Jackson Hotaling (finally)

This post had been promised a couple of times and thwarted by a number of events. It’s kind of silly that it’s taken so long, especially because it’s just pretty short. Better late that never, I think, in this case.

A while back I had the chance to interview Jackson Hotaling, a friend of mine from my short time at Webster Groves High School. We talked for about an hour, but it was enough to hear about Jackson’s super cool adventures, get updates on his life at Ohio Wesleyan University, and hear about his plans for the summer. This is a very brief summary of the interview.

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Visual Testimony (Short Fiction)

Visual Testimony

I was thinking how giving a eulogy makes funerals a little better, because if anyone commits the sin of talking to me about the deceased I can always just begin with “like I said” and cite whatever I just read off of the paper and that mitigates all of that quite nicely. I tried bullet points the first time but it was uncomfortable, so I went full transcription from then on. Naturally I don’t want to broadcast that I like speaking at funerals, because that makes me sound a little bit sick, like morbid. I tell her — Riley, my cousin — I tell her you know I think I’m a bit young to have spoken at four funerals. Four! If it’s some enlightened beacon of hope I give off that makes it seem like I’ll have something good to say about death, about a dead person, then I don’t see it when I look in the mirror at least. Surely I have not experienced enough of life to say what mine means, Riley, much less another’s, because I haven’t been around long enough to say what their life means, either.

We have at least an hour until people start getting to the church.

I feel like it’s more of just I’m a placeholder for Youth up there at the pulpit and that my being up there is just saying look how I have life left in me and I promise to live and to do well with it and not die like this person has done which brought us here, and I don’t even need to say that that’s just total pageantry because I’m going to die whether I’m responsible or not. But we’re both out here smoking, Riley, and do you see the irony in that? Not that I feel guilty about smoking but it’s damn ironic, I tell her.

My cigarette lights through faster than Riley’s, though I’m barely smoking it.

Riley says for me to can it Darren, half-serious, that I’m making it about myself and that, really, I probably like speaking at funerals. Riley of course is thinking I like speaking at funerals for the celebrity that comes with it, as if that exists, but regardless I can tell you I did not expect our dialectic to reach the ultimate truth this early. I subvert her by saying don’t you think, Riley, that if I wanted it to really be about me that I’d die?

I don’t even chuckle here and I don’t think it would matter if I did. She keeps her face on straight.

I would tell you to go to hell, Riley forces out, but I don’t think there is anyone there. Certainly not Aunt Jessa. She flicks her cigarette away and it’s not even half-done. Actually, maybe that’s better, she reasons. Go to hell and be the only one there and own the place, have it to yourself like you’ve been wanting everything to be to yourself and you can come back only to speak at my funeral because I don’t want people giving me too much attention at it, and you might as well have it because you’re so hungry for your attention.

Even with the extra emphasis her tone still suggests only half of a seriousness which is really messing with me at this point. She picks her cigarette back up to find it’s still burning.

The last people to give a good reason to care about their funerals (and I explain here that I’m talking about caring about The Funerals, like the ceremony proper, and not death itself) were the ancient Egyptians, I tell her, because their ritual celebrations and burial affected how they fared in the afterlife, and if they even got there at all. If they were as right about death as they were about papyruses and pyramids etcetera then I’ve all but ensured, I tell her, that the four people whose funerals I spoke at had a difficult time getting to heaven and there’s about to be a—

I cut myself off before saying anything about Aunt Jessa, because I know as well as anyone that if just one human soul was getting to heaven it was Aunt Jessa, who owned a nonprofit and adopted three kids, among various other things required for literal sainthood. The silence keeps going, so I do one of those meta-existing things where you take a moment to really just look at the situation. I’m a little bit sad about it. Sadder, that is, than I usually am at funerals, especially when I’m not speaking.  I tell Riley I feel like when I tried to believe what my dad and his sister Jessa said to believe about God it felt like bullet points. It felt like there was no real useful substance and I never was able to fill in for a guide in the gray areas or extrapolate how I should live from “love God and your neighbor” because things are a little bit more complicated than that in real life. Of course Riley would have no frame of reference to the point I was making because most of it happened inside my head. She just said that it’s the point of the bullet that pierces, but flowing blood that fills the holes. My first thought is that there is something other than tobacco in Riley’s cigarette. There is not, and nor, as it turns out, is Riley using the standard blood imagery to talk about Jesus, but this is how it clicks for me in this moment.

I feel like I should preach when I stand behind the pulpit, but I stick to my transcription, which basically says what we all know about how Aunt Jessa is seated at practically the left hand of God because of her nonprofit and things. It is a good eulogy because she was good, and I know this while I am giving it. Nearing the end I attempt to conclude by relating the epiphany I had just experienced outside with those present.

Aunt Jessa had been shot, I say, by Jesus, and it was not her blood, but His, that flowed from her wounds.

I look up before I realize how ridiculous that sounds to other people, and in other situations, and basically to anyone but me without explanation, just so that my face morphs in complete horror as I am looking on at the seats. To my surprise, many nod, as if they not only know exactly what I am saying but they confirm it. Riley is unreadable.

I realize that I had been met on my own terms and that they are by no means universal, and that I will have to face the consequences in the reception. My dad jokes later that it was better that, now, than in eternity, which I still don’t think is that funny but I’ll give my dad the benefit of the doubt because his sister is dead. I think that while it will never be cross-stitched onto a pillow, it stays with me as one of the most beautiful and artistic concepts I have encountered, and one of the most vital, for sure. And I’m ready to explain it.

That is why I’m getting this tattoo.


NaNoWriMo update


I’m in the middle of writing my novel (read: nearer to beginning of my novel) and it has been a challenge as much as a reward, and the way it cancels out so nicely is why I think I quite enjoy it. I may as well include an [¡unedited!] excerpt from the introduction, since this blog is for my writing less than me telling you that I’m writing:

“Valya Breslavets has the most Russian name I’ve ever heard, damn it, and kind of laughably so. She laughed at it sometimes too, but her laugh was beautiful and mine one of those coarse, duck-call things that is mostly a placeholder for a laugh with whatever it claims to be. Of course, I had throat cancer which let my laugh get particularly bad, but more to come on that, later. I developed a high opinion of Russian nomenclature after being introduced to Val, hers being the first name that I ever really thought did favors for a person who belonged to it, not that she needed any extra help as a person. I was not taught the importance of a name growing up, except in one move by my parents, each keeping their family names and to give me a hyphenated last name. Thomas-Embrie. Ellen Thomas-Embrie, with the Thomas following Bryson, my father, and Embrie being my mother Meredith’s. We met each other (Val and I) upon her moving to Chicago without the intention of going to school but looking for work even so, which is an optimistic venture but rarely achievable in today’s United States. The part of this concept of her coming to Chicago on such a tenuous hope for a job remains curious even now, it being so perpendicular to her character to do something like that. Valya was calculated (sans cold, but calculated), making an intensely focused bout of deliberation out of what most would accomplish in a snap judgment. The result was that she lived with her own true purposes revealed in her actions [I picked. that observation straight from this context into her eulogy, because I thought it so key to who she was and because it has this soundbite quality to it].”

I’ll keep updates coming!


a week’s three poems #9!

Here’s some poems! Short story took an unexpected creative turn so that’ll have to be for next week.


these are not life’s bookends.
God or winds or what have you
did not wait for your permission
to set your lungs going
or evaluate your conviction
before shocking your heart
and calming it into steady rhythm.
whether you made them before
you left, understated (it is always
understated), is the only the dilemma not


want to grow something?

center it.

put it right in the


of your focus. reap the harvest.

you don’t even have to do something to be good at it. I was sweating just writing that.

though toil has its merit, a closed eye can work as hard sometimes.


I worry that you heard me when I
Was practicing what to do for you I was

failing to dragoon myself into failing
to live for myself for a little to

call as mine what I should really call
mine and instead giving the name mine

over to everything else over
the span of my whole life the

most scary thought of most
days the days

I find I
can’t think can’t

say my own things say
anything I came up with anything

by my own initiative by


short story excerpt (and a week’s three poems #8)

It’s that time of week again, so I have some more poems. What I also have is the introduction to a short story I’ve been working on. What you’ll get next week is not only the title of that story, but the opportunity to read the whole thing (since I won’t be posting it in its entirety). Here’s the excerpt followed by the poems:

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