The Afterlife

My grandma told me recently that if this whole afterlife thing ends up being true, she’d promise to let me know. She would rattle some dishes, flicker the lights for me... but I haven’t seen anything from her yet.

About a year ago, I started going to her house every Thursday after work. At first she’d come to the door in one of her soft pastel sweaters with matching earrings, and we’d sit in her formal living room, have coffee and gossip about her neighbors. Beryl’s dog Puggles attacked another dog, but we all know Puggles can do no wrong. Theresa was walking into people’s houses again without knocking. Sweet Marion needs heart surgery and her husband has vertigo and keeps falling over.

One time I knocked on the door and my grandma was still in her robe, no sweater or earrings. She waved me past the living room to the TV recliners, and we watched “Too Cute!” on Animal Planet and decided which puppies were our favorites. She stopped getting dressed for our visits after that, and I made my own coffee.

One day I went over to her house and found her sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. I hadn’t seen her sitting up, out of the recliner, in weeks. She ate a bowl of ice cream. A man was installing a hospital bed in her TV room where the recliner used to be. When he was finished, we untangled the oxygen tubing, wheeled her back to the room, and lowered her into the bed that I knew she would never get out of.

We had talked a lot about what would happen next. Her father was a Catholic-raised Spaniard who walked vehemently away from the church, and while she maintained a much less dogmatic version of atheism, she kept her expectations for Heaven vague and non-committal. She’d shrug and say, “I think when you’re dead you’re dead,” but then would add, “…who knows. Seeing your grandpa again would be nice.” 

We agreed that either way sounded okay. 

Two weeks ago, I sat by her hospital bed in the dark and watched her methodically panting in a morphine sleep, and I looked at the photo of my Grandpa on the window sill. He is young in the picture, smiling in his Navy uniform, and I stared at him and whispered, “Will you just come get her already?” His frozen smile didn’t change. Her breathing didn’t change. 

I suspect that when you’re dead you’re just dead, but it sure made me feel better to say it. 

The day my grandmother died, I walked to the end of my driveway to get the mail and saw a vulture soaring in low circles over the cow pasture across the street. Its smooth, graceful curves in the sky seemed to be calling for my attention, and I watched its entire performance, clutching my mail, until it turned and diminished into a small dot in the sky.


Richmond, VA

White Lies

Fatalistic dark Hibernian humor. It’s in my genes. Try as I might, I’ve learned that the only way to walk through life without having slain bodies strewn randomly about is to keep mum and live a hermetically sealed life. I’m not certain when my cynicism crossed the line into bitterness, but it did. I’m praying it’s just a phase. Makes me sad to think I’ve come this far only to be a disappointment and disappointed. It is what it is. I tell myself that by not having kids I’ve done my part in breaking the cycle of insanity, codependence, and alcoholism prevalent in my family. And I have been making amends to the world at large by remaining sober going on four decades.

Recently someone asked me in passing if I was going to spend the holidays with my family and I replied that I have no family—at least none that I recognize. I’ve learned that people don’t talk like that. It’s not the done thing to speak one’s truth when it reveals a raw nerve. Apparently, it’s too unpleasantly bare for the person on the receiving end. But I don’t know any other way to be. I’ve tried white lying it but that leaves me feeling dirty somehow and a shadow lurks behind me screaming, over and over, Tell the truth, mother fucker.


Richmond, VA

Ho! Ho! Oh! No!

Walking down Grove Avenue this morning, I passed an abundant variety of Christmas decoration concoctions. Some were tasteful; some were nice; some were…well…what can I say?

Having designed and decorated Holiday windows and interiors as a Visual Director at major department stores for more decades than I care to count, I’ll admit that my level of acceptability concerning other’s décor choices is jaded; but honestly, these are trying times. The absurd mash-up mixture of religious and commercial simply sets my purest heart into an ache to break my usual calm demeanor.

One particular, notable attraction sat proudly in the middle of a block and stopped me in my tracks. Spot lights positioned just so, twinkling LED strands framing the faux-realistic manger, highlighted the Baby Jesus, his naughty parts shielded from view. Mary and Joseph, surrounded by three wise men and an impressive Angel standing guard, were so mesmerized by the miracle child, stretching his plastic arms to the heavens, that they didn’t even notice the four foot blow-up Santa Claus looming above their heads like a hot air balloon in the Macy’s Parade; or else one of them would have produced a pin to prick and deflate his ominous, ogling stare! However, now retired from the retail rat-race, I’m trying hard not to judge the unenlightened. I say, to each his own and to all a festive holiday, no matter how they mix and match their genres. OK. Truth be told, I have a long way to go!

Yet, I must confess that my tree at home is a hodge-podge of given and found ornaments that have made their way into our lives. Each comes with a story or a connection that elicits praise or tears at the heartstrings. Each is haunted by a memory of a Christmas past. Unwrapping each is releasing a forgotten emotion tucked and boxed neatly away for a year.

Although I designed much holiday trim, never once did I learned how to light a Christmas tree correctly (Yes, there is a right way). To hang each of our well-worn ornaments or toss a string of familiar lights on our Tanenbaum tugs at my heart strings; reminding me of what was; what is; and what could have been. Bright faces, scintillating smiles, seasonal smells, titillating tastes, and effervescent joy, swathed in melancholy, overwhelms and captivates me as Christmas Eve melts and the day commences; because we all know that this spec of ‘new’ will never measure up to what we want most for it to be. Only the shadows of Christmas past glow with glory. Precious souls, no longer there, hold us captive by their absence. Precious ones, far away, stir our longing. 

So religious, commercial, or non-existent, Christmas decorations tease that suppressed child in all of us; affecting believers and none by their presence. Imprisoned by our judgmental age, dulled by years of confinement, the boy or girl in each of us…who once believed in miracles, sat on Santa’s lap, and lapped up too much eggnog…annually storm our dreams, march merrily inside our heads…and tempt the dead to play and sing carols praising the Jewish boy born in a sable. However, I’m certain there was NO GIANT SANTA, hovering over his head, scaring the be-Jesus out of Jesus!


Richmond, VA

Student, supporter, and believer in Life In Ten!

The Letters I Have Written

What would it be like if I could read all the many letters I have written through the years? I rarely correspond through hand-written letters anymore but at one time they were chronicles of my life. 

I wrote them to my mother when I was a teenager from my aunt’s home, my mom’s sister and her nine children, escaping 1000 miles away from a father who most of the times terrified me. I wrote to friends as I made my many solo journeys across the country---searching for adventures but really, I was lost, I was looking for a home, a safe place, I was searching for a me that I could only hope I would meet somewhere. 

I wrote in-depth missives of beauty and angst when I lived in Northern California, in the coastal town called Trinidad, 100 miles south of the Oregon border where my feet where never dry, my hands always cold and my heart bursting because I was in love with a professional cellist who was breaking my heart a splinter at a time, masking the pain so creatively that I thought it was his way of serenading me. I wrote on the long train ride from San Francisco to New Jersey where I needed to land to extract the splinters that had become too many for my heart to bear. 

I wrote through the drugs, alcohol, sex, and fears that permeated my days and the dark nights of my soul.

There were the lean years that were so filled with children and the daily grind that writing a letter trying to describe the life I was living, required too much honesty, revealing what I could not bear to see for fear of what I would need to face. There were the few letters that told the end of my 20-year marriage when the truth could no longer be hidden and a different kind of journey in my life began. 

There were the letters of love in my early, long distance relationship with my new beloved and though the phone was a constant, so much more could be expressed on a page then in my vulnerable voice. These were the letters that made us solid and whole.

I see my hand on envelopes pushing forward into mailbox slots, trusting that my thoughts, that my life was safely contained within, traveling on to someone that could hold them for me. 

Where are those words? What would they say to me now?


Richmond, VA

hérèse Hak-Kuhn is a mother of six incredible human beings and an activist in birth and social justice issues. She has been honored to help so many to enter into this world and to walk with those who have left this realm, the profound similarities informing her own existence. She has written many books, all in her head. She loves her life and that it has offered her, which is a a hell of a lot.

Won't Let My Dream Perish

Life has a habit of throwing us in to the kiln, and I still don't know what the final masterpiece of me will look like. But I know no matter what I will never give up on my dreams.

Recently my publisher announced they were having financial difficulties. They were going to have to transition from being an Independent Press into a Vanity one. 

That's just not something I can afford. Also, I wish them well, but I cannot support a vanity press. It just goes against everything I believe in what a publisher should be. I know this couldn't have been an easy decision, but I've had a hard time wrapping my head around it.

What does that mean for me and the future of my books? I will keep writing, of course, and keep pushing to get my books published. It sucks that I am back to square one, but I refuse to give up.

Maybe one day I will have a new publisher for this particular series even if four of the seven books in this series have been published. The only positive I can see from this mess is improving my books in terms of editing and such.. It really breaks my heart, but I cannot remain somewhere I don't belong.

My books are still available on Amazon, but I feel when I get the funds to be able to afford to pull the rights for all of them then I will have to. It's a difficult hand that I've been dealt, but I won't let it break me. I won't let my dream perish. It can only go up from here.


Meadville, VA

Linda M. Crate is a published writer whose works have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines both online and in print. She is a two time push cart nominee and the author of four books of poetry the latest of which is These Wings Were Made to Fly (Flutter Press, September 2017). You can support Linda's writing career by following her and her works here:

For the Ugly Girls

I'm writing this under a pseudonym because I'd take a rash of shit for months and months and months and waste tremendous mental and emotional energy fighting unfightable points with people I love and, for the most part, respect. Here's the thing: #NOTME

I've always been fat, not sexy enough for my looks to be valued currency. My face is pretty. Pretty enough. Thank God, right? Because flat-out ugly is a label no-one wants in this cultural environment. I've never been worried about being pressured at work because of my looks. Does that make me lucky? Or really ugly? Or just outlandishly fortunate to never have once run into someone who let my gender/sexuality get in the way of my "real self?" I don't know, truly.

This is the part that would get me crucified if I were writing under my real name: there are plenty of you pretty girls out there who have been cashing in on your appearances and sexuality for years. Admit it: it's nice to be pretty, to have people (men AND women) treat you specially because of your blonde hair and long legs. And you use it. Sometimes because you have to. And because that's how things are done in our culture. And because it feels nice.

Does any of this shit justify sexual abuse, rape, predatory behavior? NO! No. Of course fucking NO. But hear me out...

There's a part of me that wants to slap the shit out of all the #metoo story tellers, the seemingly endless tales of "Oh, it's so hard to have men staring at my body all the time! I feel so ashamed!" Ok, girls. I get it. But how about when you're invisible? That's another flavor of shame altogether. And it's not just the men who contribute to the beauty paradigm. Men and women have been playing this fucked up game of sexuality-as-currency for a long time. And both men and women have profited by learning and playing by these fucked up rules. 

Let me say again: NO EXCUSE for SEXUAL ABUSE, RAPE, VIOLENCE, or anything like that. NO. 

There's more to all this shit than #metoo
That's all I'm saying.


Log of the office ship Lilac January 1, 1996

On New Year’s Eve the midnight log entry at a Coast Guard unit takes on a life of its own and is traditionally written as a poem. The Queen of the Fleet is the ship with the earliest date of commission into active Coast Guard service. The Cuyahoga was a 125 foot patrol boat that was being used for Officer Candidate School training and based out of Yorktown, VA. 11 died aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cuyahoga after a collision between the cutter and the freighter Santa Cruz II at the entrance to the Potomac River on the night of Oct. 20, 1978.The Lilac was a buoy tender for the Lighthouse Service from 1933 to 1939 which was a civil service agency that was merged into the Coast Guard in 1939. The Lilac was used in the Delaware River region from 1933 until 1972. It was transferred to the private sector a few months after decommissioning .It was used as an office for a work-boat dealer, boat parts, and real estate firm from 1985 until 2003 where Falling Creek flows into the James River. It was very visible to those on boats and ships and drivers passing by on I 95. It is now a museum , National Historic Landmark, and events space in New York City. This is what a log entry by the private sector owner of the former buoy tender Lilac might have been had he entered one. 

Log of the office boat Lilac January 1, 1996

Lilac closed out steam for the black hull fleet of the Coast Guard in 72.

Begins 1996 as year 12 of moored with 3 lines in the mouth of Falling Creek.

Phone, Water, Sewer electricity and modem supplied from ashore.

No smells of cooking from the galley that was the only place a man of color trusted to work when this ship went into service. A few weeks ago an African American, chaired as an O 6, a source selection committee that will award some clients cutter maintenance contracts to their shipyards where admiral’s launches now carry paint sprayers and air compressors in their former passenger compartments.

The throb of Virginia’s first diesel locomotives only five and six years newer can be heard some nights from the port a mile away upriver.

But not tonight.

Fifty years ago the port would have had cargoes of nicotine, metals, paper, and engineer supplies in and out at all hours and days.

The flares of the paper mill, Kevlar plant, sewage plant, river range lights, the square lines of holiday lights wrapped around the James Center and Phillip Morris complexes give an artificial horizon.

The Garmin that runs beside the long stilled LORAN and Omega reads the same led glow every second but the two props will never generate amplitude again to sometimes battle the conditions weather and technological that put lives of others in danger.

The fall of the bear make many a work-boat, whaleboat and officer launch authorized by the pen of PT 109’s commanding officer to come home to USA for a permanent stay for parts salvage or conversion unbound by the Federal Acquisition Regulations. 

The Motor Cargo Boats stay in their cradles. The only buyer for them would be Peck Iron and Metal to be descended on by workers with hissing torches to rip them apart like Turkey Vultures do to deer that fall onto the slope from striking Mack trucks on I 95.

Chriscraft and Trumpy and work-boats from Elvis’s lifetime come too with the prosperous economy to seek new owners.

From the office below the wheelhouse where taxpayer dollars were once accounted for I close another year of closing costs and titles for real estate and sales tax and registration fees for watercraft.

Tide brings in particles of rust from the Cuyahoga serving as a reef beneath the sea from a few minutes of disregarded established norms of basic contact management and of the rotting stars and bars of a fleet at Drewry's Bluff where on the ironclads when Richmond ceased to be the Capital of the CSA, Lines of powder were lit with slow burning matches as fuses set by the crews. Produced a flash on each to turn them to ruins never to be used again.
Lilac, the queen of my fleet I ring the bell happy New Year.
On the hoist that evicted creatures from Aids to Navigation that keep commerce and travelers on the current driven highway safe in all weather, a Black Crown Night Heron scans the terrain to pick its next spot to catch prey.


Henrico, VA


I kept craving sunset walks, in all this pink gold light and the last of the leaves, in their heart-stopping death-colors. We went out with friends on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, to take a river walk. Four children and three adults made for an ambling, erratic pace. Stop/shuffle/throw leaves/screech/run madly ahead. But we made it to the river and the river slid under a deep indigo sky shot with gold, and didn’t care about us a bit. I listened to it shushing, rippling, as we crossed the pedestrian bridge. I joked that my favorite time over the water is when no one else is there, as we slow-motion dodged among our fellow amblers. On the far side we kept walking, knowing any minute we would turn back. The sunset silently, wildly dark purple and copper behind the trees’ black filigree kept pulling our faces round to the west. Ahead, though, a rope swing with children dangling from it. Our own children, electric, surged ahead and paused. Not a rope – a vine. A vine hung from 30 feet up, and a little line of children waited to take a couple of swings out over the path and back to the steep hillside to which the trees’ roots clung. The perfect, slow glide of that vine kept us all spellbound – the children waiting in line, the parents watching from the path as each one clung, let go, and sailed like the clapper of a huge bell but soundless. Each flight held a magic no one would interrupt. Each child helped the next with the vine. “Will it break?” Parents waited motionless. One more. The purple sky. One more. It’s almost dark. One more. Our daughters, our sons, strangers’ children, each gliding through the dusk. One more. Their faces, concentrated in the bliss of the swing. More children arrive. One more. A half-moon, and the train whistle beckons us. One more. “It hasn’t broken yet.” We turn back to the bridge.


Richmond, VA

Lea Marshall is a poet and freelance writer, and is Associate Chair of VCU's Department of Dance + Choreography in Richmond. She feels lucky to live near the river.

Didn't See It Coming

Most days I forget that he is gone. More often, I'm too involved with trying to fix, comfort, and restore what he left behind. There'd always been this love-hate relationship between me and Mom. Mostly, I hated her weakness, her interference, her jealousy, her abrasiveness. My young adult years were voluntarily spent far, far away from anywhere she was. Until an awful realization hit it's mark ... that thoughtless woman would forever keep me barred from my father. I was going to have to play nice - do it her way - act as if everything she did & said was O.K. if I ever wanted to see him or speak with him again.

So began the charade. Years passed and my parents aged, new fears sprang into place. Fears that found me praying - no, pleading to God "don't take him first and leave her with me". Then cancer struck, it struck hard and furious, slowly and agonizingly, deteriorating the man of my heart. Destroying inch by inch his quality of life, I watched him dying in degrees before he ever took that last breath. All the while proclaiming to my daughter, "When he's gone, that woman will no longer have ANY power over me. I will be done with her finally and forever.

Life didn't listen as the years of struggle ensued and I watched this woman take such tender care of my beloved. I began, very much unaware, to come to love her despite her character and continued harshness soaked with negativity. I saw that there WAS good in this woman, how did it go unnoticed for so long?

Now she is all alone. The son she cherished, wined & dined is but a stranger now. I've become her primary caretaker through good times and bad. The 'bad' are becoming less and less; but, it's still a struggle. Nonetheless, I wish her all the very best.

She's on a cruise this week. I have a reprieve from this Jewish Princess and her demands. In a small yet undeniable way, I miss her - huh!! Tried to call her yesterday - Dad's voice is still in the cell phone and it caught me by surprise. Once again, I remember.... He's gone.


Richmond, VA

Symphony of the Story

Where have all the storytellers gone? I see visions of the grandfatherly figure with the 3rd generation-ers gathered around him. Excited and enthralled by the words streaming from the pale and parched lips. Words tumble easily, in multitudes - as many as the weathered lines and wrinkles upon his inviting face. Words that engage in a celebratory dance winding around adventures and victories - in a land where dreams come true, heroes reign, and cherished princesses are saved.

Weaving tales as expertly as a spider constructing an intricate web - though not for prey and the wrapping of dead bodies which become its food. But intertwining conquests and love for family, friends and fellow man. Adventures on the high seas, in a new land or the backyard where magical creatures and fairies have now appeared. The diversion from lifes' struggles and realities - a moment in time where the main character plows through adversity and finds beauty; or, seeks earnestly and finds treasure.

Excitement builds and meets satisfaction. The heart is filled a bit, time was suspended awhile, and with the best of the best  - an unsuspected lesson is learned, valuable knowledge gained. Subtly received and never forced but seared upon the mind in a way that leads the hearer to believe that ANYTHING is possible. And for these moments, at the feet of a storyteller, it is. When these moments culminate into a belief that life truly is limitless. That the parameters placed so long ago, are formed in our own minds alone, they can be moved any time  & anywhere we wish.... to tell stories of our own


Highland Springs, VA

I'm 55 yrs old - Balt'more born, toes dipped in Philadelphia, Mississippi bred, and now transplanted in Virginia. Married 27 years and proud Mom of two adult daughters. Also, one grandchild who personifies her middle name - Joy.