Categories
Memoir

Dunedin, Part One

San Jose Circle

Just south of Palm Harbor, on Alternate 19, a two-lane highway running along Florida’s central Gulf Coast, a sign features a cheerful Scotsman wearing a kilt and holding a bagpipe.  “Welcome to Dunedin: Delightfully Different,” it reads. As a small child, in the early 70’s, this town where my grandmother and great-aunts lived filled me with wonder. When I was fourteen—uprooted and deeply afraid—I arrived there with my older sister to start high school while my mother languished in a hospital up north. My sense of wonder had been displaced by the slow creep of understanding: I might never see her again.

The youngest in a combined family of seven, I was both spoiled and anxious. I could often forget the unpredictable violence that punctuated my early life.  In a world where children are at the mercy of their parents, and where mercy exists, Dunedin’s San Jose Circle– a traffic ring fringed with swaying palms and fuzzy-needled evergreens–became my compass.

On childhood visits to Dunedin, I rode in the way-back of a loaded station wagon as my father drove south from our home just outside Washington, DC, away from winter and to this small Florida town known for oranges and pelicans and old people. Daddy turned left from Alternate 19 onto a wide street paved with red brick. As car tires thrummed over the rough surface, our mother gazed out the window, then looked back at us and smiled. Spanish Moss dripped from the boughs of trees like living tinsel, and a warm breeze carried the scent of orange concentrate from a citrus grove and nearby processing plant.

Daddy navigated slowly around the arc of San Jose Circle. A solitary wooden bench faced west, where the afternoon sun angled over the water of St. Joseph Sound. East of the circle was an elementary school, and directly south, a small pond where raucous ducks clamored for pieces of stale bread. Daddy turned left, pointing us north, then parked in the driveway of my Nanny’s house. When she came out to greet us, she opened her arms wide, her face aglow. She smelled of fresh-baked bread she had waiting to slice for us.

After dinner, we would walk to the end of San Jose Street for sunset. Across St. Joseph’s sound, shadows lengthened the tips of mangroves edging Caladesi Island, the protective strip of land between Dunedin and the open Gulf. I waded in chill December shallows next to old wooden pilings and sank my toes in low-tide muck. When the salt breeze turned cold, I snuggled in between my parents and basked in the gentle raspiness of Nanny’s voice as she pointed out a pelican flying close to the water or marveled at the close of another beautiful day.

On sunny winter mornings, my great Aunt Ruth watched me place pennies on the railroad track behind her house on Douglas Avenue, just a block from Nanny. I’d wait with my hands pressed over my ears for the train to rumble past, feeling the ground shake under my feet. Sometimes a muscled arm waved from the conductor’s window, and a friendly smile shone out for this blonde little girl and the elderly woman standing with her. After the caboose went by, Aunt Ruth, lean and straight where Nanny was round and soft, helped me search for the flattened copper ovals I would later show my big sisters.

Aunt Ruth lived with her own big sister, Dora, called DoDo, an oddly childish nick name for someone who seemed to me old beyond time. On late morning visits, as we filled their small house, I sat on a wooden stool that exuded a faint and friendly scent of dust. I drank sweet, fresh orange juice that Aunt Ruth poured for me into a jam jar. After the grown-ups finished their coffee and talking, Aunt Dora would play a hymn on the slightly out of tune upright piano that she had only recently learned to play. She answered our applause with a girlish smile to each of us in turn.

Over the following decade, two of my father’s sisters also moved to Dunedin, adding points of contact to San Jose Circle. The winter I was fourteen, my father decided to sell our house in Washington and move our family south, too. My mother’s lover–her best friend, Michael—was dead. The basement bedroom he rented from our family sat empty and cold. Before my father typed his resignation letter at the kitchen table, he had seen my report cards riddled with failures; he had smelled the pot smoke lingering on my jacket when I came home from junior high school.  

When he took early retirement, Daddy could not foresee that my mother’s long-delayed ulcer operation would lead to infection after infection, to two additional surgeries. He would drive from his temporary job in Virginia to briefly visit my mother in the hospital, as all of us prayed for her unlikely recovery.

Categories
humor mental health

Him, Me, Him, Me

Its 5:40, I can get coffee!

No, it’s 4:40, your phone is messed up. We have to go back to sleep. Let’s curl up. Ooof, if I’m on my left side, my knee hurts, if I’m on my right, my shoulder hurts and my vertigo turns on.

You are a wreck.

I am a wreck. I need to call Frank Azar. Remember? Been in a wreck? Call Frank Azar!

[snoring]

[aching]

5:40. Actual 5:40

I think I went back to sleep.

Yes, you did. I had an imaginary conversation in my head with a holocaust denier. That took a long time, so you definitely slept.

Coffee!

All night, the full moon poured itself in the windows. All night until the sun came up. My friend has told me it is an agitated full moon, with mars snuggled close. I say, not sleeping, if it weren’t so cold, I could sit outside and knit in the moonlight. I say, to me, standing by the propane stove at midnight, clouds scuttling north at high speed, covering the moon to reveal a pocket of dark sky dotted with stars: Dear God, how is so much beauty possible?

Did you see the moonset from our bedroom window?

No, I’m watching the sun come up.

Categories
Memoir

Knees

1981. She walks on the grass next to the sidewalk, on her way home from high school. Every step is taken gingerly, a limp on both sides. Her hair is long and blond, her geometry book under one arm. The faint breeze brings cool salt from the Gulf of Mexico, only a mile west. She is fifteen and her knees hurt, again.

Her father is fifty-six. Less than a year earlier, he took early retirement from the weather bureau to move his wife and two youngest daughters to Florida. They are running low on money. His most recent job was as an insurance salesman, and he sold one policy. Today, he is on his way home from some errands—bank or library or liquor store. He’s in a blue short-sleeve shirt and polyester pants sandy at the cuff. His old station wagon moves slowly over a curb onto the doubled dirt tracks connecting one section of San Salvador Drive to another. This short cut ups the chances of surprising one of his girls with a ride home.

The baby of the family grins and gets in.

I saw you limping. What happened? 

Nothing happened, my knees just hurt, and the grass is softer.

Oh. He frowns down at the steering wheel, then turns right onto the short block that ends at their small house on Saint Anne Drive.

The girl has complained of her knees hurting for weeks. They both remember. They talk about it a bit more.

A week later, he drives her to the doctor. His wife isn’t well. For a few hours almost every day, the girl’s mother is both sober and strong. Almost every day, she drives to Publix and buys food that she can’t feel in her tiny, scarred stomach. She serves them dinner every night as she slowly learns to eat again, without ulcers, and without sensation. Nine months after her first stomach surgery that led to infections and two more surgeries, the bones of her arms appear less skeletal. When she smiles now, cheerful lines star out from her eyes above softening cheekbones.

The doctor’s office is close-by, but the girl takes the whole day off school. With a clear, kind voice, the doctor talks to them about patella’s, about misalignment and tracking. The girl lies down on the exam table as her father watches her learn to do a straight leg lift holding each kneecap still—centered and supported. At home, she does this exercise on the living room floor until it becomes easy. Her father reminds her if she forgets, and her knees gradually stop hurting.

2022. She stands looking out her cabin window toward where his ashes are buried between young aspen. She is fifty-six, retired. She has stopped counting how many years since her mother’s ashes were scattered in the Gulf. Her own belly is easily irritated by juicy apples, fragrant asparagus. A nutritionist—consulted in the third year of IBS–recommends gentle meals, carefully timed.

Her knees have hurt for weeks, and ibruprofen inflames the lining of her gut. Waiting and waiting to call the doctor, she complains as if she will never hear herself, as if this body does best unseen, unfelt.

Finally, a physical therapist hands her a green elastic band to pull above her kneecaps, to add resistance while she strengthens the muscles around her patella. The pain fades slowly, slowly. She sees her mother serving those meals and remembers her father’s delights that some problems can be so easily fixed.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Toad, or, Doesn’t a dream sometimes cross over into a prayer?

Early fall midnight at ten thousand feet, and a lot is happening. The stars are out. Their glimmers make me sit up and put my glasses on, then stand and look into the night at the half-circle of changing aspen. An owl is also wide awake and who-who-who’ing. I’ve never seen this owl, but my mind’s eye tracks her season after season. I lie down again and listen hard. After all, it’s not as if I can really expect to really sleep, anyway.

A few who-who’s later, I drift off, then wake to a soft mammalian whistle. What animal is making this snurfling sound. Elk? An elusive bobcat? Ah, just the husband’s breath, sighing him in and out of a dream. My favorite animal, this man who, like me, will one day take a last breath, and maybe in this very cabin. A wakeful thought, that.

And a part-time job, this sleeping, and not sleeping.  

I move to the couch at 4 and stargaze, waking to the whoosh of moving water. I think, rain, rain, rain! and am dunked in gratitude. Alas, only the coffee maker gurgling, telling me it is 5:30, officially morning. I close my eyes again.

Then. Three women doing dishes in semi-darkness. I pick up a big ceramic bowl and see a hefty toad there—lumpy, wide-eyed, and miraculously ugly. I lift the bowl and walk to the door. I want to set him free, but his container is empty. I understand the toad will be back. All I need to do is keep his water fresh. Later, this writing dream has me christen a fresh black notebook Toad. My pen drops blue ink on page after page. I remember, and deeply, the stillness and clarity of the silent creature and the harmony of the night-time women. Doesn’t a dream sometimes cross over into a prayer?

A month later, flakes fall fast in the city, where I write under a down comforter, struggling to stay awake after a solid night’s sleep. This old house is full. I can almost hear my young people all breathing the hush of their own dreams. All the beautiful ins and outs, all of the dreaming that will go on after me.

City aspen staying bright after the snow.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Creative Nonfiction: Girl, Alone by Jenny-Lynn Ellis

My mind swirls at the distance I am covering.

Creative Nonfiction: Girl, Alone by Jenny-Lynn Ellis
Categories
Memoir mental health

Son, to Part Shade

Where bold sun once beat down on hard dirt and where fresh lavender stalks pushed purple blooms toward our bright star, here we planted a tree in honor of his birth. I kneel in its dappled shade, hands coated in black soil. The sheltering arms of his skyline honey locust touch our high roofline now. Its long, brown seed pods litter the ground every summer. In the dappled shade of its yellow leaves, I seek patches of sunlit ground for pollinator plants.

This flower bed is supported by a rough line of heavy mountain stones, white and gray-veined chunks with sharp, angled corners. From the crook of one stone’s elbow, I lift a small gray rock and rest it smooth and flat against the palm of my hand. Too small to hold back dirt, too warm and smooth to throw away.

How is any rock much different from the smaller specks that clump together to make dirt? How different from molecules of air, for that matter? We move through gas particles. We inhale and exhale every day.

I need this garden like air. Its beds surround the place where I planted my adulthood, where I pulled toddlers’ jackets tight against the wind. In this yard, we turned rocks upside down to see rollie-poly bugs, to marvel at worms and centipedes. We strolled the block to gather red maple and oak leaves, then we ironed them between sheets of wax paper. Day after bright, shining day.

My hands, so much like my mother’s now, have lifted and turned this soil for thirty-three years. These palms once cradled three infants in turn, held close the start of three lifetimes. One life nearly cut short by despair and a handful of pills.

Still breathing. Still breathing. Still here. Bee balm. Astagache. Butterfly bush. All compete with weed after weed after weed. I will work this flower bed, mixing compost into clay, planting everything bright thing I can. Until the snow flies, until bitter cold casts mist from my mouth, then, when spring lures colors from these tender plants, I will kneel down once more.

Back yard astagache bush, also known as hummingbird mint.
Categories
humor mental health

Crankxiety

Dry means dry, I think to myself, as I watch a big metal cylinder flip my clothes around and around. I’m frowning, arms crossed, in a July-hot laundromat in Chesterton, Indiana. The husband thinks that dry means done, which means he takes clothes out of the dryer when he’s tired of waiting for them, even if the necks of my t-shirts and the toes of my socks are still damp. How wrong he is to not understand that dry means dry! How frustrating when he does things wrong! I watch myself agitate, feel my shoulders and jaw turn to gravel. At that moment, dear reader, the husband is six hundred miles away. His laundry misdemeanor occurred a week earlier.

Cranxiety: the crunchy combination of grumpiness and worry.

Everywhere I go, cranky mixes with anxious into a new kind of miserable. On a hushed mountain morning, the husband walks by as I write, on his way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. His footsteps and the kettle’s hissing jolt me into worry that I can’t write, not now, probably not ever again. Why can’t he just be in the other room until I’m done? And why must I be so ill-tempered?

Crankxiety is what happens in my head when the wifi goes out. Where does the wifi go when it goes out? When will it come back? I ruminate on how wrong I am wrong to focus on what is wrong. I am supposed to be sweet, happy, and productive. I am not supposed to flip out when the husband makes tea or the wifi goes for a walk.

Cranxiety is part of what led me to re-start therapy last spring. A few weeks in, I got into an argument with my therapist. Jenny-Lynn, he said to me, so kindly that you would have thought he was a nice person. Hot tears were streaming down my face. Damp tissues were wadded in my left hand. Jenny-Lynn, he said, it is all right to feel. My objection was immediate and visceral—opposition from my toe joints all the way to the hardest part of my skull. I only wanted know why I was crying so I could stop. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t stop, and for some reason, I hated that he told me it was okay.

For me, anxiety is a despairing and physical need for everything to be different, inside and outside myself. It is a belly churning worry over the past and the future, including how much worse the anxiety might get, and how much crankier it might make me.

A few days after my laundromat diatribe, I tell my doctor, Crankxiety is a new circle of hell. She nods sympathetically as she fills my first-ever prescription for an anti-depressant. I’m not depressed, I report, I am just miserably irritable. Eight weeks after starting a low dose anti-depressant, crankxiety still rears its ugly head, but its talons don’t grip my belly for hours or days at a time. I can shrug and go on with my next, more helpful thought. I don’t have to be different, and neither does anyone else. These days, I say to myself, Jenny-Lynn, it’s all right to feel sad. It’s all right to feel anxious. More than anything, I feel more like myself, complaining and sweet in turn, and just exactly good enough.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Road Trip with Nostalgia, A Wedding, and Pestilence

Mile markers slide past the passenger window on a June morning. Colorado. Nebraska. Nebraska some more. A bit more Nebraska. The husband and I unwind memories of the first time we drove to the Indiana Dunes together. We marvel at the year that a full moon rose over central Illinois as three little boys shared the back seat, a big white poodle spread out across their laps. Thirty-plus years of road trips, of picking rest areas and sharing stories. At dusk, the rolling hills of Iowa glow with summer’s deepest greens and warmest yellows.

Above Lake Michigan’s white sand beach, we sleep in the small downstairs space still called “Nanny’s apartment” decades after her passing. In the 1940’s, she and my Grandpa fell in love with this spot, set back on a small hill above the lake’s southern shore. My grandparents drove from their home in Norwood Park with my father and his seven sisters. Everyone who could helped carry groceries or building supplies a half mile down the beach. Three generations later, their descendants take turns sharing this memory-soaked refuge. We park our air-conditioned cars only two flights of wooden stairs above the back door. On these three longest days of the year, the water is cold and the weather blistering; we lie awake at night until the lake breeze cools us, shushing us to sleep with the murmur of small waves.

We drive on to Washington DC, where I was born and where my adored niece is getting married. At a picnic by the Anacostia River, Icelanders meet Israelis meet Canadians; Coloradans chat with Iowans and hug Marylanders. A band offers up some Stevie Wonder, some Lizzo, and I want never to stop dancing. As the musicians pack up their instruments, I step briefly into Icelandic with my sister-in-law, with my niece and nephew. Soon, sitting at an ice cream shop, we see the groom walk slowly past, shoulder to shoulder with his father. They are speaking quietly in Hebrew, the love between them a near-palpable glow.

On Sunday, I arrange lilies and mums, baby’s breath and daisies into five big vases for the reception. I wind white peonies together into a bouquet. Reader, will I surprise you when I say the bride is beautiful beyond beautiful? That the Rabbi is wise? That we cry and we laugh and we dance?

I hug sisters and nephews and a newly married woman goodbye. Thanks to my own husband’s pandemic-delayed fellowship in Connecticut, I drive back to Indiana alone. At a quiet hotel in Ohio, I stretch out for a long, unbroken sleep. This, almost certainly, is where bloodthirsty battalions of bedbugs conquer wide swaths of territory: my right shoulder, my belly, the tender tip of my big toe. As often happens, only days later, when the bites begin to itch and swell, will I know that anything happened at all.

I stake out three days to write at a BNB near the Dunes cottage, determined to work out my book’s outline–the confounding, dreaded, avoided outline. I sit and sit and I sit. I drive to the grocery store to pick out mauve and teal and yellow sticky notes. I have lunch. I sit down to color code my outline, then give up. The weight of discouragement behind my eyes is too thick for tears.

On the third day, I sit down to work on my outline in the three columns suggested by my teacher: Icelandic, Mamma, The Body. I stare at the columns until they make sense. I stick scenes under the headings, clustering them into sections. I keep going.

I read outside at dusk and marvel at how many mosquito bites I can get without a single buzzing in my ear. Overnight, I am awakened by itching that will not stop until I get home to Denver, where an urgent care doctor will prescribe turbo-charged steroid cream and nuclear-powered antihistamine.

But first, I hear that my baby cousin is at the Dunes cottage. I sit on the shaded deck as a group of relatives settle in on the beach. “Excuse me,” says a voice from on high. My baby cousin looks down at me through a screened window, her girl face stern as she asks who I am. I would know her anywhere, her confidence and brightness, my father’s bright blue eyes. I tell her who I am and add, “You look just like J!” “That’s because I am her daughter” comes the serious reply. I know, of course, that this is the baby of my baby cousin, but I am still startled by the passage of time. I play in the lake with her little sister, tossing back and forth a plastic pony she has named Sunshine.

Sitting on the sand, I contemplate a line of three red bites on my shin. The “breakfast-lunch-dinner” pattern of bed bug bites gives me a sickening jolt that is immediately squashed by stiff denial. Alone, I drive west, trying not to scratch the clump of welts on my shoulder. Five hours later, passing Des Moines, a strip of hives rises on my arm in threes.

Anxious and anxiouser, I call my cousin, my BnB hostess, a bedbug specialist. Sorry and sorrier, I drive on, refusing to stop in another hotel. I fine-tune my strategy to keep the monsters out of our house and to roast any car-lurkers with the heat of a 100-degree day.

Rain lets up with just an hour more to drive. Suddenly, the burnt orange sun breaks free below a bank of turquoise clouds. My heart calms as I breathe in the richness of this Colorado sky like no other. To the east, a massive double rainbow domes the prairie, pulsing higher and wider as the sun sinks below the horizon. And I am gentled. I am welcomed home.

Categories
biking Memoir

Westfjords Ride

In Isafjordur, the town where my mother was born and where she gave birth to my two older brothers, I pull my biking shoes out of my suitcase. They are heavy, with inflexible soles built to grip wide mountain bike pedals. Still flecked with red Moab dust, I carried them all the way from Denver so I could ride with Haldora Bjork, my cousin who has always felt more like a sister. She loves this village with all her heart. Only her bright spirit makes this visit possible. I feel haunted by this town, and I don’t know why. On a walk earlier in the day, my husband recognized the house where my mother was raised. It is painted a burnt yellow now. He wanted a closer look, but I turned away, frightened of nothing I could name. I can’t reconcile the three-dimensional house with the framed black and white photograph I stared at as a child, hoping for clues to my mother’s girlhood.

Dora leads us on our bikes to the old coast road—now replaced with a tunnel–between Isafjourdur and Bolingarvik. The untended pavement is riddled with deep cracks and slush patches. We ride around huge boulders and dodge small sharp rocks that have rained down from cliffs above. When cars still drove here, so many avalanches and rock slides pummeled the road that concrete shelters were erected. As we pedal under these bunkers, the pavement is smooth and wide, the air hushed.

 A mile ahead, at a sharp curve, we pause. A cross and plaque serve as a memorial to the many people whose lives ended here. Salty mist lifts from the water, and the far-off rock faces of Hornstrandir glisten with snow. The cliff just above us holds color after color—black granite slabs sliced through with ochre, a ribbed hillside specked with green moss, the vertical streams of meltwater shining gray in north-facing grooves. Below, smooth round rocks heap at the water’s edge, contrasting with small islands of jagged stone.

Just outside Bolingarvik is a museum–two small black-timbered, turf-roofed buildings alongside an old boat winch and fish-drying rack. Peeking in the window of the little house, we see two pairs of shoes. One looks like it is made of fish skin, the other possibly of seal skin. Both are tiny and flimsy looking. I remember what my brother Finn said a few days earlier: in the old days, a journey was described by how many pairs of shoes would be worn out in the walk.

Dora exclaims, Can you imagine working outside in all kinds of weather in shoes like those?! Then she tells me: I had a friend who died not long ago. He was in his late nineties. I was talking to him once and he told me that of all the new technology in his lifetime, the best was rubber boots. The rubber boots changed his life the most.

As we bike back to her house, and for days after, I think of her friend, of all the changes he saw in one long life, a life lived walking the village streets my mother left behind, first for Reykjavik, then for the US.

Categories
Memoir

Oatmeal

On a cold morning, Mamma makes oatmeal while my sister and I wait for the dusty ovals to soak up salty water and turn into food. Only Martha and I are eating this breakfast. Ruth and Kristin have left, Ruth to junior high school and Kristin at the forever-away high school. Martha and I go to Green Valley Elementary, across from and above the curved parkway outside our front yard. We can see our house from the school yard. Looking down through the chain link fence, our red brick house looks tiny. We can’t see school from our house, only the twin lines of cars snaking in different directions, and the steep concrete drain that sometimes gushes muddy rainwater into the low, paved creek bed.

My mother’s back is to us while she stirs the boiling oats. She looks big in her zip-up robe that hangs like a capital A from her shoulders down to her slipppered feet. She has smoothed her brown hair with a comb, and it lands exactly at the collar of her robe. Turning toward us, she has her cooking face on—cheeks pink, lips in a straight line, and concentration tugging her dark eyebrows together.

How do I know she is beautiful? Is it the way her eyes balance perfectly in her face? Those eyes that can be extra blue or extra green depending on the light? Is it how carefully she pulls herself together for the world, putting makeup on before she goes out to the grocery store? I know she is beautiful because she is my Mamma, and she takes care of me. She is special because she is Icelandic. I see how other people look at her, their smiles of admiration, or of envy.

In the kitchen, when she turns around and looks at us, her sixth and seventh children, the hungry girls of her second marriage, her smile brightens the air around us. My sister and I stop arguing and notice the sparkled air. Without any makeup, Mamma’s face looks easy and free. Her eyebrows let go of each other. She is all soft morning, the promise of warmth and fullness.

Breakfast is ready! She reaches to pull juice glasses from the cupboard. Martha and I have been distracted from our waiting by stirring the orange juice, concentrate slowly blending with water in the oblong Tupperware pitcher. Daddy lets us do this every time, telling us the two meanings of the word “concentrate.” He is at work or maybe asleep after a night shift.

Mamma gets tired of listening to us talk about the melting chunk of orange ice. We can argue about anything—who has had the best turn with the long-handled wooden spoon, who was right about whether there were any ice chunks left to stir or poke at, who wants to watch the thick orange goo melt to the bottom of the container or keep taking turns stirring. We argue about who gets the fanciest spoon, maybe a silver one from Iceland. That’s enough, Mamma says, patient today. She takes the pitcher we have argued over, snaps the plastic lid on top, and shakes it smooth, with no layers, no clumps.

She fills our glasses, and we drink greedily. The juice clears a sleepy taste from my mouth, paints my tongue bright for the day to come.

I fix my steaming bowl the special way Mamma once showed me, with a snow-layer sprinkle of sugar over the top. I lift the edges of the smooth oatmeal to dribble cold milk between it and the edges of the bowl. Melted sugar glistens on the surface as milk floats my breakfast like an island: it looks perfect.  But by the time I have finished making it just right, it is stone cold. I don’t want it anymore. Mamma tells me to be careful, that if I don’t eat my breakfast, the wind will lift me up and carry me away like happens sometimes in Iceland when children don’t eat enough. I look up at her, startled, but she has turned away. I spoon a few bites into my mouth and swallow them with a tight throat, seeing myself stuck in a tree like a lost kite, wanting to get back down to the ground. After we put on our coats, she kisses us goodbye, and the two of us step outside into the chill air. I don’t understand my mother. She was telling a lie, Martha explains. The wind can’t be strong enough to blow us away. Maybe it can in Iceland, but not in America.

I snap back at her, I know that! I wasn’t scared! Silken relief wraps me in warmth. Martha lets me walk with her all the way to the corner of Catskill Avenue before she runs ahead. I wish I could be in third grade, and fast like she is, smart enough to not be scared by made-up stories.