Far Beyond the Blue

In memory of my mother, February 28, 1958–March 19, 2011.

Cotton fabric, lollipop design, your color purple, my color blue, straight pins in air, a pin cushion skirt around my waist. It is the 1st of February, it is sunny in Chicago, a winter day, Rogers Park, the aquamarine lake not far east from here. Lucinda Williams released a new album today, The Lost Ghosts of Highway 20, you appear in the second to last track: “If There’s a Heaven.”

It’s been a long time. I am eating too many clementines, as if ascorbic acid could kill me. I am learning about sewing and sewing machines and I want to tell you about fabric shears and tracing chalk and measurements for my body, how I am proud of my hip size, how much joy I find in the work you lived.

Your birthday is in 28 days, there are 29 days this year, an extra one for memory, a day for ghosts, a pleasant surprise. I wish you could give me advice on the proper thread, on the best type of fabric, on a shorter cut, a better way. I forgive you for not teaching me.

I imagine stitches mend old memories, black with grief, regret, and anger. I imagine they piece together a world that is whole and not wholly broken, the perfect time to embroider a heart in two pieces. I have so much of your fabric. I need to tailor the edges into placemats and cloth napkins. Wine purple, orange, lime green, and dark blue with white stars.

Maybe it’s not a life that dictates eternity, but those who loved you and reorganize memory to honor good qualities of character. You were such a strong, sassy woman. A feminist in the 80s, in the 90s, independent in the 00s, in the way you could be. A Pisces addict, in the most terrible way.

Darkness and trauma dig deep. They cloud the lens. Five years ago you plunged me into outer space and I am now beginning to find which center the sun resides. I am beginning to sew a garden, grow a compass, plant an heirloom. Tomatoes not quite ripe on my windowsill, the way you would. Wait for the sun to make them shine.

By Madeleine Barnes

A star drawn in my mother’s
dark blue planner
reminds me —
we need to be eased from place
to place. We need to be
eased from each other.

so when you go / you let me know / if there’s a heaven out there


Transcription From the U.S. Department of Labor

I am 29 and stepped out of the Illinois Department of Human Services office this morning. I lost my second job in the nonprofit sector in June. This time in the arts. I applied for a Link Card. I felt like Lucinda Williams, my mother, and one version of the woman I want to be. I do not have children. I want to have children, but NPR’s segment “Call Me Maybe When Your School Loan is Paid in Full” tells me I will never get married. 

I have a high credit rating. I know how to manage money, but at a deficit. When my mother died last year, I found approximately fifteen credit cards in a file drawer. Most of them were for clothing catalogs from the 80’s. My debt is mainly from bereavement travel, flowers for funerals, a joint credit account that maxed, education, and medical costs.  

I am a writer. I have applied to 8 MFA programs in 2 years. I have been wait-listed to one of the top writing programs in the country and offered residency to the school’s low-res pilot program at an annual cost of $22,000. There is no funding for this program.

When I researched grants for artists, I was kindly notified by the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program that the previously distributed national grant for low-income artists is no longer available. The fellowship may never be available again.

This is the country in which we live. 

Every two weeks I certify for unemployment benefits. I have no medical insurance. I have appeared twice on American Public Media’s Marketplace as a commentator for my generation’s search for jobs in this economy.

There are no jobs in this economy. Or, if there are jobs, there are 12.7 million peoplewho need them. This does not include undocumented persons or the homeless.

I live in a three-bedroom apartment in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago with two talented ladies and a four-year-old Shih-Tzu named Harvey. We are in our late 20’s and early 30’s. Our landlady is a retired teaching artist and our yard is like a New England faery forest or something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are fiddlehead ferns painted on my bedroom wall.

My friendships are my trusted accompaniments, my family is my foundation–my memory and my reminder–and the modest attention I receive for my writing is my indicator.

What I want is the freedom of feminism and the domestic luxury of rearing children. I want the debt ceiling to reverse roles with my dreams.  

I have been listening to Josh Ritter. There is a line in the song “Galahad” that goes, “I gotta carry you to heaven and despite what you’d imagine I have trouble bearing heavy things aloft.” 

If this is the way I feel about my student loans and my credit card debt, I can’t imagine how it feels for those of us who are in more debt than I. Those of us who have children. Those of us who have homes foreclosed or soaring medical bills and pre-existing conditions.

Don’t take out a loan for an MFA. Don’t be one of 12.7 million people crumpling under the weight of what they owe. 

Dream bigger. Dream of being a mother-woman. Dream of the serene landscape of a Midwestern sunrise, of writing hours, and a soft life.

And don’t raise the debt ceiling for your dreams.

Turn up your speakers, play the saddest Lucinda Williams song you know, wear your highest heels, and blast open a skylight.