"Canary in a Coal Mine"

I hold Karen Dalton’s music and story close to my chest, and so I’m thrilled to have contributed to this love letter to her: It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best: a Karen Dalton fanzine, published by Syncronised Witches Press. “Canary in a Coalmine” is a piece about trying to find light in the dark. Here’s a little excerpt:

Three of us branched off and talked about our mothers, their deaths, the ineffable impact. I felt lonely as I realized the fear I carried, the effects of grief, the ignited thoughts that can burn up whole days. I revolved my subconscious around time, a quickly draining hourglass, and a fear of both success and demise. I softened, I quieted, and I woke up. In that moment I could feel you—a canary in a coal mine.


february 28: a task

Have you felt so low, so finely in tune with the arrangement of your insides, that it takes a soft yet precarious movement of both mind and body to emerge? And when I say emerge, let it mean what first comes to mind, let it mean the home, and the heart, and the vile corners of your mind. Let it mean something other than just sleeping through the winter—but sleep through the winter, if you must—or stepping aside continuously until you find yourself on the edge, the coast. Your body soaking in boreal saltwater, aching for the horizon.

Ask yourself, and do it now: have you ever felt so in tune with anything at all?

Cynthia Schemmer

The world was softer then. We ran away screaming from beehives and then ran giggling toward them. We broke rocks open with our father’s hammers and struck gold. We picked flowers and ripped them apart, or brought them home to our mothers. We won goldfish from the Italian feast every summer; they would die within days, our grief would fade within hours.

We dreamed our futures to be enormous and full.

Someday I will write a book, I told my mother, and she believed it. I wrote stories and read them out loud to the tape recorder; my brother’s sometimes came into the room and I had to start again. I kept journals at ten and never grew out of it. I was attracted to the sound of words, the crinkle of plastic covers on books, the way the elementary school librarians would lick their fingers and turn the page.

Author, Mom. These were the answers to the questions I remember constantly having to answer: What do you want to be when you grow up? Who do you love?

The answers remain the same, despite the wavering existence of both.

Cynthia Schemmer
Art by  Chelsea Dirck

(An excerpt from a new piece I’ve been working on about addiction, loss, gardening, and watching your childhood friends vanish.)

We made fireworks out of flowers back then. We picked the ones that reminded us of fire—our mothers' chrysanthemum and forsythia—and teared the petals off into plastic beach pails. The snapdragons were our spectators and the honeysuckle our refreshments; we made their mouths move in awe and we sucked their sweet nectar. We ran across our neighbor’s front yard, the one that separated us, and tossed handfuls of wilted petals into the air. We screamed BOOM! and our mothers watched and wondered what in the world we would bloom into.

Sean was my first true friend, in the sense that we were neighbors and it was convenient. We were friends before school and the taunts of the opposite gender, and until high school we spent most of our time together. He lived on the corner, in a blue Victorian with a wraparound porch that was guarded by a looming white pine. I lived deeper into the cul-de-sac, in a standard two-story—the house that my mother grew up in—with a crumbling brick walkway and an oak my grandfather planted in the '60s. Our mothers were friends, in the sense that they were neighbors and it was convenient, and so it began…

Cynthia Schemmer

(Originally published in Anthology One, Drexel University Writers Room, 2015.)

First, pretend. Keep your mind closed to reality, but open to all whimsy.

Distractions are key.

Be sure to not acknowledge the wilted flower lying in front of you as your mother, with tubes and wires dangling from her body like a marionette who will never dance again.

Tell yourself this was your fault. All those times as a child, when you created nightmarish daydreams about life without her, were leading up to this.

Next, cry. For the first time in your life open up to your father, but be prepared for him to swat you away like a fly, like you are nothing, like you look like her.

After all the roses are thrown, and she is planted in the earth, move out of your childhood home. Your family, now all men (besides yourself), will be of no help to your pain. You are still so young, and she is gone. There is no one left who believes in you as a writer. Not even yourself.

Begin taking long walks through the ruins of New York City. Search for the place she was born, and find that it is no longer standing.

Go to therapy. Use all the drugs and one-night-stands you need to fill the bottomless void, but make sure that you show up every week and do the work in the deepest parts of your gut.

Now, fall in love with the idea of never feeling this grief again, of overcoming it completely, and let that love break your heart for the rest of your life.

Start writing again for the first time in years. Sit on your fire escape, beneath the burning liquor store sign, and plot the future. Dream all the things you know she believed you could be, and then be them.

Under no circumstance listen to your demeaning second voice, the eponymous scoundrel who most often takes form as your father. Smother it with forward motion.

Comfort a friend who loses a mother. The mother, with your exact first and middle namesake and birthday, died on the same day your own mother died. In learning this, walk to the shore and understand there are unexplainable and amazing things that are bigger than you, that are floating you to the place you are meant to be.

Here, you find progress.

Still, you wish you did things differently.

Later, you will see your path for it’s own perfections and your way without her.

But for now, just write it down.

Cynthia Schemmer