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Jacqueline Alnes

It’s Not You, It’s Me: A Breakup Reading List

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A late bloomer as far as relationships go, my first encounter with heartbreak came from the track. It was junior year. The district meet: all big Texas sky and girls next to me adjusting hair ties and heat waves shimmering ahead. At that point in my life, I had devoted myself entirely to running. I had skipped every pool party and social gathering for three years to chisel myself into a faster time, a college scholarship, or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — something that would finally indicate to me I had succeeded. I had won handily the year before, and everyone in the stands anticipated I’d win again. But when the gun went off, and I eased into a pace that should have felt easy given the rigor of my training, my legs stiffened. With each of the eight laps, I grew slower. Girls passed and I watched their ponytails sway across their thin frames. No matter how much I cajoled myself forward, no matter how many times I reminded myself of the years of work I’d put in, my body didn’t respond. I came in close to last.

Usually, at the end of a season, I jumped right back into running, but that loss felt like an irreparable fissure between me and first love. Heartbreak tasted like Coca Cola and boxes of Sour Patch Kids, and sounded like Coldplay’s “Fix You” repeated for melodramatic effect on the bus ride home. Too sad to study splits at night, and having ignored all social situations for years, I found myself reaching for something to fill what felt like a hunger inside me, a gnawing that reminded me of the ways I’d failed, the potential I’d lost. Those nights, I began a ritual of reading in my closet. I devoured books until one or two in the morning. At first, there was an escapist tendency to my reading; I wanted to forget the world I was living in and enter another. But, after weeks and a stack of novels, I realized that the words were guiding me back to solid ground. In reading about the nuances of another’s life, I was far enough removed to engage with what felt like the losses in my own. Slowly, I began to heal. I returned to running and pursued longer distances and faster times, my muscle evolving through training cycles; I’m sure there’s a metaphor for love buried somewhere in there.

Recently, over a decade after that track race, I experienced heartbreak again, but this time with someone I thought I might spend a life with. Just as I had after my district race, I mourned the possibilities of what could have been. I reviewed my own shortcomings. I doubted in my capacity to feel that sweet burn of distance again, the ache of muscle that indicates you are moving through the world as well as the bounds of your body will allow. I wondered if I would ever be able to trust again, to love. In the weeks that followed, as if grooved into some map of memory, I found myself reading a book a day, disappearing from the world for a few hours before surfacing again. I read and I ran and I read and I ran until I sloughed away the dead parts of the past, and trusted that the beautiful parts of the relationship — the parts that taught me compassion and made deeper my vulnerability and nurtured me toward growth — remained with me, even if the person who had fostered them did not.

Here, in case you, too, are experiencing any variety of heartache, is a reading list of essays that have allowed me to grieve. They’ve been friends telling me exactly what I needed to hear, and ultimately, have given me hope that there are new and unexpected futures ahead, even if now I only have a glimpse.

1. On Nighttime (Hanif Abdurraqib, May 15, 2019, The Paris Review)

Hanif Abdurraqib ruminates on places he has spent a series of nights: watching over a hospital bed, working at a hotel, waiting up for a long-distance love. By holding his experiences of heartache up to the light and carefully considering Lucy Dacus’s song “Night Shift,” Abdurraqib explores the liminal space that exists between hearts that are whole and broken, and moments that bleed between darkness and light.

In those days, I imagined daylight hours as no time to build a graveyard for memory. I couldn’t do what I needed to among the waking, forcing myself to run errands or pulling the shades down against the sun.

2. The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t (Rachel Monroe, April 2018, The Atlantic)

Finding true love amid the slush of online dating profiles often feels like a fantasy, which is why, when about a dozen women connected romantically with a man who called himself “Richie,” they felt lucky beyond measure — but only at first. Rachel Monroe, in this riveting read, reveals how Derek Alldred deceived so many women, explores the history of the con man, and, in a most satisfying turn, explains how his victims banded together after heartbreak to ensure he would never have the chance to con again.

Even Derek’s victims, who understand better than anyone else how these things work, repeatedly questioned one another’s choices when speaking with me: How did she let it go on that long, why did she let him move in when she barely knew him, how did she not see through this or that obvious lie?

3. When I couldn’t tell the world I wanted to transition, I went to Dressbarn (Katelyn Burns, May 23, 2019, Vox)

But by March of the following year, my dysphoria became too much to bear. My wife did her best to come to terms with my coming out, but we broke up when I told her I was starting estrogen, and I moved out shortly afterward.

After divorce, Katelyn Burns reflects on her relationship with a “little black Calvin Klein dress with stripes” that reminds her both of past heartbreak and a new world of possibility that opened when she first tried it on.

4. Love Running (Joseph Holt, March 2019, The Sun)

Joseph Holt’s ex-girlfriend was the reason he began running, but after their breakup, he continues on his own. Solo, running becomes both a reminder of their past as well as a salve for heartbreak.

I think about her every time I run, and I run every day. I feel her loss like a phantom limb, yet somehow this, too, is beautiful. And I run now with deep, propulsive gratitude for her influence.

5. How to Be Heartbroken (Brittany K. Allen, March 20, 2018, Catapult)

How much is the way we grieve the end of relationships influenced by portrayals of breakups in popular culture? Is there comfort to be had in performing different stages of heartbreak? How do we know when we’re ready to move on? Brittany K. Allen addresses these questions and more in this gorgeous exploration of “halving” herself from a former partner.

Isn’t it funny how the language we reach for when describing the real, wretched thing itself smacks of commercial copy? Heartbreak, heartbreak. It’s a pop song. It’s something you buy at Claire’s, or in the candy aisle.

6. The Breakup Museum (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2018, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Married for two-and-a-half years, Leslie Jamison peruses the exhibits featured in The Museum of Broken Relationships, a place where people from around the world send otherwise banal objects — “a toaster, a child’s pedal car, a modem handmade in 1988” — that somehow represent love lost. Jamison ruminates on what it means to separate from a partner, what we carry with us after a relationship is over, and how objects can conjure memory.

Which is all to say: I grew up believing that relationships would probably end, but I also grew up with the firm belief that even after a relationship was over, it was still a part of you, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

7. Her Fiance’s Mountain Bike Crash Was a Tragedy. What She Did After Was a Miracle (Gloria Liu, February 14, 2019, Bicycling Magazine)

Just three weeks before Will Olson was supposed to move from Colorado to Vermont, where his longtime girlfriend, Bonnie McDonald lived, he perished in a freak trail biking accident. Gloria Liu tenderly chronicles McDonald’s grief in this deeply moving piece, but also notes how heartbreak, over time, can evolve into some kind of hope.

As Bonnie spoke more about the experience, she came to use the term “heart opening” instead of heartbreaking. ‘I never knew my heart could feel this much loss and this much love,’ she says. ‘I never knew my heart had this much capacity.’

 

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

 

 

‘If Any of My Old Friends Are Reading This, It Is Okay Out Here.’

A woman is baptized during a Jehovah's Witnesses assembly gathering. Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | June 2019 | 16 minutes (4,301 words)

Religion can offer narratives that help us make sense of the world, answers to difficult questions like: Where do we go when we die? How can we best love others? Why do bad things happen to good people? Within belief systems, people learn to love, to grieve, to serve, and to live, often with the hope of some eternal reward at the end. For many people, there is beauty and comfort to be found within these faith-based communities. But what happens if you are someone who begins to doubt everything you’ve grown up believing, everything you’ve built your life around? What happens if, by expressing this doubt, you are shunned forever by your family, community, partner, and way of life? How do you learn to move through the world and make meaning?

Amber Scorah, in her riveting debut memoir, Leaving the Witness, explores the upheaval of exiting a faith. Raised from birth as a Jehovah’s Witness, Scorah experienced difficulty tampering natural desire and curiosity for the sake of faith. As a teenager, she had sex with her boyfriend and was promptly disfellowshipped, leaving her unmoored from a religion that had served as the blueprint for her life up to that point. Rather than leave, Scorah, afraid of being killed by God at Armageddon and unable to see a sustainable path to an alternate future, returned to the faith. She married a Jehovah’s Witness and they moved to China and began preaching. There, Scorah’s doubts swelled until she could no longer suppress them, and she left, not knowing what grief and beauty lay ahead.

Leaving the Witness, witty and moving in turns, offers a rare look into the workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the various complications that prevent others from leaving despite their own doubts. Scorah, by untangling and exposing the mechanisms that once held her, offers a path for others to imagine new and unexpectedly hopeful futures for themselves, despite the fear and grief that accompany such a transition. I spoke with Scorah via Skype about her writing process, how she’s learned to dismantle harmful dichotomies, and how she has learned to carry and grow from immense loss.

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Oklahoma: A Reading List

A stunning lightning bolt at sunset under a severe thunderstorm with a dirt road vanishing into the distance, taken near Magnum, Oklahoma, Tornado Alley, USA. Getty Images

A few nights ago I filled my bathtub with blankets and every pillow in my house, set a lantern and four bottles of water beside me, and took shelter. On my laptop, I watched the local news, where weathermen urged drivers to clear the roads and pointed at cloud rotations. The skies, through the screen, looked like oceans inverted: clouds rolled like tidal waves at too fast a pace and swirled like aerial eddies. Usually I love the openness of Oklahoma, the way a sunrise here can tinge the world any number of sherbet hues, but that night, from my tub, the heavens only looked ominous.

For an hour I watched the color-coded markings on the map, scanning for my small city, and only went to bed after the red and green splotched signs of danger had passed north, to Kansas. Even then, I didn’t sleep. I listened to the hail and rain pound my roof. I worried for people, animals, and houses in the storm’s path. I wondered if there would be an undetected storm moving toward me in the night, a tornado that might whip through the cover of dark as one had when I was in college, hitting my home when none of us were inside.

The morning after the storm, robins emerged from hiding and hopped across my yard with spiky hair and tussled feathers. Rain drained across the red clay in rivulets. Gray skies cleared into sun, and a soft summer breeze rustled honeysuckle, stirring the scent. This is Oklahoma in spring: mercurial, dangerous, beautiful. Here, I feel closer to the elements than I ever have before. Watching a bird prey upon a baby snake from my kitchen window, tearing the red inner meat into shreds, or witnessing the sky meld from blue to the shade of a bruise in moments, I have grown attuned to the thin line between awe and fear.

I am leaving this state very soon, and it’s filled me with the kind of ache for understanding that so often accompanies a goodbye, a sense that I can never know quite enough. Though I’ve explored great swaths of the state; learned the habits of starlings that murmur at daybreak and dusk; taught students from a variety of different towns; listened to Dear Oklahoma, a podcast where writers ruminate and examine the way in which Oklahoma is a part of their work; and tried my best to understand the histories of this place, this state still escapes my description. As a way of getting outside my own experience, I have turned to the words of others. I don’t think there’s any way to capture the vastness of this place — and this is by no means a comprehensive list — but below is a collection of stories that offer a glimpse.

1. Pawhuska or Bust: A Journey to the Heart of Pioneer Woman Country (Khushbu Shah, October 5, 2017, Thrillist)

With only oil and cattle to rely on as industries, rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma was at risk of becoming a ghost town until Ree Drummond stepped in. Also known as “The Pioneer Woman,” Drummond is a Food Network Star known for her marriage to a cattle-rancher and what fans describe as her “real” food. After Drummond opens a restaurant called “The Mercantile” in Pawhuska, Khushbu Shah flies from New York to better understand Drummond’s influence on Oklahoma’s cultural scene and economy, and why so many visitors flock to a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Similar sentiments were later echoed by every Pioneer Woman fan I spoke to, the vast majority of whom were white and from the Midwest or the South, like the three tall and husky female friends who told me they’d driven 13 hours from Indiana because Drummond makes ‘real American food’ and ‘the stuff you actually want to eat.’

2. They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants. (Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, October 4, 2017, Reveal)

Given the option between prison and a rehab program called CAAIR (nicknamed “the Chicken Farm”), Brad McGahey chose the latter. Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, in this harrowing piece of investigative journalism, reveal that CAAIR, located in northeastern Oklahoma, relies on unpaid labor from thousands of defendants. Additionally, though marketed as a rehab program, participants receive very little medical care or treatment.

‘They came up with a hell of an idea,’ said Parker Grindstaff, who graduated earlier this year. ‘They’re making a killing off of us.’

3. A Bend in the River (Pamela Colloff, July 2002, Texas Monthly)

Newspaper accounts of the escape focused on the manhunt, paying scant attention to the original crime or the victim, invariably described as a ‘sixteen-year-old Waurika, Okla., cheerleader.’ Only along the river did people know what the crime had done to their isolated slice of the world, the illusions it had cruelly stripped away.

In this riveting, haunting longform piece, Pamela Colloff writes about the murder of Heather Rich, and the impact her death had on the community of Waurika, Oklahoma, as well as the ways in which place and landscape influenced the investigation and subsequent events.

4. Why Black People Own Guns (Julia Craven, December 26, 2017, Huffpost)

Julia Craven interviewed 11 black gun owners in order to better understand their relationships to firearms. Though each of these accounts are important in their own right, RJ Young speaks specifically about his experiences with gun ownership as a black man in Oklahoma.

If I could walk around Oklahoma and not count how many black folks were in the room, I’d probably feel better about firearms as a black man. I’d probably feel safer walking around with one. But the fact is, most people have a narrow view of who I am.

Young’s book, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns offers more thorough insight his personal experiences with guns in Oklahoma within the context of a well-researched, larger cultural framework.

5. Spiritual Affliction: A Thank You Note to Oklahoma (Kate Strum, October 1, 2018, Hippocampus)

After moving to Oklahoma for graduate school, Kate Strum becomes fervent to understand the landscape: she travels to various parts of the state, engages politically, experiences the severity of elements, and makes meaningful relationships with people who have been here longer than she. And still, Oklahoma is somewhat elusive, though this essay is a beautiful rumination on Strum’s time spent here.

I am at once furious about what is wrong here and losing patience with the opinions of outsiders. I am home. I am marching at the capitol in the morning and late night on social media I am telling my friends on the coasts that they don’t get it. I shake my head when they read articles about rural America and think they know us.

6. Grace in Broken Arrow (Kiera Feldman, May 23, 2012, This Land)

Rather than taking reports of child molestation to the police or the Department of Human Services, the leaders of Grace Church, a Christian school that featured amenities like a ball pit, soda shoppe, and an antique carousel, instead held meetings to address what they didn’t believe to be that serious of an issue. Kiera Feldman, by interviewing survivors, former employees, and conducting immense amounts of research, brings to light a sickening tale of how Aaron Thompson, a former PE teacher at the school, molested boys there for years.

Grace Church was Oklahoma’s Penn State of 2002. After such things come to light, we always wonder: how on earth did that ever happen?

Here is how it happened.

7. Landlocked Islanders (Krista Langlois, November 16, 2016, Hakai Magazine)

Marshallese citizens, granted indefinite permission to live and work in the U.S. as a result of an agreement made with the U.S. during Marshallese independence, are leaving the Marshall Islands due to factors like climate change and lack of opportunities. As Krista Langlois writes, “by the year 2100, it’s conceivable that climate change will force the entire population of the Marshall Islands to US shores.” Many Marshallese migrants are ending up in Enid, Oklahoma.

Though Enid seems like an improbable place for Pacific Islanders to settle, it is, in a way, familiar. The first Marshallese came here with missionaries about 40 years ago, and wrote home about the jobs that could be had in meat-processing factories, and the public schools their children could attend. Eventually, family joined family.

8. The Teachers’ Strike and the Democratic Revival in Oklahoma (Rivka Galchen, May 28, 2018, The New Yorker)

Oklahoma teachers, rightfully tired of working multiple jobs to provide for their families and paying large sums of money for their own school supplies, walked out of school in April 2018. Some teachers drove to the capitol, where they asked for pay raises and better funding for their schools. Others walked in protest, making their way through “snow, lightning, and an earthquake.” Rivka Galchen examines the unique political composition of Oklahoma and chronicles the events of the two-week teachers’ walkout in Oklahoma in this longform piece.

The state’s license plates once read “Native America,” though almost no tribes are native to the area; they were sent there in the Trail of Tears. And Oklahomans are proud to be called Okies, a term coined by Californians to disparage people who were fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Related read: How Oklahoma’s Low Pay Dashed My Hopes of Teaching in My Tribal Community, March 28, 2018, Education Week

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: A Baseball Reading List

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When I was a kid, the world appeared most vivid to me during the longest days of summer: grass sprouted greener than ever before, my grandparents’ neighborhood pool shimmered cerulean, wisps of white-feathered clouds trailed across the sky. I can’t quite put my finger on what steeped those moments so much in the sensory — whether it was because I was younger and could give myself over more easily to sound and color, or if it was because I was only a visitor. Every June, I would travel with my family from Indonesia, where I lived, to the United States. Far from my normal routine, summer memories from the sleepy towns of extended family left distinct impressions.

In North Carolina, my grandparents took me and my brother to minor league baseball games. I don’t ever remember which team won or anything remarkable happening, but I hold a particular fondness for the solid thwack of a bat against ball, ice-cold drinks sweating in the heat, sepia-toned sand, the low rumble of an announcer’s voice, sunflower seed shells discarded on concrete, and pinstripes. Something about going to the games felt quintessentially American to me. Perhaps it was because we usually visited around the fourth of July, so some nights fireworks would light the sky. Or maybe it was the scene that reminded me of where I was: a baseball diamond dotted with American flags for a sport called the national pastime, my hand held to my chest during the anthem, brands like Minute Maid and Dippin’ Dots within grasp. Still now, when I go to baseball games, nostalgia pulls me back so that I’m somehow 10 again, perched at the edge of my plastic seat, hair sweaty against my neck, waiting for someone to call the kids out for a run around the bases.

My perspective is largely rooted in these personal memories, which hasn’t always allowed me to see the full texture of the sport. The following essays complicate my relationship to baseball in productive ways by revealing gender disparities, different culture’s approaches to the game, hidden histories, parallels to the craft of writing, and moments of trauma on and away from the field.

1. The Hidden Queer History Behind “A League of Their Own” (Britni de la Cretaz, May 5, 2018, Narratively)

With many men deployed in World War II, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.) was formed, in which women were told to, “‘Play like a man, look like a lady.’” Britni de la Cretaz, by sifting through obituaries and interviewing players, uncovers a fascinating hidden history within the league.

She understands today that talking about being a gay athlete is a double-edged sword, in a way. There’s the stereotype that women athletes are all lesbians, which is both inaccurate and unfair. And yet, there’s also the truth that there are many athletes who are also lesbians.

2. The 9 Minutes That Almost Changed America (Kate Nocera and Lissandra Villa, May 14, 2018, Buzzfeed News)

While practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game, an annual bipartisan event that takes place every summer between Republicans and Democrats, a man “fired 62 7.62 x 39mm rounds through a lawfully purchased Century International Arms SKS-style semiautomatic assault rifle” at members of the Republican team. Kate Nocera and Lissandra Villa, in this harrowing piece, reflect on the act of terrorism and how close the event came to changing modern politics and life as we know it.

 

It occurred to a few of them then that maybe the dugout wasn’t really that safe after all. And if you go to the field, you can see bullet holes through the top of the dugout, sheds, and metal poles on the fence.

 

3. This is why baseball is so white (Alvin Chang, October 24, 2017, Vox)

In this powerful collection of personal memory and demographic information related to baseball from the 1980’s to 2016, Alvin Chang writes that even though baseball teams have slowly become more diverse, the culture surrounding baseball has not.

 

But only looking at who’s on the field misses something very important: Baseball is still very white. The people who are in power are almost all white — and the cultural forces behind baseball are too.

4. He Was the Best We’d Ever Seen: On Baseball, Greatness, and Writing (Seth Sawyers, Lit Hub)

High school baseball up in the Appalachians is a rough red sleeve wiped against the nostrils four dozen times. It’s a Dan’s Mountain wind whistling your batting helmet’s ear hole. It’s a dozen scattered parents, wrapped in four, five layers, large cups of Sheetz coffee long gone cold on the warped bleachers etched: Sentinels Rule Campers Suck.

 

In this personal essay, Seth Sawyers reflects on playing baseball against Walker Chapman, a baseball legend in his hometown, and what it means to seek greatness in both writing and sport.

5. The Art of Letting Go (Mina Kimes, writer, with illustrator Mickey Duzyj, October 4, 2016, ESPN The Magazine)

As Major League Baseball struggles to overcome its staid image and lure younger fans — according to Nielsen, most of the sport’s TV viewers are over 50 — the simple bat flip has come to symbolize the culture war being waged within its ranks.

While bat-flipping is seen as disrespectful during baseball games in the U.S., it’s a celebrated part of baseball in Korea. Why? After finding no satisfying answer from American and Korean sports writers and historians, writer Mina Kimes, accompanied by illustrator Mickey Duzyj, traveled to Korea to learn more about why bat flipping is an integral part of the game.

6. How to make the Team USA women’s baseball team (Natalie Weiner, August 22, 2018, SB Nation)

While women in Japan, Australia, and Canada are encouraged to play baseball, the same does not happen in the U.S.

 

In the U.S., not only are there are no reliable opportunities for women to play professional baseball, but the sport is still considered taboo for women — even though they’ve been playing it for over a century.

Natalie Weiner explores the various factors — sexist societal expectations, lack of financial incentive, an uninformed public, funding from universities that prompts women to switch from playing baseball to softball — that make it difficult for women baseball players to commit to their craft.

Related Read: The Old Ball Game: 100 Years After Amanda Clement, Baseball Still Can’t Recruit Female Umpires (Britni de la Cretaz, February 12, 2018, Bitch Magazine)

7. Home Field Disadvantage (Kelsey McKinney, November 2018, Longreads)

Because of lack of general support for women’s baseball, the U.S. team only had the chance to train together for five days before the 10-day 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup — and even at the World Cup, there was barely an audience for their games. Each player on the U.S. team, remarkably talented, had overcome a lifetime of disparaging attitudes toward their participation in the sport, as Kelsey McKinney makes clear through her research and wide range of personal interviews in this piece.

 

According to a survey of high school athletics conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, almost half a million boys play baseball at the high school level. In the 2017–2018 school year, only 1,762 girls played baseball.

 

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

 

 

MFA vs. NYC: A Reading List

42nd Street with Chrysler Bulding during Manhattanhenge in 2018, captured in Manhattan, NYC. (Getty Images)

Near the end of my MFA, someone asked what my plans were after graduation. Before allowing me to answer, he said, somewhat wistfully, that he thought I should move to New York City and “live a little” before writing anything else. In the moment, I probably nodded politely and smiled, as I’m prone to doing, but his suggestion frustrated me. How, after living for two years on a barely-sufficient stipend, did he expect that I’d be able — or want — to fling myself across the country to a city with exorbitant rent prices where I had no job, no insurance, and no community? And what did he mean by living? Had I not been living during the two years of my MFA, during which I moved to an unfamiliar-to-me city, taught classes at the university for the first time, learned to edit a journal, found my way into a community of writers, and struggled in draft after draft to improve my own prose?

Instead of moving to New York City, I did what might be considered the opposite; I started a PhD in creative writing in the middle of Oklahoma, which I’m finishing up now. During my years here, I’ve certainly grown as a writer and a teacher, and had the opportunity to build lasting relationships with people who have supported me in innumerable ways. But I also have remained aware of the problems within academia: there is a food pantry for graduate students in the room across from my office, for example, a lack of diversity within my program and many others, and a job market that dwindles every year. Sometimes I think back to that person telling me to move to NYC, and I wonder who I might be now — as a writer, as a person, as a professional — had I “lived life” rather than pursuing another degree. I’ve probably thought about his offhand comment more than I should, but it also seems to encapsulate some of the larger conversations about the function of MFA and PhD creative writing programs and the various pros and cons of making a life as a writer within or outside of academia.

More interesting to me than prescribing one way of life over another, however, is to examine the challenges and sources of nourishment in each, and to wonder about the possibilities that exist beyond a reductive dichotomy. The essays curated in this reading list illuminate problems that exist within MFA and PhD creative writing programs, explore the idea of mentorship both within and outside of the academy, and offer insight on how to live a fruitful writing life without the support and constraints of a formal program.

1. MFA vs. NYC (Chad Harbach, November 26, 2010, Slate)

Chad Harbach theorizes about how MFA programs are influencing both the craft and professional development of fiction writers, as well as impacting the landscape of publishing, in this viral essay.

It’s time to do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild. Once we do, perhaps we can venture a new, less normative distinction, based not on the writer’s educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.

Related read: Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City? (Leslie Jamison, February 27, 2014, The New Republic) and “MFA vs NYC”: Both, Probably (Andrew Martin, March 28, 2014, The New Yorker)

2. Going Hungry at The Most Prestigious MFA in America (Katie Prout, Lit Hub)

The idea of writers living without substantial income is one that’s sometimes romanticized, as Katie Prout notes while listening to an audiobook of A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway says that “he and Pound agreed that the best way to be a writer is to live poorly.” One month away from turning 30, Prout writes about the realities — which include food banks and multiple jobs — of living with very little money while pursuing her MFA at Iowa.

I’m an instructor at the university where I attend the best nonfiction writing program in the country, and I make approximately $18,000 a year before taxes. When I was denied a second teaching assistantship at the university this summer for the upcoming school year even though I already had signed a contract with the offering department, my director explained that it was in the school’s best interests to look after my best interests, and my best interest was to make sure that I had time [to] write my thesis.

3. Every Day is a Writing Day, With or Without an MFA (Emily O’Neill, November 27, 2018, Catapult)

The requirement to relocate and the insufficiency of fully-funded spots are just two of many reasons why MFA degrees are not possible for many people, as Emily O’Neill explains in this essay about how she nurtures a writing life outside of the academy.

I don’t have an MFA. It often makes me feel like the man on that mortifying date to admit this to writers I don’t know well. So many people who write are academics or at least aspiring to an MFA or PhD, and mentioning I don’t feel specifically drawn to the demands of graduate school is often seen as a sin against literature.

4. Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces (Minda Honey, March 2017, Longreads)

After two years, Minda Honey longs to escape from the whiteness of her MFA program, and plans a trip to four national parks, not realizing that “80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white.” Weaving together moments from her travels and memories from her writing program, Honey lays bare the lack of diversity in both spaces.

When I’d first started my MFA program, I thought it would be an escape from the oppressive whiteness of Corporate America. I thought without suits to button my body into, I would be free to exist. But Academia proved to be just as oppressive.

5. How Applying to Grad School Becomes a Display of Trauma for People of Color (Deena ElGenaidi, April 17, 2018, Electric Lit)

When consulting with people about how to apply to PhD programs, Deena ElGenaidi’s advisor tells her to play up her minority status in her personal statement. ElGenaidi explores the problematic and pervasive nature of this advice, while also discussing what it means that minority students and people of color are encouraged to use their trauma in order to be admitted into academic programs.

The experience taught me that society, white America specifically, regularly asks minorities and people of color to tokenize and exploit themselves, talking about their cultural backgrounds in a marketable way in order to gain acceptance into programs and institutions we are otherwise barred from.

6. The Mentor Series: Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson (Allie Rowbottom, ed. Monet Patrice Thomas, March 25, 2019, The Rumpus)

How do writers balance the challenge of seeking publication in a difficult fast-paced market while nurturing their craft? And what role do mentors play in a writer’s development? In the inaugural installment of “The Mentor Series,” a series of interviews between mentors and students curated by Monet Patrice Thomas, Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson ruminate on these questions and more.

Allie Rowbottom: I remember once, after I finished my MFA thesis, you advised I take my time and sit on the project. You said something about not publishing too young, or rushing out of the gate, and I’ve thought about that a lot now that I have published—one of my biggest challenges (or strengths?) as a writer is that I push myself. Now that my first book is out in the world, I feel an urgency to produce more, at the same time I worry that rushing never makes for solid work.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

But You Look Fine: A Reading List About Disabilities, Accommodations, and School

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During my freshman year of college, a series of unexpected neurological episodes ruptured my conception of how I moved through the world. I fainted one evening after track practice and began experiencing episodes of dizziness, blurred vision, and what the doctors would label as “aphasia” and “transient alteration of awareness,” medical terms that tried to characterize the way I would say the same word over and over unintentionally (“I, I, I, I, uh, I, I, I”) and lose memory of what had happened while I was incoherent.

I was a Division I athlete at the time, a runner. My identity in athletics and in school centered around perfectionism; I enjoyed running to hit a precise list of splits and I brought the same ceaseless work ethic to the classroom. I measured success in straight-A’s and faster times. But once my episodes began, my illusion of control eroded. I was no longer able to run without falling, and my schoolwork, which had been a joy all my life, was interrupted by my own body with periods of disorientation that lasted for hours. Though I saw a neurologist frequently, he was unable to give me a diagnosis.

When I wasn’t episodic, I presented as able-bodied; my legs still carried a history of muscle from my years of running and, when not experiencing symptoms, I could speak, see, write, walk, and remember as I had before. On the track, in the classroom, and as a patient at the doctor’s office, I was told to continue life as normal. My coach told me to run and grew frustrated when I collapsed on the track. My doctor told me I was fine. As a participant in a sport that rewards athletes who can withstand most pain without complaint, I was wary of telling professors about my condition. I told myself that my episodes would probably disappear as quickly as they had started. I told myself that the doctor had not diagnosed anything, and therefore my symptoms weren’t real. I told myself I was weak for not being able to overcome what ailed me. But one day, after visiting the ER for symptoms, and unable to see well enough to type an email, I called the phone number listed on a professor’s syllabus to tell her I wouldn’t make it. She responded that if I could walk, I should be in class.

Her answer now strikes me as ableist, but in the moment I didn’t have words to describe why her answer made me feel so bad. I felt personally guilty, like I’d done something wrong without knowing what it was. That day, and for years after, I walked myself to class even though it took me 30 minutes instead of the usual five to 10. I sat in class with my head rocking from vertigo, the pages of my literature text blurring. Because of her reaction, I assumed all professors might view my health condition as a nuisance. I became skilled at performing wellness, enough so that even people in graduate school made sly comments like, I’ve never seen you this way after reading my personal essays about my neurological symptoms, as if they, too, needed reassurance that what I had experienced was real.

I did not request accommodations until the second year of my PhD. For seven years of school, whenever I experienced a flurry of episodes, I’d spend an inordinate amount of time trying to read passages that had once felt joyful to engage with and arrive at class with blurred vision though I looked “just fine.” I managed my symptoms privately. And I am certainly not alone. Applying for accommodations at university, at least in my experience, seems easy in theory, but brings up complications. First, there is the stigma. For years, I worried that if I applied, I would be seen the same way my professor saw me during my undergraduate degree: as being too lazy to finish my work or attend class. I worried about being hired down the road. I feared that professors would see the way I present myself — I try hard to look well, no matter how I’m feeling — and think I was faking. My symptoms have disrupted some of the most sacred and mundane moments of my life without discrimination, but without an official diagnosis, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to apply for accommodations in the first place. Once I did decide to, I had to secure a letter from my neurologist, which I imagine can also be an obstacle for students who lack financial resources for an additional visit or are discriminated against by medical professionals. I wish I had access to S.E. Smith’s empowering guide “How to Get Disability Accommodations at School” when I was learning to advocate for myself. It clearly explains laws, when to apply for accommodations, and how best to do so.

Seeking accommodations in school has been addressed recently in essays like “Could the fallout from the admissions scandal hurt kids with disabilities?” and “The most reprehensible part of the college admissions scandal: faking disability accommodations” because of the college admissions scandal, but I believe this is a conversation we should be having regularly. Students with disabilities should receive accommodations without having to perform exhausting physical and emotional tasks. I will heed the voices of others fighting the same fight and listen to their testimonies as I work as a member of a university to make change. This reading list is a place to start.

1. The Plight of the Disabled Graduate (Mikhail Zinshteyn, June 4, 2015, The Atlantic)

While the U.S. has made strides toward including students with disabilities in public school and ensuring accommodations are met, Mikhail Zinshteyn asks, what happens to students with disabilities after high school? Zinshteyn, by synthesizing various longitudinal studies, interviewing experts, and analyzing policies in place nationwide, makes clear that we have a long way to go.

The article’s author, Sarah Sparks, writes, however, that a “2004 federal longitudinal study found only 3 percent of students with disabilities in general education classrooms were specifically trained to speak and plan for themselves.”

2. Yale Will Not Save You (Esmé Weijun Wang, Winter 2019, The Sewanee Review)

The summer before attending her first semester at Yale, Esmé Weijun Wang is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is instructed to see a woman in the Department of Mental Hygiene who acts as a therapist and psychiatrist — and one who fails to recognize significant problems in Wang’s bloodwork. This essay is not only about Wang’s harrowing experience and Yale’s failure to create an inclusive and supportive educational environment, it also sheds light on how many universities fail students with disabilities or mental illness.

After blogging about my Yale experience, I’d received a flood of emails from students battling to stay in their colleges, students on enforced leave from their colleges, and former college students who, like me, were never allowed to return to school. In her article, Baker makes the case that psychiatric illness is punished by colleges and universities that instead ought to be accommodating students under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

3. The Worry I No Longer Remember Living Without (Nicole Chung, March 9, 2017, Hazlitt)

After he nominated Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, comments resurfaced from Sessions’s 2000 speech regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its protections for disabled students, which he called ‘the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.’

Nicole Chung writes about her experiences advocating for her autistic daughter’s lawful rights at school, and the ways in which the current administration’s decisions about education have led to collective anxieties about how students with disabilities will receive accommodations.

4. Even If You Can’t See It: Invisible Disability and Neurodiversity (Sejal A. Shah, Jan/Feb 2019, Kenyon Review Online)

Sejal A. Shah experiences her first manic episode while in her MFA program, but soon learns to perform wellness. Afraid of being deemed unhireable in an already highly-competitive academic job market, Shah hides her illness for years. Shah explores what her life would have been like had accommodations been presented to her, or what academia as a whole might be like if an effort toward genuine inclusion was made.

I didn’t know the laws then; I didn’t know them until writing this essay.  I looked normal; I passed. Would my career have turned out differently had I been willing to come out (for that’s what it felt like, an emergence into a world that might not accept me)?

5. Why We Dread Disability Myths (Tara Wood, Craig A. Meyer, and Dev Bose, May 24, 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

In response to a problematic essay, “Why I Dread the Accommodations Talk” by Gail A. Hornstein, Tara Wood, Craig A. Meyer, and Dev Bos write to dispel harmful misconceptions about disability as related to faculty and students within academia.

Perhaps the most dangerous myth is the idea that disability itself is inherently a bad thing.

This myth is the most insidious of all because it is presented as a matter of common sense: that disability is something to dread. Now imagine students who see disability as a part of their identity. In what position does Hornstein’s rhetoric place their sense of themselves? Not a very good one.

6. How to Make Grad School More Humane (David M. Perry, February 5, 2019, Pacific Standard)

Between immense workloads, balancing teaching responsibilities with schoolwork, insufficient stipends, and dismal job markets, graduate school brings with it many stressors. Add a disability, and graduate school becomes even more difficult, as David M. Perry articulates in this essay.

Some have tried to arrange formal accommodation through their universities’ disability resource centers. Others avoided seeking accommodations for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a medical diagnosis, a lack of trust in university bureaucracy, or a sense that disability services were, at best, organized around the needs of undergraduate students—not for those pursuing years-long work in advanced study.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Women and Pain: A Reading List

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“But for pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood spurting, a joint suddenly twisted — beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude.”

–Virginia Woolf, The Waves

In a recent NPR piece, “Invisibilia: For Some Teens With Debilitating Pain, The Treatment Is More Pain,” readers are introduced to Devyn, a 14-year-old who develops intense bodily pain, seemingly out of nowhere. In search of the source of the pain or a cure, Devyn’s mother Sheila takes her to doctor after doctor. Each time, medical professionals tell Devyn, “‘You are healthy. Nothing is wrong,’” until, eight months later, when Sheila finds Dr. Sherry, a man responsible for a highly controversial treatment for pain: inflicting more pain.

As reported in the NPR piece, patients of Dr. Sherry’s “do physical workouts five to six hours a day.” All medicine, “even medication for apparently unrelated problems” is taken from patients. When Devyn experiences an asthma attack on the first day of practice, she is “directed…to simply walk around the gym” rather than take her inhaler.

At the end of the piece, Devyn claims to have been cured by Dr. Sherry’s program — she “even went back to dancing.” But for many readers, the essay was infuriating, unethical even. Maya Dusenbery, author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, called the piece “irresponsible” and generated a list of 12 questions that journalists should have asked experts, including “An asthma attack and a nosebleed are not pain complaints. What possible justification was there to ignore these problems in Devyn?”

Abby Norman, author of Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain, tweeted that while she hadn’t been a patient of Dr. Sherry, she had tried swapping “one pain for another more intentional pain” and “just ended up with twice as much pain and a deep feeling of failure and shame that I couldn’t get ‘better’ and ‘beat it’ and ‘be normal.’” Norman is not alone in the ways she tried to ignore pain rather than accepting and learning to live with high levels of physical discomfort. Women’s symptoms — particularly pain, which is invisible — are often dismissed, disbelieved or diminished by doctors. Even when women do voice what’s happening with their bodies, they often do not receive treatment or even an acknowledgment of what’s ailing them.

Norman, in response to a series of questions I asked her about pain, wrote that she received pressure from “everywhere — doctors, friends and family, society” that “if you aren’t actively trying to get better, you’re wrong. If you aren’t making strides at getting well, you’re wrong. If you’re failing, if you stay sick, if your pain is still there, not only have you failed but you must want to be this way. Maybe you’re even faking it. Or making it worse than it really is.”

Women, in particular, are subject to this type of blame from doctors and others. As Norman notes, “on a sociocultural level, there are a lot of messages specifically undermining a woman’s interpretation of her own mind, body, and experiences. Not just in terms of physical pain, either. Where it becomes difficult (and in some cases life-threatening) is that the overarching patriarchal structures under which healthcare systems of the world operate, the very long history of misogyny in the medical profession and in our culture at large, vigorously and consistently reinforces these messages.”

Knowing this, how do we begin to change the narrative of how women’s pain is perceived, understood, and treated? How might we validate the experiences of women who have been repeatedly and systematically ignored, dismissed, and blamed by medical professionals and society at large? How do we treat pain without inflicting further physical and emotional harm?

I don’t think there are easy answers, but we can work to support initiatives dedicated to create lasting change to correct data that demonstrates the pain of women — affected even further by factors such as race, class, and weight — is routinely disbelieved by medical professionals. We can examine the language used to express and treat women’s pain, and work to find a vocabulary that allows us to rewrite the current narrative. We can listen carefully to women with histories of pain who write or speak about their experiences and heed their calls to action.

1. The Long History of Discrimination in Pain Medicine (Sarah Zhang, February 28, 2017, The Atlantic)

“The emergence of objectivity influenced the stigma around patients who suffered from pain without visible injury—and this stigma ends up overlapping with stigma that already exist along race, gender, and class lines.”

According to bioethicist Daniel Goldberg, author of a recent paper, “Pain, objectivity and history: understanding pain stigma,” the 19th century brought new instruments like the X-ray, which allowed for an “objective” means of understanding previously unseen pain, and these developments forced a reckoning with the way doctors had previously understood patients and the body. Sandra Zhang interviews Goldberg in order to learn more about how histories of racism, sexism, and classism have influenced the way doctors treat patients today.

2. I’m a fat Black femme searching for a doctor who believes my pain (Dominique Norman, January 24, 2019, Hello Giggles)

“I’m Black, fat, and femme, living with a chronic physical illness and mental illnesses. I can tell you that self-advocacy in doctor’s offices is incredibly difficult when no one will listen to you.”

Histories of racist practices in medicine such as the Tuskegee experiment or cells taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent have left lasting negative impacts on the way black women are treated by medical professionals today, as Dominique Norman explains in her personal essay about being disbelieved and dismissed by a variety of doctors for years on end.

3. Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain (Leslie Jamison, Spring 2014, Virginia Quarterly Review)

“The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses, pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars. Men put them on trains and under them. Violence turns them celestial. Age turns them old. We can’t look away. We can’t stop imagining new ways for them to hurt.”

How can we talk about women’s pain in a way that is true to their experience? What kind of pain is perceived as “real” and what kind is seen as a cry for attention? How can women write about their pain without adding to a history of narratives that have glamorized “wounded women”? By analyzing representations of women’s pain in art and literature, Leslie Jamison asks — and seeks to answer — these questions and more.

(Related: read “Writing Women’s Pain: Part Two of a Round Table, a conversation with Alethea Black, Abby Norman, Esme Weijun Wang, and more,” November 2018, 2018, Lit Hub)

4. Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth (Nina Martin, ProPublica, and Renee Montagne, December 7, 2017, ProPublica and NPR)

Shalon Irving, who earned a dual-subject Ph.D. and worked to “eradicate disparities in health access and outcomes,” passed away at the age of 36, just three weeks after giving birth to her first child. As Nina Martin and Renee Montagne report, Irving’s death is representative of a much larger issue: black women are “243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes.”

“Black expectant and new mothers frequently told us that doctors and nurses didn’t take their pain seriously — a phenomenon borne out by numerous studies that show pain is often undertreated in black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer.”

5. Pain bias: The health inequality rarely discussed (Jennifer Billock, May 22, 2018, BBC)

As happens to many women who have valid symptoms, Jennifer Billock was told by her doctor that she was “paying too much attention” to her body — he recommended she go home and relax.

“I still left his office thinking it was perhaps anxiety. And so, listening to the advice, I tried to ignore the pain.”

Billock explores the numerous ways in which women’s pain is dismissed and discredited throughout this piece, and also why.

6. It’s All In Your Head: The Dangers of Disbelieving Female Pain (Caroline Reilly, July 6, 2016, Bitch Magazine)

Caroline Reilly feels a sense of relief when she wakes from surgery and a medical professional tells her they “found a lot” of endometriosis within her. Her pain, previously disbelieved, was now validated by a name. Reilly, through research studies and personal experience, advocates for women’s pain to be legitimized.

“The disbelief of female pain is well documented. “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” a 2001 study in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, documents how women are given less pain medications than men for the same procedures. On the other hand, the study notes that women are more likely to be given sedatives—as women are more often perceived as anxious than in pain. Women also wait longer than men in emergency rooms.”

7. Black Health Matters (Jenna Wortham, August 27, 2016, The New York Times)

“In April, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia found that African-American patients were routinely undertreated for their pain, compared with white patients. Ultimately, black patients were conditioned to underestimate their own pain.”

Plagued by a mysterious rash and other health concerns, Jenna Wortham visits several doctors and an emergency room before her acupuncturist asks if her condition might be related to stress. Upon reflecting on the overwhelming trauma she encounters daily in her newsfeed, Wortham discovers Simone Leigh, “a renowned artist with a history of examining social movements and black subjectivities, with a focus on women,” and works to “deal with the psychological toll of racism” through practices such as yoga and acupuncture.

8. Treating Migraines: How Women are Harmed by Gendered Medical Language (Rachel Mabe, February 6, 2018, Catapult)

“So the question is: Does the stigma of migraines as a women’s disease, and the stereotypically feminine language still used to talk about them, affect patient treatment? Does it affect how much time and money are spent on studying migraines?”

Rachel Mabe seeks to answer these questions by sharing the story of Patty, a woman who experiences “twenty-two headache days a month,” analyzing words such as “oversensitive” used to describe women’s migraines, writing about her own experience with incapacitating headaches, and examining how the gender biases present within the history of language related to migraines has contributed to the way migraines remain understudied.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Home Cooking: A Reading List

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From second grade to eighth grade, cereal was my portal to the United States. Whenever my dad flew from where we lived in Indonesia to the U.S. on business, he’d bring a near-empty suitcase so he could fill it with Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Captain Crunch, and whatever other colorful boxes caught his eye. When he came home, my brother and I would deliberate over which to open first, rationing ourselves. I treasured each bowl enough that once, when a gecko flung out of the box along with a kaleidoscopic pour of fruity pebbles, I simply brought the creature outside before dipping my spoon into the bowl.

The longer I lived in Indonesia, the less I remembered about life in the United States, even though others reminded me that the U.S. was “home.” Whenever I ate cereal, I imagined an alternate version of myself. The girl I envisioned lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a brick house like that of my cousins. She wore outfits from Limited Too, a store I’d visited once during summer vacation. She somehow didn’t have braces or wear glasses. In imagining what I might be like if I lived in the U.S., I began to construct my own version of the country based on summer visits and foggy memories of early childhood. As a result, the U.S. became more artifice than reality, a place I imagined might absolve me of my complicated feelings about identity.

But my illusions about the U.S. were as sugary and insubstantial as the cereal I associated with the country; they dissolved as soon as I moved to Texas during my freshman year of high school. Once there, I realized that even though I spoke the language and looked the part, I felt different from my peers. As much as I wanted to feel at ease in the U.S., I found myself torn between the reality of the place where I lived – all cookie-cutter homes and gleaming aisles of grocery stores – and where I’d grown up. I felt homesick for Indonesia, a place I could never truly call home, privilege making thorny my presence there.

For years, I buried the feelings of loss that came along with leaving Indonesia and instead tried to forge different lives in the states I’ve lived since then. But, like the bowls of cereal of my past that once brought me back to a country I’d left behind, I was given a piece of Kopiko after a meal a couple years ago, and the even the sight of the wrapper was enough to transport me to my old house, one shaded by a rainbow eucalyptus trees and robust flower blooms. Food can be nostalgia embodied, a means of traveling to a place you wish you could return to, a way of bringing to life a memory. Candy in hand, I remembered wandering aisles of the outdoor market, where sounds became a kind of song: vendors chattering, pans clanging, someone calling nasi goreng! nasi goreng!, live birds chirruping from a small cage, knives whisking over metal sharpeners, chickens scuttling around table legs looking for scraps, and motorcycles chortling to life before whining down the road. For sale were tables of produce – spiky round rambutan, bundles of greens, starfruit stacked in precarious piles, shrink-wrapped mango, mounds of durian – slick bodies of fish gutted and chickens plucked clean of their feathers. Nothing went to waste. Blood was boiled down until it congealed, and intestines were arranged on plates like long tendrils of spaghetti.

Perhaps food isn’t a permanent means of returning to anywhere, but a taste can be enough to bring you home. In the following essays, writers interrogate the complicated pasts of place through food, express nostalgia for long-gone homes, and find belonging by sharing meals. As for me, when I put the Kopiko on my tongue, thousands of miles away, the blend of coffee and sugar resonated bittersweet, as it always had, before melting away.

1. I Want Crab. Pure Maryland Crab. (Bill Addison, September 15, 2016, Eater)

I moved away from Maryland over 25 years ago, but if I don’t make it back to the state at least once a year for steamed crabs, I’m like a bird whose migration pattern has been disrupted. I’m unsettled in the world.

Back in Maryland after time away, Bill Addison digs into a pile of local crab while ruminating on the history, preparation techniques, best places to eat, and future of crab in Baltimore.

2. NASA is learning the best way to grow food in space (Sarah Scoles, June 6, 2018, Popular Science)

Sure, astronauts can gaze down at Earth and see its most beautiful spots—literally all of them—every 90 minutes. But those places are always out of reach, reminders of how far away sea level is. Having something nearby that photosynthesizes might cheer the crew.

A complex set of factors such as humidity, mold, and a host of other ecosystem variants makes growing plants in space a challenge. But far away from the comforts of home, astronauts have begun cultivating zinnias and lettuce on board, thanks to the work of scientist Gioia Massa and her team, who are part of an experiment called Veggie.

3. Say It with Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food (Shing Yin Khor, February 27, 2018, Catapult)

In this beautiful illustrated essay, Shing Yin Khor expresses how difficult it is for her to communicate emotions verbally. She instead uses food as a means to share feelings of disappointment, love towards others and, eventually, love toward herself as well.

4. Eating to America (Naz Riahi, November 2018, Longreads)

Two years after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and six months after her father, a political prisoner, was executed, Naz Riahi and her mother, Shee Shee, move to the U.S. There, homesick and grieving, Riahi finds happiness and hope through food.

The food sat inside me, taking over spaces that had been full of worry just minutes before and making the worry go away.

5. An Adopted Obsession with Soondubu Jjigae, Korean Silken-Tofu Stew (Bryan Washington, February 20, 2019, The New Yorker)

I first tasted gochujang because of a boy. We were in a busted strip mall, just west of Houston’s I-610 loop. A lot of things were changing in my life, and I hadn’t been home—home home—in a minute, and we were too broke to go most places.

Though he ends up splitting up with his partner, Bryan Washington’s love for soondubu jjigae remains strong. Washington recounts his efforts to figure out how to make the stew on his own, and eventually brings the recipe home.

6. The Food of My Youth (Melissa Chadburn, July 9, 2018, The New York Review)

In search of a better future, Melissa Chadburn’s mother brings her family to northern California, where they “lived on saltines with peanut butter and beans from a can.” At fifteen, Chadburn is taken to a group home where her hunger is satiated, but she is treated as a case number rather than a child.

Only, for us, the explosions had already happened. The places we’d called home had been lit up and burned to the ground, with nothing left save for the blackened foundations of our past. We kids were screaming for love, for touch, for home.

7. Chop Suey Nation (Ann Hui, June 21, 2016, The Globe and Mail)

After a blogger wrote a post called “I can’t believe there’s a Chinese restaurant in Fogo,” Ann Hui, influenced by her family, for whom “food was an obsession,” sets out to drive across Canada to figure out how the restaurant owners decided to open shop in such an isolated location and why there’s a Chinese restaurant in nearly every Canadian town. Hui wrote a book, Chop Suey Nation, based on her article.

The name “chop suey” translates more or less into “assorted mix,” and refers to a repertoire of dishes mostly developed in North America in the mid-20th century. A mix of ideas both East and West and, to my eyes, frozen in time.

8. Farm to Table (Laura Reiley, April 13, 2016, Tampa Bay Times)

This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.

Skeptical of the chalkboard menus touting local, organic ingredients in front of nearly every restaurant in Tampa, Laura Reiley stops at farms, contacts vendors, and “for fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples” in order to determine the extent to which restaurant owners lie about obtaining ingredients from sources close to home.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Here’s a List of Longreads about Love for You

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Valentine’s Day always brings me back to the halls of my high school, which, on February 14th each year, teemed with roses by the dozen, glittery cards taped to lockers, oversized teddy bears, and prolonged goodbyes between couples before every class. As a shy high school student, I was more interested in the characters in the novels I read than pursuing my peers, but the holiday always brought an intense anxiety. Even when I told myself I didn’t want a cache of hot pink roses from the Kroger down the street, and even when I convinced myself that the holiday was a celebration of consumerism, I still felt like I was missing out in some way.

When I look back, I’m able to realize that my sense of loneliness didn’t come from any true sense of isolation, but rather the fact that I only recognized one type of relationship being celebrated, a kind I didn’t fully believe in, romances that relied on public gestures as proof. The essays I curated for this reading list are intended to be inclusive of all kinds of love. These writers explore what the landscape of relationships might look like in the age of robots, how one community of queer and trans women healed after Hurricane Harvey, and what pigeons might teach us about our own capacity for love, just for starters.

1. The Love Story That Upended the Texas Prison System (Ethan Watters, October 11, 2018, Texas Monthly)

Fred Cruz, imprisoned for 15 years for a robbery in Texas in the 1960s, was known for his calm manner, his study of law, and his practice of Buddhism. When Frances Jalet, a lawyer who moved to Texas because she was told it was a place where she could best fight for civil rights, met Cruz, the two hit it off. Jalet and Cruz, through years visitation and discussions of law in their letters to one another, fought for prisoners’ rights in Texas.

‘I know how deeply you love your son,’ Jalet wrote to Cruz’s mother that spring. ‘I have grown to love him also.’ Just what kind of love she was professing was unclear, perhaps even to her.

2. Love in the Time of Robots (Alex Mar, October 17, 2017, Wired)

What are the differences between humans and androids, and can the differences be “solved” through research? Can a relationship with an android stave off loneliness? What are the ethical considerations of trying to create an android so close to a human that the differences are difficult to perceive?

Alex Mar, in this riveting piece, addresses these questions, and also writes about the motives of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a man in Japan who regularly produces androids.

3. They Found Love, Then They Found Gender (Francesca Mari, October 21, 2015, Medium)

‘Gender identity typically develops between the ages of two and four, and sexuality emerges between ages eight and 10. ‘But if you’re not allowed to explore gender and sexuality and yours happens to be different than what’s culturally expected,’ Dr. Colt Keo-Meier, a trans man clinical psychologist practicing in Houston told me, ‘yours will be delayed, which is why you see people transitioning at 30, at 55.’ In Texas, he said, this is particularly true, thanks to the state’s stifling religious, cultural, and conservative forces.”

Settled into married life with her husband, with two children between them, Jeannot Jonte realized over time that she needed more. She asked her husband to open their marriage, and subsequently met Ashley Boucher at Sue Ellen’s, a famous lesbian bar in Dallas. The two connected. Their romance led to Jeannot divorcing her husband and allowed space for Jeannot — now Johnny — to explore gender identity in a safe space for the first time in their life.

4. After Divorce and Postpartum Depression, Work (and Bees) Brought Me Back to Life (Christine H. Lee, January 8, 2019, Catapult)

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s husband was allergic to bees but, after he left, Lee ordered her own nucleus and began tending to them. In this poignant essay — one that’s part of a series called Backyard Politics — Lee uses bees as a metaphor for the ways in which she learned to build the kind of life she wanted after postpartum depression and the dissolution of her marriage.

“It is no wonder that I am so in love with my bees. They live by structure and routine, but they are also resilient. They fight for their lives.”

5. India’s Golden Chance (Meera Subramanian, January 6, 2014, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Meera Subramanian visits Bihar, India to “find out what it means to be a girl turning into a woman in today’s India.” She is met with startling statistics.

“For every 100,000 mothers who give birth, 261 die—​more than ten times the US figure. Though it is an illegal act, nearly 70 percent of Bihari girls are married before their eighteenth birthday, and well over half of newlyweds have their first child by nineteen. The average woman in Bihar bears 3.7 children over the course of her lifetime. Of those, nearly 5 percent die within the first year.”

Subramanian writes about the efforts of a woman named Pinki Kumari, who’s involved with a program called Pathfinder International, which seeks to educate people about reproductive health. The training also seeks to empower women to make choices that might lead to a brighter future, such as resisting arranged marriage, birth control options, achieving economic stability on their own, continuing education, and speaking out against pervasive issues such as sexual violence.

6. How Queer and Trans Women Are Healing Each Other After Hurricane Harvey (Yvonne S. Marquez, October 25, 2017, Autostraddle)

After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, many LGBT and undocumented Houstonians struggled to heal, and were left without access to resources to do so. In this longform piece, one that is a testament to the power of love that exists within community, Yvonne S. Marquez shares the efforts of people like poet Tiffany Scales, who is part of the T.R.U.T.H. Project, a project that organizes uplifting and educational performance art events for LGBTQ communities and their allies; Ana Andrea Molina, founder of Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT), who used her resources and connections to open a nonprofit where undocumented queer and trans people receive support; and Jessica Alvarenga, a queer Salvadoran photographer who hopes to “capture a truer narrative of her community to counter anti-immigrant narratives spewed by conservative politicians who depict all Central American immigrants as members of the dangerous MS-13 gang.”

7. Politics as a Defense Against Heartbreak (Minda Honey, February 2018, Longreads)

A decade away from her last long-term relationship, Minda Honey arrives to a party celebrating her 33rd birthday without a date. After a friend gives her a tarot reading and suggests Honey will find a man, Honey reflects on the way she has evolved throughout various encounters with men, and discusses the way she now uses “politics as a barometer for the caliber of person” she dates.

“But I wish there were space in our culture for single women who are unhappy with their status to say so without being pitied, and without the pressure to break out into the Independent Woman song and dance. I can have a happy, fulfilling life and still long for romantic love. Two things can simultaneously be true.” 

8. What Pigeons Teach Us About Love (Brandon Keim, February 11, 2016, Nautilus)

After observing a pair of pigeons for a spring — birds he names Harold and Maude — Brandon Keim ruminates on what we know about how animals conceive of love, and how their interactions as couples reflect on how we as humans engage in relationships.

“Part of the reluctance to talk of bird love, I suspect, is rooted in our misgivings about our own love’s biological underpinnings: Is it just chemicals? A set of hormonal and cognitive patterns shaped by evolution to reward behaviors that result in optimal mating strategies? Perhaps love is not what defines us as human but is something we happen to share with other species, including the humble pigeon.”

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

‘Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body’ and Other Lies I’ve Been Told: A Reading List on Mental Health and Sport

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Over two miles into my first Division I cross country race, I felt buoyant. My legs turned over like a well-oiled machine and my chest fluttered with promise: as a freshman, I was in third place for my team. I dug the metal teeth of my spikes into dirt and focused on maintaining an even clip. Lost in the reverie of the race, I almost didn’t see my coach standing on the sideline, her blond hair pulled back, face shadowed in a hat.

“Get your shit together,” she seethed as I ran past. Focused and faster than anyone anticipated, I glanced over at her, unsure whether she was speaking to me or someone else. But I was alone. “Move your fucking ass.”

The feeling of calm in my chest dissipated with her words, as if a balloon had been pricked, all the air let loose. Rather than ruminating on the strength in my legs, the smooth swish of my uniform against inner arm, my mind reeled. What was I doing wrong? I was already on pace for a significant personal record — was I supposed to be running faster? Had I appeared unfocused as I ran past?

When I look back at that first race, I always remember those words, the way the tension crept into my limbs. And the feeling stayed throughout the season. Nothing ever seemed good enough for Coach — she’d tell us we were a fucking shit show as a team when we didn’t run as fast as anticipated or when our outfits didn’t match or when we took too long on warmup. Before a race, we could either be a fucking hero and get our shit together or not. There was no in-between. I was 17 years old at the time, adjusting to life halfway across the country from my family, new food, a new sleep schedule, higher mileage, and learning the contours of socializing with my team, but those were not factored into my performance, nor was there any acknowledgment that adjusting to college — especially as a Division I athlete — can be a difficult, and stress-inducing situation.

My coach’s words were not unfamiliar to me. As an athlete, I’d been told iterations of get your shit together my entire career. In high school, no matter what our emotional state was, we were trained to say every day is a great day! The phrase, one my coach used to yell into the sunrise while he biked next to me, is scrawled all over the margins of my training journals, even when the descriptions of my runs read “hurt a lot,” “windy,” or “bloody toe.” Shirts at cross country meets featured sayings like pain is weakness leaving the body; champions train, losers complain; and seven days without running makes one weak. These slogans, intended to be humorous in some cases, emphasized the mentality that many sports do: athletes should be tough enough to overcome anything. If you don’t, it means you’re weak.

I internalized that way of thinking while growing up. I’ve been competitive as an athlete since I was in third grade, and I learned to ignore my emotions, focusing instead on external measures of time, pace, and mileage. My strategy earned me respect from coaches as someone who would train through anything — sickness, shin splints, a bone that grew threw my big toe — and place well in races, no matter what was happening in my personal life. When I placed well, I told myself I was satisfied. And when I didn’t, my entire sense of self-worth came tumbling down. I’d vow to work harder in practice, and the whole cycle would repeat itself ad nauseam; I was always chasing an invisible goal that remained just out of reach.

Midway through my freshman year, I began experiencing neurological issues. As I’d learned to do throughout my years of training, I tried running through the symptoms. Even when this ended in me collapsing on the track, I’d try and try again. To quit seemed unthinkable, but eventually I did. I experienced an acute bout of depression. Without running, who was I? Why hadn’t I been strong enough to push through? I berated myself for being weak, for symptoms out of my control, for losing a sport that had been my entire identity.

Eight years have passed since then, and I am finally learning to run in a way that honors both my physical and emotional health. I am growing more comfortable talking about my experiences with depression, and the way that running played a role in my self-worth for such a long period of time. In speaking about it, I have also realized that I’m not alone. Many athletes struggle with mental health issues, but the culture of sport — especially at the top tiers of competition — often emphasizes physical performance over holistic wellbeing. The culture is changing in ways, yes, but the rhetoric of athlete’s “overcoming” anything is still deeply ingrained in the language of coaches, and the way athletes speak to themselves.

In the following essays, athletes testify on their experiences with mental illness, factors that exacerbate mental illness in sport, and ways that we as a culture can begin to change our language and training in an attempt to support wellness emotionally as well as physically.

1. When athletes share their battles with mental illness (Scott Gleeson and Erik Brady, August 30, 2017, USA Today)

As Scott Gleeson and Erik Brady report, nearly one in five Americans experience some form of mental illness and, for athletes, because of the stressors of the sport, experiences with injuries, and overtraining, the percentage may be even higher. Testimony from a range of athletes — Michael Phelps, Jerry West, Brandon Marshall, Allison Schmitt, among others — about their experiences with mental illness and sport are featured in this piece, all of them urging athletes to speak up about their experiences, seek professional help, and change the culture of sport for the better.

“Sometimes, I walk in a room and regret being so naked and vulnerable, but this is bigger than me,” Imani Boyette says. “I believe my purpose is to talk about the things that people are uncomfortable or afraid to talk about.”

2. Everyone Is Going Through Something (Kevin Love, March 6, 2018, The Players’ Tribune)

On November 5th, at a home basketball game against the Hawks, 29-year-old Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love began to experience what he now knows was a panic attack. In the days and weeks that followed, after medical testing and conversations with his team, he began to see a therapist, which is something he never envisioned himself doing, particularly because of his identity as a pro basketball player.

“Nobody talked about what they were struggling with on the inside. I remember thinking, What are my problems? I’m healthy. I play basketball for a living. What do I have to worry about? I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak. Honestly, I just didn’t think I needed it. It’s like the playbook said — figure it out on your own, like everyone else around me always had.”

In this candid and moving essay, Love breaks the silence surrounding mental health, particularly in regard to sport, and, as the title of his essay makes clear, recognizes that “everyone is going through something.”

3. U.S. Athletes Need Better Mental Health Care (Martin Fritz Huber, May 16, 2018, Outside)

After DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors tweeted about his depression and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers penned a viral essay about his experience with panic attacks, the NBA, as Martin Fritz Huber reports, created a position for a director of mental health and wellness.

“I think that’s the biggest burden on American sport culture,” says Brent Walker, an executive board member with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “I’ve heard repeatedly from professional and elite athletes how they don’t want to admit having to having a weakness—mental [illness] being one of those.”

Huber breaks down how other countries approach mental health in relation to sport, and asks what it might take to adjust the current system in the U.S. so that athletes are supported.

4. No, Running Isn’t Always the Best Therapy (Erin Kelly, July 23, 2018, Runner’s World)

“Phrases like ‘Running is cheaper than therapy!’ and ‘I run because punching people is frowned upon,’ are routinely splashed on running-themed bumper stickers, social memes, and apparel, and reinforce the idea that running offers a healthy mental outlet.”

Though studies show that running has positive benefits on wellbeing and mood, Erin Kelly, in this well-researched personal essay, pushes back against the notion that running can cure everything. Instead, she advocates that athletes reflect on why they’re participating in sport, and seek therapy when needed in addition to logging miles.

Related Read: When a Stress Expert Battles Mental Illness (Brad Stulberg, March 7, 2018, Outside)

5. The WNBA Needs Liz Cambage, but She May Not Need It (Lindsay Gibbs, August 20, 2018, The Ringer)

As Lindsay Gibbs reports, toxic effects of systemic racism, unequal pay in the WNBA, and a string of losses left Australian Liz Cambage, who plays for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, depressed.

“When she returned to Melbourne, Cambage ghosted almost everyone in her life and retreated into a world of depression and anxiety. She said she heavily self-medicated with prescription pills and alcohol. She said that she isn’t surprised by her on-court success this season.”

Cambage credits honesty — with herself and others — as the reason she’s emerged from the dark place where she was.

6. Split Image (Kate Fagan, May 7, 2015, ESPN)

Social media allows us to curate images that tell a certain narrative — one that’s not always the most honest. As Kate Fagan reports, Madison Holleran, formerly a runner at Penn, seemed like she had the perfect life based on her Instagram and texts.

“But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.”

After Madison committed suicide, her family and friends scoured old posts and texts for clues about what was wrong and the warning signs they missed. Ultimately, this piece asks us to consider what lurks beneath the surface of social media’s veneer.

Related read: Are Female Long-Distance Runners More Prone to Suicidal Depression? (Emily De La Bruyere, February 3, 2014, The Daily Beast)

7. Talent. A Football Scholarship. Then Crushing Depression. (Kurt Streeter, November 15, 2018, The New York Times)

“What experts know is this: Recent studies place suicide as the third leading cause of death for college athletes, behind motor vehicle accidents and medical issues.

And nearly 25 percent of college athletes who participated in a widely touted 2016 study led by researchers at Drexel University displayed signs of depressive symptoms.”

In this profile of Isaiah Renfro, a top freshman wide receiver at the University of Washington who attempted suicide, Kurt Streeter writes about the pressures placed on NCAA athletes, what it means to quit sport after building an identity as a high-performing athlete, the important role that coaches play in supporting athletes off the field and on, and the hope that Renfro now feels for his life after seeking treatment.

8. Sports Stats May Be an Ideal Measure of Mental Health (B. David Zarley, October 17, 2016, The Atlantic)

At the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, associate professor Daniel Eisenberg is leading a team of researchers at Athletes Connected in order to help athletes understand mental-health problems and track concrete data on the subject. As B. David Zarley reports, Eisenberg and other researchers collect weekly mental-health surveys which focus on academic and athletic performances and levels of anxiety and depression in order to pinpoint connections between the two.

“I think sports and celebrity are two places where we can begin to lift the mental-health stigma, by showing that real people who perform, and who are well valued by society through their athletic contributions, do also suffer from symptoms of ill mental health,” says Chris Gibbons, a post-doctoral fellow and the director of health assessment and innovation at the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre.”

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about neurological illness and running. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.