Butterflies, Phoenixes, and Ephemeral Self-Love

Source material for Disney movies is mostly R-rated. Take Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which hinges on premeditated murder. There’s also the idolized butterfly. In truth? It’s grisly in the cocoon. The caterpillar isn’t sleeping, it’s liquifying into protein-rich ooze.

Hallmark disavows it, but I celebrate the hero’s journey. We can also burn to ash and resurrect victorious. Hardships convey alchemy. Our spiritual journeys are the same—annihilation then rebirth, like the legendary phoenix. It’s how we emerge with wings and launch our fellow suffering… through the passion of our personal resurrections.

Spiritual work naturally generates a higher quotient of self-love. Though emotions are shifting and relational, there’s Grace beneath our imperfect perfection.

Self-love exists on a sliding scale, but God’s Love is immoveable. Once tasted, it forever fosters your ability to embody it.

Susan Dyer

Susan Dyer is a champion of women’s spirituality. She was born clairvoyant and merged with unnamable ‘God’ in a 2017 near-death experience, which clarified her journey. She graduated Hamilton College with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Cultural Anthropology. She’s published in FOLIO Literary Journal, Dance Magazine, forthcoming in both NINETENTHS Quarterly and Down in The Dirt. Find her at www.susandyer.com and on social media @SusanDyer1111.

Hear and Do

It was a wedding, my cousin’s wedding.  He was marrying a girl he knew for nine years.  He proposed in Disney World at Cinderella’s Castle.  The ring came to her in a glass slipper.  I was a bridesmaid.  All the bridesmaids had their makeup done like parrots.  I wore a magenta dress and orange eye shadow.  My brother was there, and his girlfriend Kay, and I watched him eat macaroni and cheese off an hors d’oeuvre spoon, his eyes closed, opened, closed again, then opened less wide than before.  Something was happening to him, and Kay grabbed a microphone and sang, “…they were young and they had each other, who could ask for more?” She threw her white curls back and gyrated.  I ate chocolate covered strawberries, one after another, and sucked the chocolate down and left the red berry dry.  I thought about God, how if he was real, why was he letting my brother live this way, still, anymore, at all?  I wanted answers but I wasn’t Jewish enough to conjure a parable, make use of a prayer and adapt meaning to my suffering.  Later, I would move to California, not once, but twice, and the second time I’d live out in Pasadena and hike the Bridge to Nowhere, part of the San Gabriel Mountains.  I’d hike alone, even though my mother begged me not to.  But it was then I learned how to pray, how to ask the earth for something, how to live off water.

Brittany Ackerman

Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches General Education at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, CA. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, Entropy, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage.

You Learn

You learned, early in life, how to become a doll. You learned to show emotion in carefully measured doses, each tear equal to one pull of the string along your spine. Just enough to make your owner hold you closer, stroke your silky hair, pat that one tear dry.

You learned to be careful. Too much emotion, and your owner would wail that you were malfunctioning, that your glass eyes might burst. Your owner would peer at every inch of your porcelain limbs, searching for cracks they might need to patch up. They would squeeze your rigid wrists, clutching you tight, till their worry hurt more than any fear or loneliness of your own.

You learned that porcelain is beautiful for its fragility, for that moment it seems about to shatter, but somehow survives.

You learned how to sit on a shelf and wait and watch.

You learned to yearn for arms around you.

You learned that the wrong arms burned.

You learned that if you held all your thoughts and desires inside you, away from your owner’s prying eyes, your wishes would make their own kind of heat. Demanding and furious, just like a heart.

You learned to break yourself, to crack one porcelain finger, then two.

You learned that destruction is the closest thing to love.

You learned about masking tape, duct tape, Super Glue. You learned that people see what they want to see. They see what will keep them from breaking.

You learned that life as a doll is no life at all.

You learned that there is so little we choose. You learned that sometimes, we can’t get up and walk. Sometimes, there’s only one way off the shelf.

You learned there’s not so much difference between a fall and a jump.


Stephanie Parent

Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. Her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.

Elegy With Vultures

On the day Scott passed, vultures soared the gray skies in dozens. When they first came

down to me in the yard, nearly to my roof, I could hear their wings fold like water.

I have found no evidence of a carcass.


This morning I awoke from a dream, the first one of him since he died, but I lost it in

a sunlight that rose and fell as if he were toying with my dimmer switch. Prankster. (He would

warm coins with a lighter to sting me awake from our hangovers.)


Home from college my first fall, we were driving with our windows down. Leaves adrift

crimson across the hollow, testing the wiper blades of his most recent car. Junkers that would

always break down before the next one.


I was making fun of the music blasting from his cassette deck when he started to cry. Just

one tear. Was he sleeping in his car again? Cut off from parents, all his siblings except a sister?

Lured into another dicey scheme or on the run from someone with a code?


Is this samsara? he asked me once, after I had given him my copy of The Tibetan Book of

the Dead, which I had only skimmed.


The pages of his old letters, some on the backs of court-order forms, float from my desk,

filing cabinets, rise from junk in random drawers: ghosts I’m only now answering, a loneliness

I so easily set aside as if it were my keys.


Written from jail, Scott’s last letter came with the Prayer of St. Francis. (Animals were

always following him.)


Vultures have gathered in the pines. Batting their wings in the dark conifers as if the trees themselves desired flight, held back in place by their roots. Each bird shoves the next into air. They flap, then glide, for a time.

But I don’t think that they’ll be coming back.


B.J. Wilson

B.J. Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, Naming the Trees (The Main Street Rag, 2021) and Tuckasee (Finishing Line Press, 2020). His work has appeared in Atlanta Review, Frogpond, Gravel, The Louisville Review, New Madrid, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University, a writing fellowship from The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and a Pushcart Prize Nomination for his poetry. B.J. lives and teaches in Jacksonville, Alabama.

A Letter from Kitty

Dear Mrs.,

This is a note to say I’m really sorry I peed on your green suede boots, your favorites.  I hope you’re not still mad. I know you had to throw them in the trash because the smell doesn’t go away, and I’m in real big trouble.

I’ve decided to come clean, tell you the truth why I did it. I just hate when you take me to the vet. First you put me in that tight cardboard carrier and it makes me very nervous. I get carsick on the way to the vet and that’s not fun at all.  And Dr. Braun always wants to check me, and he has bad breath. And the food…it is really yucky there. They don’t have my favorite albacore tuna, and I feel very confined and my claustrophobia acts up something fierce. You know I get anxious when I hear the dogs barking in the other part of the building.

I need my space to roam in the yard and cruise in the house. After all, I have my favorite places where I take my beauty naps. I love when the sun shines through the patio door and warms me up on the red velvet sofa. I have my scratching chair and I have to watch the neighbors from the living room window. Somebody’s got to do it. I love being able to jump on your bed and cuddle in the morning until you get up and get me my breakfast.

You’re right. These are all excuses and I should not have peed, but the truth is I get really sad when you and Mister go away. As soon as I see your suitcases coming out of the closet, I start to hyperventilate. I know Dr. Braun suggested Valium for me but I agree it might be better if he prescribed it for you.

I resolved to take an anger management class and I promise, promise, promise, I’ll be a much better kitty. Please give me another chance, but promise you won’t go away and leave me at the vet any more. And just for future reference, I prefer Chicken of the Sea Albacore.




Joanne Jagoda

Joanne Jagoda is a longtime resident of the Oakland hills. After retiring in 2009, one inspiring workshop, Lakeshore Writers, launched Joanne on an unexpected writing trajectory. Her short stories, poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared on-line and in numerous print anthologies including, Quillkeepers Press, The Awakenings Review, The Deronda Review, Dreamers Magazine, Passager, Better After 50, Heat the Grease We’re Frying up Some Poetry, Is it Hot In Here Or Is it Just Me?, Project Healthy Love (Riza Press) and Still You, Poems of Illness and Healing. Joanne received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has won a number of contests including the Benicia Love Poetry contest. Several of her poems have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Benicia Herald. She continues taking Bay Area writing workshops enjoys Zumba on-line and spoiling her seven grandchildren who call her Savta. Joanne’s first book of poetry My Runaway Hourglass, conceived while she was home sheltering-in-place, was published in summer of 2020 (Poetica Publications). Joannejagoda.com

Cut Your Own

We almost feel sorry for them: twisted spines, uneven limbs, dwarf stature, and either bulbous bellies or anorexic torsos. But we finally decide on one that will do. Although not perfect—too short and portly—it’s ours once we saw its trunk and haul it to the car. We can put it on the card table where I grade papers. Once strung with lights, hung with ornaments, and topped with Father Christmas in his fur-lined red robe and bulging pack of presents, we won’t feel sorry for it, won’t notice its deformities.

We have the day off because both parochial schools where we teach celebrate the Holy Spirit’s visit to Mary (Mother of God). Not being Catholic, we learned from attending required monthly Mass about the Immaculate Conception which, to us, seems quite a stretch.

I prefer the Emersonian church—trees, sky, and a path to follow—or not.

Before hiking up and down rows of balsam fir, Scotch pine, and blue spruce, we stopped our Taurus station wagon at a shack looking like a single-seater outhouse. A man came out and I handed him my Christmas bonus, a green piece of stationery that declared its bearer worthy of one cut-your-own Christmas tree.

I’d seen Father B. before, but rarely, only at all-school Masses where all the abbey monks participate. And last year, here, because Father B. planted and tended to the trees. He had a cowboy face, tanned, lined, and leathered. He wore jeans, a school sweatshirt, and blue knit cap. He saw the letter and, perhaps vaguely remembering me, his smile broadened.

“Father,” I asked after the usual “Good to see you again” back and forth, “how’d you wind up in charge of the tree farm?”

He leaned down so he could look across me and take you in as well. “My name means ‘little farmer’ in German, so I thought it fit right that I take care of the nursery. Or, as I prefer to call it, the forest.”

When the abbot discussed with Father B. his role in the abbey, “I convinced him that taking care of the forest was my calling. I got the job.” He preferred taking care of trees over taking care of classrooms. “The trees don’t talk back to you, like kids do.”

You said you didn’t like cutting down live trees.

“For every one that’s cut,” Father B. said, “I’ll plant five more.”

Four days later, my brother and mother help decorate the tree. I’m 32-years-old, and up until tonight, the tradition has been to put up our widowed mother’s tree in her Chicago apartment.

“Things change,” my brother, a psychiatrist, reminds us.

Next morning, I write in my journal about not wanting to relive those nights decorating the family tree, when told what to do and pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Nothing back then compares to life now, setting goals, and setting out to find them.

Now, I find, is five times better.


Richard Holinger

Richard Holinger’s books include Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences (Dreaming Big), a collection of humorous essays about surviving life in suburbia, and North of Crivitz (Kelsay Books), poetry focusing on the Upper Midwest, available at richardholinger.net. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Witness, Boulevard, and have garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. Degrees include a Ph.D. from The University of Illinois at Chicago in Creative Writing. Holinger lives an hour west of Chicago in the Fox River Valley. He has been a teacher, security guard, stock boy, busboy, workshop facilitator, and columnist.

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