I’m so honored that the Elizabeth Ayers Center for Creative Writing chose my essay as the winner of their October photo prompt contest. You can visit the Center at www.creativewritingcenter.com for online classes, retreats, and compassionate writerly advice. I highly recommend their newsletter and blog.
After the Fall by Karen Elizabeth Baril
This year, it’s less about raking leaves than it is about love.
Dad, post heart attack, stands on the porch looking lost in a pair of baggy sweats, which are too big for his shrunken frame. He’d been lucky, the doctor told us. Really lucky.
Mom passes me a rake. “Do you want to borrow my gloves?”
I smile and shake my head. I want to feel the wooden rake handle, solid and cool, made of maple in my hand. Mom, a little unsteady on her feet, sweeps the leaves into mountains.
We labor for hours, a sweet smell of decay in the air, that reminds me of an old cider cellar. The neighbors have a wood fire going and I know I’ll go home smelling of damp smoke and leaves.
I visited a house in Connecticut one summer, a house with wainscoting painted by the impressionists. Golds, reds, yellows, blues, against the white paneling. This day takes on the light and quality of one of those impressionist paintings. On this day, every color has taken to the stage; not just the golds and yellows and reds, but the rich browns and the weatherworn grays of the trees.
Dad pitches a volley of corny jokes from the railing. Mom laughs or shouts, “Oh Don, really!” but neither one of us asks him to stop. This year, dad’s jokes fuel the labor. They’re as necessary as the rakes in our hands.
Dad tells us an old story of the tandem bicycle they’d had in England. He’d huff and puff up the hills, straining to make the bicycle move forward. When he glanced over his shoulder to see what the trouble might be, he caught mom with her feet on the handlebars. A good joke if ever there was one.
“Well,” he said, “I was young, then. I could do it.”
We rake throughout the afternoon. When we have five mounds of leaves, Mom turns to me satisfied. “We did it!” Then she drops her rake, spins around, arms towards the sky, and plummets backward onto her pile of leaves. A cloud of leaf and color rises up around her.
She lies flat on her back, moving her arms and legs in and out in wide arcs.
“Look!,” she says, “I’m making a snow angel!”
“You can’t make a snow angel in leaves,” I tell her, feeling stingy.
“Oh, I yes I can! I am!”
Dad stands up to watch. “Just look at her,” he said, “I wish I had a camera.”
I offer my hand to help mom up, but she’s not ready. She’s a child again, an impulsive girl, exuberant, making of herself an angel.
I catch a falling leaf in my hand. It’s more yellow than orange or red. I trace the veins of the leaf with the tip of my finger, out to its points and down to its stem, still soft and supple. There’s life here, I think. Life, even after the fall.
When I was a kid, Yorkshire Pudding was a staple side dish in my British-born household, especially at the the holidays. Mom would make the muffin-style Yorkshires and we’d fill them with a spoonful of meat drippings. Definitely not health food.
So when my boyfriend arrived for that first holiday dinner, I wasn’t sure what he’d think of our very English tradition- no rolls, just Yorkshires. I think he gobbled down three or four of them. Dad could see he had to look sharp if he wasn’t going to lose out on the last one. I married that boyfriend and at every holiday dinner he’d spar with dad for the last Yorkshire Pudding. That sparring became a new tradition.
Yorkshire pudding has a colorful history, dating back to the 12th century. It’s believed to have originated in the kitchens of King Henry II. In the village pubs, meat (probably mutton) was dangled on a hook over a cooking fire. A pan underneath caught the meat drippings which were used to cook the Yorkshires, a mixture of flour, salt, eggs, and fresh milk.
The result is sort of like a moist and flavorful popover. Sort of. Trying to describe a Yorkshire pudding to those who haven’t had the pleasure is like trying to describe the color of the sky to a blind man. It’s just not the same.
With the holidays just around the corner, I share our family recipe for Yorkshire Pudding.
4 Large fresh eggs
equal quantity of fresh milk to eggs
same with all purpose flour
pinch of salt
vegetable fat or pan drippings (best if you use Crisco…no, this is not health food.)
Mix the first four ingredients. Consistency should be somewhat like cake batter. Do not overmix. Leave to sit for 30 minutes.
Put a pat of Crisco (about 1 tbsp.) in each muffin hole of the muffin tin pan. You can make one big one in a big cake pan, but there is less fighting if everyone gets their own pudding. And they taste better this way.
Get the oven real hot-450 degrees. When the fat is just smoking, ladle mixture to fill muffin cups to 1/3 full. Bake for about 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on them, but don’t open the oven or they’ll fall.
Serve with just about anything; pot roasts and roast turkey are my family’s favorites. Encourage guests to spoon a dollop of gravy into the cup.
It’s easy to tell an embarrassing truth about someone else. Actually, as a writer, I get a perverse pleasure from it. I can tuck the truth into a piece of fiction and no one will ever be the wiser or I can tell it outright in an essay and call it art.
Still, sharing other people’s truths, even if it benefits my creative life, can feel awkward. Unless, of course, the person is dead. After you’re dead, everything you ever did or said is fair game, rich fodder for my creative life. If we’re estranged that can work just as well.
But, we’re not estranged and until then, you’re safe with me, sort of. I can’t say I won’t write about you, but I’ll write so that even your mother wouldn’t recognize you. Fair enough?
Here are my 5 rules for writing about the people I love:
For every story I write about a person I know, I ask myself- is this my story to tell? Some stories are not mine. I don’t understand them or I don’t have all the facts I need to tell the story true. As a twelve-year old kid, I saw the movie, “The Trial of Billy Jack.” Okay, so I was an impressionable girl, but after I saw that movie, I switched from writing about cute boys and horses to writing long, boring, tragic stories of persecuted and handsome Native American men. Don’t rent the movie. It was awful and don’t read my terrible, terrible stories of persecuted and handsome Native American men.
I never want to write something that would embarrass or humiliate someone I love. This rule brings to mind Pat Conroy’s book, The Prince of Tides. It’s probably a bad example because if you’ve read Conroy’s book, a semi-autobiographical novel of his abusive father, you know that sometimes you just have to get things off your chest. The book is so darn good. His family disowned him after the novel’s release, but came around eventually. Here he comments in a 1996 story for The Guardian,
Pat Conroy tells the story of when his mother was dying of leukemia. She said, “Son, I find it hard to relax when I’m dying, knowing you’re going to write down every damn word I say.” When he told her that she’d be included in the film version of “Prince of Tides”, she told him to get Meryl Streep to play the part.
3. I write the story true. No one is all villain or all hero. Yesterday, I ripped off the kid at the coffee shop. The coffee cost $2.19. I gave him 3 dollars. He gave me back $1.91. I didn’t tell him. I drove away satisfied that I took money from the donut shop that takes money from me. Serves them right for putting all the good donut shops out of business. Checkmate. Gotcha. Then I thought of how the kid’s cash drawer might not add up at the end of the night and what if this was his last day to get it right? I didn’t turn around and go back, this is a true story, remember? Later that same day, when the grocery clerk asked me if I wanted to round up for the local fire department I said yes! in a really loud voice. No one is all villain.
4. If it’s a story that will define the person for evermore, I don’t write it. There is still something about the published written word that seems like hard fact. It is very difficult to live down a defining moment even if the story appeared in a seedy tabloid. The story can dog the person forever. I think of Axl Rose, the front man of Guns N’ Roses. I mean how many times has he been reported dead only to resurface, go on tour, and record a new album? I feel like if he actually dies, no one will believe it.
5. Rules are made to be broken. Or at least, bent a little. Be careful. Be oh so careful what you share with me. I didn’t ask to be born this way.
Writers and visual artists are often asked this question; Where do you get your ideas?
I’m one of those people who is never short of ideas. It’s bringing them to fruition that challenges me most. But, if you’re a writer or visual artist, engaging in new experiences can spark an idea for your next project. It’s these little artist dates, a concept I first read about in Julia Cameron’s excellent book, The Artist’s Way, that infuse my creativity. Even if you are not an artist, stepping outside of your routine can help you get creative in your personal life, maybe even helping to solve a problem that has you stuck.
When Dave was building our kitchen cabinets, I went along with him to the hardwood outlet in Enfield, Connecticut. It was an afternoon well spent. The Hardwood Outlet is nothing like your local lumber yard or a chain home improvement store. From the moment I stepped through the doors, the scent of freshly milled wood filled my nose. I walked along the rows and rows of woods and read their names.
The names, so beautiful, were like words in a poem:
Spanish Cedar, White Oak, Lacewood, Eucalyptus, Cypress, Q-sawn Sycamore, Poplar, Walnut, Red Maple Curly, Sassafras, Maple Birdseye, Hickory, Basswood, Cherry, and Flame Birch. I thought of the forests these woods lived in and I loved that the Hardwood Outlet was committed to buying only sustainable wood, grown and harvested in eco-friendly forests.
All the wood was sold by the board foot. The old man running the place leaned in to me,
“You’re very smart to come with your husband. No man should be allowed to come in here without his wife, too tempting!” He seemed surprised to have a woman wandering the wood.
Sadly, this hardwood outlet has closed up shop, but since then, I’ve treated myself to an assortment of artist’s dates. An heirloom garden seed festival, a talk on Samuel Clemens, a dog groomer’s, a Jewish deli (even though I am not Jewish), and a state fish hatchery. Artist Dates don’t have to cost you anything, but they should help you step out of your everyday humdrum.
I’d love to hear your ideas for artist’s dates in the comments.
This morning, the girl at the McDonalds drive-thru handed me coffee without making eye contact. She wasn’t being rude. I don’t think she could see me. At some point between yesterday and today, she’d caved to the latest beauty fad, blinking from under an absurdly thick fringe of false eyelashes. She had to grope around for my hand as she passed me my change.
There’s a hard truth around every beauty fad; if you want the real thing, in this case, authentic Kardashian lashes, you have to spend a boatload of money. If you don’t have a lot of money, you have to try to make it happen on a thin paycheck.
I used to be that girl. My reach wasn’t for eyelashes, but blonde highlights. At sixteen years old, I noticed the Marcia Brady types in my school seemed happier. My part time job as a nurse’s aide was barely enough to pay for my car, let alone salon highlights. I bought a box of hair dye at the drugstore for three dollars. The girl on the box looked like Farah Fawcett. This was going to change my life.
But, like the girl at McDonald’s, I had mixed results. First of all, I made a mess of my mother’s new bath rug. That didn’t go over well. Two weeks later, my friend noticed a swatch of hair at the back of my head that had turned an alarming shade of granny apple green. Chlorinated pool water and blonde hair dye led to a chemical reaction on the back of my head. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t pretty at all.
So, yes. I feel an alliance with my friend at McDonald’s. If I was young enough for false eyelashes, I’d be just like her, making do with a cheap set bought at the five and dime. Then I’d go home and have to glue them on as best I could.
Being a girl doesn’t come cheap.
A full set of extension eyelashes applied by a certified eyelash technician (yes, there is such a thing) costs anywhere from 175 dollars to 400 dollars plus a tip. Monthly maintenance will run you 55-75 dollars a pop.
Eyelash extensions come in a variety of thicknesses, from lashes as thin as a pencil tip to something that looks like my 1970’s fringed jean shorts. They’re either applied in a strip or single tufts. Some false eyelashes are made of mink (yes, mink!) while others are made of human or synthetic hair.
The eyelash technician glues the extensions to the natural lash line, which takes 12-24 hours to fully cure. During that time you can’t get your eyes wet. No face washing. No swimming. And no watching that last scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere sweeps Julia Roberts off the balcony. If your boyfriend breaks up with you on the day you get your lashes done, let’s hope he wasn’t worth crying over.
Once your lashes are ‘cured’, you’ll be instructed to avoid rubbing your eyes. Super long lashes require a daily brushing with something called a ‘spoolie brush.’ At night, you’ll have to lie flat on your back like Sleeping Beauty. No side sleeping and no mashing your face into your pillow.
There are health risks, including the risk of losing your own eyelashes or the very real risk of eye infections like pink eye. Some adhesive products contain formaldehyde which, quite honestly, I didn’t research the effects, but can we agree it can’t be good to put formaldehyde near your eyes?
Every new beauty fad comes with an unspoken promise; do this, buy this, wear this, and you will be desirable. If only you do this, you’ll be pretty. If only you do this, your life will improve. If you do this: you’ll fit in.
It’s easy to blame this over-reaching on men and the culture of beauty around women. But, I don’t think men are to blame for this. I believe it’s all on us. Most men I know wouldn’t turn down a date with a woman because her lash length wasn’t up to his usual standards.
My oldest daughter was home for a visit from Montana. “You know,” she said, as she laced up her hiking boots, “I feel if women just stopped buying into it, we’d all be so much happier.”
So true. I don’t feel pressure from men to get a perfect pedicure. I feel pressure from women. If I want to be accepted into the Girls Club, I have to wear the right clothes, have the right hair, or turn my eyes into a Venus fly trap, never mind that I’m blinded in the process.
I know that even feminist types want to be accepted into the Girl’s Club. Don’t tell me they don’t. Successful executive women wear pencil skirts and high heels for a reason. They want others to notice their narrow waists and slender calves while they make important decisions on company policy. Even Gloria Steinem wore a fetching pair of strappy sandals while carrying a sign on a stick that said, “We Shall Overcome.” Puleeeeze.
A couple of weeks ago, I did the most informal survey of all time. I asked the men in my life to weigh in on the Kardashian eyelash craze.
This comment from my husband who just celebrated his sixtieth birthday. “They’re kind of distracting. Unnatural. I’m afraid they’ll poke their eyes out.”
And this from a 30-something year old guy. ” On some girls they look okay. I don’t really think about them.”
My litmus test for beauty these days is simple. Feeling good about myself shouldn’t hurt or come with risk of injury. Feeling good about myself should…well…feel good.
But this requires an awareness of why we buy in. As I get older, some of the women I know are getting work done; bottoms lifted, tummies tucked, lips plumped. That’s not a beauty fad; it’s an expectation in some circles.
But, that path is not for me. I don’t have enough self-restraint to start down that slippery slope. I won’t know when to stop. My eyes would search my body’s landscape for every little thing that needed improvement. Pretty soon, I’d have to re-mortgage the farm to pay for the upgrades.
Here’s my litmus test for beauty trends: I ask myself why I do it. Is it for me? Or is it for them? Who are they, anyway? Am I enjoying whatever it is I’m doing?
If we’re doing it for men, we should know that most men don’t judge women as harshly as we judge ourselves and each other. What a man appreciates, is a woman who likes herself, who takes care of herself, who laughs at his jokes, essentially, a woman who is confident in her own skin. Men can’t always put their finger on what it is that makes this one or that one stand out, but I bet you they never say…it was the eyelashes.
I recently attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. The three keynote speakers perfectly complimented each other, although they write in very different genres. Here is a book sample of each writer. Check them out!
The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy. It won the Hugo Award for 2016 and the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, just took the 2017 Hugo Award.
“The Last Widow. New York Times bestselling author Karin Slaughter brings back Will Trent and Sara Linton in this superb and timely thriller full of devious twists, disturbing secrets, and shocking surprises you won’t see coming.”
National Book Award Finalist. A New York Times Book Review Top Ten of the Year. New York Times Notable Book of 2017. A USA Today Top Ten of 2017. July Pick for the PBS NEWSHOUR. Finalist for the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Min Jin Lee is also an inspiring speaker. I loved her closing keynote speech.