my second full-length novel. And, I’m working on a short story for an anthology set in a RPG world. So, I’ve been keeping busy with creative projects. But, as always, I feel like I should be doing more.

My child made me a prouder parent.

My son has a full plate this year with Kung Fu, basketball, STEM club at school, and he’s learning to play the viola. His grades are great, he’s reading above his grade level, and he’s becoming an interesting individual with quirky personality traits that I love and hate simultaneously. We don’t always get along, but it’s just the two of us. As a single parent, I understand that sometimes I have to carry the burden of misplaced animosity and negative feelings that might not actually have anything to do with me. It’s just one of the many services I provide as a responsible adult.

I’m sure there are other things I could talk about, like how much fun I’ve been having lately visiting with friends and trying new things, but maybe I’ll save that for another post…that may or may not get written this month.

Okay, so maybe 2016 hasn’t been a complete shit show, but hey, it ain’t over yet.

While you’re thinking about your own year in review and planning your New Year’s resolutions while getting ready for the holidays, you can make this lovely dumpster fire ornament for your Christmas tree or Hanukah bush.

Self Love Is Not Selfish: A Letter to My Future Self

Sacred-HeartGrief is very personal. No two people experience it exactly the same way. How our emotions manifest as we go through the process of grieving isn’t always within our control. Many people believe that we only experience grief after the death of a loved one, but grief is the natural response to loss. Loss and grief come in many flavors, colors, and sizes.

The past few years of my life have been . . . challenging. My struggles may not have been as difficult to overcome as the struggles some of you have faced, but I’m not here to compare my experiences or grief with yours or anyone else’s.

In June of 2012 I attended my first residency in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF). After years of putting writing at the bottom of my to do list, even though it was one of the most important activities in my life, I decided to go back to school and earn a second master’s degree. My BA and MA in English didn’t propel me into a career as a college professor or a professional writer like I hoped, but in many ways these degrees prepared me for critical thinking, problem solving and communicating in creative ways in several university positions. Enrolling in SHU’s MFA in WPF gave me the courage and support I needed to not only follow my dreams of becoming a professional writer, but also made me realize there were a lot of other things I needed to change in my life.

I attended my second residency at SHU in January, where I had an amazing heart-to-heart with my good friend and fellow writer, Valerie Burns. She asked me what would make me happy. Based on the answers I came up with, she suggested I make a plan. The following week I applied for a job that would pay more and have fewer duties that was close to my hometown. I wasn’t thrilled about moving back home, but I knew I would have the support of friends and family. A few days after I got the job offer I told my husband I was leaving. About a week or so later, my brother-in-law died suddenly. In March I moved my son and myself into my childhood home and by April 1 I started the new job. We lived with my mom for a few months and then we found our own place in August. In many ways these were positive changes, but there was a lot going on in my life. Lots of plates were spinning dangerously above my head. Separation from my husband after a 10-year relationship, moving, starting a new job, graduate school, and dealing with behavioral issues my son was exhibiting as a single parent.

During this time I was writing my first novel. Despite all the hardships and upheaval, I kept writing.

My father passed away in October last year after a very long battle with complicated illnesses that led to early onset dementia. He lost his health, mind, and eventually his life at the hands of sicknesses that robbed him of his life-long dream of becoming a published author. For years, he researched, plotted, and sketched out ideas for a historical fiction novel about African Americans overcoming oppression to find a space of self-determinism where they could live their lives without the threat of violence. He never wrote that book. I found the title scribbled in one of his many notebooks while cleaning up the house for my mom. The title of his book is now the title of my first book. It’s not the same book he would have written, but I think he would have been very proud of me for finishing my novel.

I’m not going to lie. Life has felt really hard to manage some days. I’ve suffered with depression. Don’t even get me started on the crippling loneliness. Uncertainty. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Emotionally, I’m all over the map. And still, I write. Little bits here and there. A poem (26 last summer). Short stories that seem more like the beginnings of novels. And chapters for a novel I’m hoping to complete a first draft for during Camp NaNoWriMo in July. (Oh shit! That’s today!)

Despite all the upheaval, disappointment, and bullshit I’ve had to deal with in the past few years, I’m still writing. I’m a writer. That’s what I do.

I keep a journal to get through some of the rougher days. Journaling for me is like having a conversation with myself where I work out some of the issues I’m struggling with and try to release the pain clouding my thoughts. A few weeks ago I wrote a letter to my future self. It was very therapeutic. I can’t recommend this exercise enough. It was an act of self love and care that no one else could have provided for me. Not my friends, not my family, no one but me.

I debated whether or not to share this letter publicly. It’s personal. It’s private. However, I think some of you could benefit from the things I told my future self. It helped me rethink what I was going through at the time and helped me come up with a few solutions to problems that were more distractions than useful or supportive aspects of my life.

Takes deep breath…

Dear Future Self,

I love you. You are doing so well and I am proud of you. Keep doing all the amazing things you’ve set your mind and energy on. I’m looking forward to reading all the stories you’ve written and published.

I knew that you would overcome the self-doubt and those feelings of not being good enough to accomplish the goals you set for yourself. Here’s a reminder of the things we were working toward:

  1. Make Healthier Choices: Better food, more exercise, avoiding toxic relationships, making choices that have a positive effect on you and the people you love.
  2. Find an Appropriate Partner: Someone who respects you and believes that you are enough, not his whole world, but somewhere at the top of his list. A priority, not an option. Someone willing to build a life with that you can both be proud of at the end of the day.
  3. Build Stronger Friendships: Spend more time with people who truly value you. You know who they are and who they aren’t. You have a gift for sensing who really has your best interests in mind and who simply wants to bask in or steal your light.
  4. Be True to Yourself: Know your limits and respect them. It’s okay to say “no” when you feel overwhelmed or underappreciated. Take time to sit quietly, alone or with people you love, and listen to what you need to do to recharge. Your body and spirit will tell you. Don’t ignore the voices inside you.
  5. Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away from Bad Situations: I know it sounds ridiculous now, but remember how we used to cling to things and people who made us unhappy? Why did we do that? Did we think our kindness and patience and urging would magically transform them into the people we needed them to be? People will disappoint you. This I promise. You don’t have to stick around to let it keep happening. If someone really loves you, you’ll know the signs. Don’t ignore them.
  6. You Are Enough: You don’t have to prove your worth to anyone. If you feel like you need to constantly prove your worth to someone, stop for a minute and figure out if that need is internal or external. If it’s internal, find a therapist or spiritual healer and figure that out. If it is external and someone keeps expecting you to be more or do more to please them and they aren’t doing the same for you in return, walk away. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t look back. They’ll try to tell you they miss you. Let them.
  7. Never Stop Learning: People, places, things, and the voices inside our own heads can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. Pay attention. Take notes. Share your knowledge with others.
  8. Don’t Be Afraid to Fuck Up: Everybody makes mistakes. Own yours and learn from them. That’s how we grow. People who choose to ignore these lessons are not worth your time and energy. You are here to grow and learn. People who refuse to join you on your journey will only hold you back. Mistakes are like bruises, not permanent scars. They do not define us unless we allow them to. Keep moving forward; don’t let fear of making mistakes keep you from reaching your goals.
  9. Forgive Yourself and Others: You’re not perfect and you don’t have to be. Everybody fucks up sometimes (see above). Don’t dwell on that for too long. Make amends, apologize if necessary, forgive yourself and forgive others when they do stupid things that are hurtful. Carrying around anger only does damage to the vessel in which it is contained. Be angry. Cry. Emote. Then let that shit go. Put it in your art, not your heart.

Stay strong. You’re doing great things.

Love, Me

Now It’s Dark: Lynchian Images in The Babadook

babadookPOPUPBOOOK This weekend I watched Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s amazingly beautiful and haunting film, The Babadook (2014). It was my second viewing of the film in about a month. My intent was to kick start my brain into generating a blog post; or rather a series of blog posts about horror films that focus on the darker side of motherhood— “The Horror of Motherhood”. And, I was going to begin posting the series in time for Mother’s Day. I’m still going to write the series of posts, and I will do my absolute damnedest to get the first one posted in time for Mother’s Day, even though I will be attending World Horror 2015 in Atlanta next weekend. According to most successful writers, and several of my well-meaning friends, I simply cannot allow life to get in the way of writing the stories I need to tell. Even if they are just musings about the art and literature I wrap myself up in to hide away from the realities of life. I keep tripping over those realities each time I think I’m going to sit down to finish that poem, story, or book. MUST. KEEP. WRITING.

My intent, while settling in for another viewing of what I consider to be one of the scariest films I’ve seen in a long time, was to inspire myself to write about a series of horror films I feel deeply connected to. Horror films about mothers and their children. This connection stems not only from my awareness as a mother who appreciates how rewarding it can be to raise a child, but also how dark and terrifying it can be to realize that your life is no longer your own. Motherhood is fraught with a host of responsibilities, expectations, and societal pressures that go beyond the basics of keeping the children you bare alive. You must adhere to a very strict level of high standards that seem to fall under constant scrutiny, or you will be deemed a monster. As much as I love monsters, I don’t wish to be accused of being one. Notice that I didn’t say I don’t wish to become a monster. If becoming a monster means protecting the safety of my child, then there will most certainly be a gnashing of sharp teeth.

This concept of the horror of motherhood first occurred to me when I was pregnant with my son. I took a film class to fill the void of boredom, or stave off the fear that I would never have a life again after my son was born. True story. Each week we sat in a dark classroom on the University of Pittsburgh campus for several hours watching films and then discussing them. I was a non-traditional student. By non-traditional I mean an unwed thirtysomething pregnant woman of color with a full-time job at the University, and a master’s degree in English literature in a classroom full of mostly white twentysomething undergraduate students oddly misinformed about cinema. If my alma mater had offered a film minor I would have earned one while pursuing my undergraduate degree…but, I digress (and I will keep doing that, because I am in stream-of-consciousness mode lately and there’s not much I can do about it right now if I want to keep writing. Like it or lump it).

motherdaughterSo, horror of motherhood…film class…right…what was the point I was trying to make…? Oh yeah! One week we watched The Exorcist in class. I saw the movie for the first time when I was maybe ten-years-old. It scared the living shit out of me. I had nightmares for weeks, and I refused to sleep with the lights off for a long time afterwards. To me, that’s a sign of a good horror flick. But, is that enough? When I was kid? Absolutely. I still watch horror movies just for the thrill of being scared, but now I tend to evaluate them with a different set of standards in mind. And, I honestly think I began to think about horror films in this way during my viewing of The Exorcist as a pregnant woman. As a kid, the film was terrifying because, let’s be honest, some really unsettling things happen to Regan and her mother once the demon manifests and takes control of the young girl’s body. We’re talking body horror at it’s finest, demon possession, a parasitic invasion of the mind and body in which the host is totally helpless to defend herself from the invading entity. The connection between demon possession and pregnancy was not lost on me as I sat in the darkened classroom. The film suddenly took on a very personal tone, and my original fears quickly evaporated as I began to perceive a new set of fears the film stirred up in me. I was about to become a mom, so the fears were two-fold. Like Regan, I had a being growing inside me that I had little or no control over. My body had been invaded, and unlike many women who look forward to the miracle of birth, I was terrified, because I didn’t completely have faith in my own body to do what it needed to do to bring forth life. And, I also saw the film from the perspective of Regan’s mother, who has a very sick child that no one in the medical field can seem to correctly diagnose, and as her behavior becomes more bizarre and she is subjected to test after test, it became very clear to me that the horror in this film is very real. The horror(s) of motherhood – fear that you won’t be able to help your child if she becomes sick, fear that people will accuse you of being a bad parent, that somehow your child is ill because of something you’ve failed to do right. Yeah, that’s scary stuff. And, because I had to think about those very real fears while rewatching The Exorcist as a mother-to-be, the film gained a new depth of meaning for me, placing it higher on my horror film hierarchy list.

I’ve studied film unofficially for many years, and have a love of the art form that goes beyond catching the latest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer. In fact, I would consider myself a bit of a film snob. I enjoy certain large production films, like the whole Marvel superhero franchise that has enlisted the talent of some of my favorite actors, screenwriters, and directors, but I prefer indie, foreign, and classic films – silent, noir, Murnau, Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman, Polanski, Herzog, Universal, Hammer, American International – and my taste runs toward the dark, the uncanny, and the bizarre. However, a film has to be more than just weird or unsettling for me to really engage with it. There needs to be some sort of artistic or intellectual exploration happening to maintain my attention for an hour or two. My senses need to be tingled, my emotions need to be swayed (unhinged if possible), and what I’m watching on screen should be jangling loose memories and connections between other films and narrative forms I have encountered before. My enjoyment as a reader, writer, and lover of film comes from the connections I am able to make between these different mediums.

I love films, especially horror films that delve into our dark psychological past in the form of reimagined fairy tales and myths. I am particularly thrilled when I see a newer filmmaker paying homage to another filmmaker whose work I enjoy. The Babadook accomplishes both. Kent’s dark fairytale that features a fictional children’s pop-up book, Mister Babadook, introduces us to a new retelling of a particular type of fairytale that delves into the madness that can result from unresolved emotional trauma and the isolation that often comes along with it. I have a lot to say about this deeply disturbing, and yet somehow familiar tale of motherhood, in which a woman fights against a malevolent spirit to halt her transformation into a monster. She refuses to heed the entities demands to harm her own child. She fights madness and ignores what the voices are telling her to do. But, I’m not going to talk about that here. Not now. Think of this as merely a teaser if you will. I have more thinking to do on the subject, but I will share my thoughts soon.

As the title of this post suggests, while I watched The Babadook this weekend, it became very clear to me that Kent has a very serious love of David Lynch. So do I. I became even more excited about this film, which I didn’t think was possible. I love surprises.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to give you a very brief synopsis of the film, but I don’t wish to reveal too much, because I really hope that if you haven’t seen the film yet, you will. So, I’m going to steal the two sentence synopsis from Kent’s website (parentheses are mine): “The film tells of a single mother (Amelia), plagued by the violent death of her husband, who battles with her son’s (Samuel) night time fear of a shadowy monster (The Babadook). But soon, she discovers a sinister presence is lurking in the house.”

repulsion-2Kent’s film has been compared to Roman Polanski’s films, and there were many instances when I was reminded of Repulsion (1965). Especially while watching the scenes in which Amelia is wandering around the house alone at night through shadowy hallways in her nightgown. I couldn’t help but think of Catherine Deneuve sleepwalking through her nightmarish descent into madness.

Jennifer Kent admits that David Lynch is her favorite film director, so it is no wonder that his influence can be seen in this terrifying masterpiece about the darkness that lives inside all of us. After noticing the second reference to his imagery, I picked up a notebook and started jotting down notes in an ecstatic rush of joy. Not only is this film well written, carefully crafted, and very scary, but also the filmmaker is asking me to engage in the narrative she has created on a very intellectual level through images that evoke memories of other narratives. Specifically, Lynch’s films and his television series, Twin Peaks.

If you have seen more than one Lynch film, you’ve probably noticed several recurring images and themes. He communicates his narratives through a very surrealistic system of dream-like images, causing the viewer to experience the story in a state of disorientation they share with many of the characters on-screen. Dreams and hallucinations play a major role in his narratives, and so do darkness and the dangers that hide there. Kent employs several of Lynch’s lighting techniques to create a similar feeling for her viewers. She uses light and shadow to define space within a scene, and creates a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and even makes her viewer squint to get a closer look at what is hiding in the darkness. We begin to suspect that things are lurking in the dark corners of Amelia’s house long before the monster is ever introduced. She goes so far as to use one of Lynch’s trademark images, flickering electricity and burned out light bulbs, which I initially read as a common trope of horror films indicating a supernatural presence. I think Lynch uses this recurring image similarly to convey an element of the supernatural set against the backdrop of ordinary life.

The-Black-Lodge-twin-peaksFilms often provide us with an escape from this ordinary life, and while we wish to become immersed in the narrative unfolding before us, both filmmakers have a desire to remind us that we are in fact watching a film they have created, and delve into the realm of metafiction. Lynch does this by creating a proscenium arch in nearly every one of his films, and he even goes so far as to include curtains. Usually very heavy red curtains, which most people will remember from Agent Cooper’s black lodge dream sequences in Twin Peaks. He not only suggests that there is a stage where his characters are performing, but he creates one within a scene. Behind that arch, which sometimes has curtains, and sometimes is just a wall of darkness, there usually lurks something his characters don’t wish to face. The truth. Danger. The darkness within us. Kent uses a wall of darkness to create one of Lynch’s proscenium arches during a very emotionally charged and terrifying scene, in which the Babadook is threatening Amelia’s safety and the safety of her son. She screams at the monster hidden behind the arch and refuses to back down. Refuses to show weakness. She protects her son from the darkness and what it hides. And, much like one of Lynch’s films, eventually something emerges from the darkness. In this case, the true cause of Amelia’s grief and depression is revealed. And then, we are rewarded with yet another Lynchian image, a gaping head wound. I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight during that scene. One reason Lost Highway is one of my favorite Lynch films is because it has two head wounds.

Lost-HighwayAnother example of Lynchian themes Kent uses in The Babadook that really confirmed her love of his work is the concept of split consciousness. In several of his films, Lynch features female leads with dual roles: Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, and Laura Dern in Inland Empire, as well as Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks. These split identities often highlight the darker side of human behavior and puts the two characters at odds with each other. While Essie Davis plays only one character in Kent’s film, Amelia goes through a psychological transformation rather than a physical one, teetering on the edge of madness. She doesn’t become two people like in Lynch’s work, but her grief over the loss of her husband and her unwillingness to fully accept her role as Samuel’s mother creates a similar fractured female identity. She struggles with depression and feels guilty for wishing she could still have her husband even if it meant giving up her son. She is in danger of not only being a bad mother, but of becoming a monster herself.

GarmonboziaFinally, the icing on the cake for me came near the end of the film when Amelia goes through a terrible night in which the Babadook enters her body. There is a kind of possession that takes place, further supporting this idea of fractured identity. She is becoming a monster. She poses a threat to her own son. But, Amelia is strong, and she is able to force the darkness out. She exorcises her own demons. In the process of casting out the monster, she expels what I like to call emotional ectoplasm. She literally throws up an inky black substance that made me shout: GARMONBOZIA! She expels her pain and sorrow, which is what the demons in the black lodge eat. Bob expels a similar black substance from his hands in Fire Walk With Me when The Man from Another Place demands, “Bob, I want all my Garmonbozia.” Oddly enough, that inky substance, which I equate with a literal emotional discharge, a physical manifestation of pain, isn’t actually garmonbozia. Lynch depicts garmonbozia as something completely ordinary and mundane. Creamed corn. In my opinion, that’s the true stuff of nightmares.