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essay /heather bartel

Updated: Apr 1, 2023



An unbecoming is only unbecoming if one is becoming unable to be one’s self, come out of the bedroom, brush her teeth and wash her face and look out the window, look at that: again, there is the sun and it is shining; there is the sky and it is blue. As blue as the blood goes before it goes red, another mythology, that what is flowing within us like water is, like water, ever actually blue. We are red on the inside, and pulsing, and wet, we are wed to the functions we don’t give permission to, that occur without warning or preparation, a continuation: where it is snowing and where it will snow. If a piece of paper is folded in half and in half again, torn into four separate parts, it is still paper but now in four pieces, four pages for turning, four stones to step onto, one to the other and then to the next and the next one. My art was origami because I wanted to fold my own birds to hang by delicate strands from the ceiling as if I could bring the sky closer, as if I could surround myself with feathers and blue. Every waking moment is an act of imagination: here I am and I am becoming; here I am and I am going to grow. No matter how deep we dive into mind-water, we’ll never be the river, never be the bird, never the mountain, never the moon. I can close my eyes and my body is a body unbodied, but then if this were true I would not have eyes to close. I pick at the wound to prove it is healing, I’m bleeding, alive, this doesn’t hurt, I am okay. Flowers are dying the moment they are pulled from the ground, aren’t they, but they keep their color. The yanking doesn’t matter, the severed roots, the dirtied water, the drooping petals, the decay. I keep dried flowers beside me like sheets of paper to walk upon, a tool. This doesn’t hurt; I am okay.

II. If anything hurts I have to fix it. A habit is an obsession is a ritual is a drug. The act of addiction: treat and repeat, repeat and repeat and repeat until better, repeat until satisfied, repeat until someone tells you the repetition is no longer healthy and then repeat the replacement until a station near normal is found. There are Normals all over this country, this country with a lack of identity, a no-place where trees fall and no one is bound, not like books constructed to be held meticulously together, we are pages held together by staple—a swift tug and we are separated once again. I dream of a stranger who ties me to the bed and lights matches to throw at my naked skin. I dream of people I know I need to escape from. I dream of adrenaline, I fight and I fly and during the day my ritual is to feel, fill, freeze. Which was the wine daze and which was the dream? I sort through the images, the blur of my being, wake with sweat on my chest and then the air hangs cold again. Histories are recovered, bones dug up, found, and if they must be recovered did they hurt, a fate that must have been wrong to begin with. What is wrong is to have lit matches thrown at your naked skin—but what do I need to recover from if the act occurred in a dream? Shake my head hard enough and the landscape will change, some severed memories I’ve locked up will fall out and I’ll have to discover what’s hurt me and how to be better all over again. Re-cover: sweep the dust back under the rug, lock up the evidence and put it out of sight, bury it, plant a tree or flowers to let another narrative grow.

III. Normal becomes lost hours in the still-night of morning. Normal becomes the redundancy of the same four walls. Normalcy becomes forgetting the days and not speaking and no sex drive. Normalcy becomes the anxiety of another generation, another generation growing depressed. I sink into solitude, the acceptance of unbelieving, the new strangeness of my life. Normal becomes no longer making plans because what is the point of them and what do I want anyway, and anyway, my body is too old to dance the way I finally want to. Years of training lead nowhere when your mind hasn’t yet translated the work into art. Years of drinking won’t matter if I don’t have any plans. A moment in time like a photograph is captured, something taken, something violently removed from the current, the true state of being, and I can be taken and trapped in a frame, hang me to the wall I don’t feel real anyway.

A blankness crowds my mind every evening, a rush of terror: this is all there is. For me today, there will be the wet of desire: desire to escape, drift farther and more feather-like to some safe faraway. Instead of making plans I pick at my nails. Instead of trying something new I rely on patterns—the shape of my body traced in blue ink on the hardwood in a corpse pose. Yesterday’s tomorrow is becoming another broken invitation, a housecoat smelling of some foggy sweetness, sweat or incense or berries or mushrooms. If I wait patiently enough for it, my mania will come, my magnificence, my thin line fraying, I wait for a vision to come more clearly than water and fire rushing over each last inch of earth.

IV. Look up (bang). Spare me (crash). The planets jumble themselves up and a new rotation begins. In every frenetic sense of the word, the world is wandering, still adolescent, unknowing the rules: which direction to spin in or what months it will snow. But when Saturn returns to his rightful location, hold steady to the territory uncharted, the familiar gone stranger, the stranger the circumstance and the weather the better it will be to gather the loose ends and let them all go. Most lives are very simple. A life is lived until it is over, a body a landscape of days spent searching, attempting to map out a meaning for itself in the world, a meaning and a home. A body fixed bodily within the space that surrounds it, surrounded by space on all sides, horizons and vistas and ocean and sky the echoes of flesh and bone and veins. A bruise blooms and fades but the pain of memory extends deeper. I wake up, I get up, I saturate the hours with worry until I can go back to sleep. I am tethered to past traumas, tattered by future chaos. Life wounds by definition: the trajectory of living is to experience, a life experience is what categorizes a body as a person that things have happened to; life generates the experience of both learning to live and wanting to die.

Most lives are very simple. Most deaths are simple, too. The matter-of-factness of is and is no longer, such small words, entire generations were this and are that and can be accounted for like the hand is to the thumb. Even Sylvia Plath did not live spectacularly; it’s the simplicity of a being relating simply to the cadence and shadow of another being, the framework for constructing another experience, conducting an existence, conforming to deliverance, as in deliver me, from nothing special and nothing spacious and I am another in a crowd of beings who hurt.

I assert every day is familiar, all days are each other until the day that’s the end. I crumple up a piece of paper, the sound like cicadas or snowfall, any day is every day and today could be any season and if there is no reason then why am I hurting what am I hurting why are we hurting and where does it end?

With a bang. A bang or crash or perhaps just an exhale: the pain of removal is knowing the wound was there in the first place.


Heather Bartel is founder and co-editor of the literary journal and community, The Champagne Room. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Qu, MAYDAY, Fence, Miracle Monocle, Leavings, Heavy Feather Review, and Grimoire.

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