A review of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys by Sonya Huber

Reviewed by Katherine McCord

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys
by Sonya Huber
University of Nebraska Press
Paperback: 204 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0803299917, March 1, 2017

1. Please Read Sonya Huber’s Book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, for me or not for me and because it’s brilliant and good and while she is a woman and the world mostly publishes men and hears them as spectacular rock star stellar daring voices I promise you hers is so good so put your damn prejudice aside that she’s a woman being daring and make her rock star and make her go viral and give her millions and make her cult movie and make a plush toy in her honor that makes you feel better when you see it and even because you’ve named that plush toy Pain. And honor it as the pain every woman who is in pain almost all the time feels. Almost 99 percent of the time but manages to make art. P.S. And I’m not saying men aren’t in pain. Duh. Obviously. I’m married to a man I desperately love and who is good to me and has had his fair share of pain, like brain aneurysm pain. I’m just saying, unless you are one of the few popular rock star writing women who are badass and some way made their way into the crowd of rock stars so that people listen to them, you have to go through this thing of self-doubt that is indescribable because you are a woman and while totally writing about woman things whatever that means and having gone to the march and lived your life like that you can’t be a woman who doesn’t know if you’re good enough, deep down, or a woman who compensates for that or something I can’t put my finger on. And have people listen to you. You can’t repeat yourself. You can’t be unsure or socially inept sometimes or confused or clumsy or uncool, the kind of uncool whereby people screw you over all the time and look for something better when they are with you and link you with weirdoes, the real weirdoes who want to hurt you and everyone else, even if you can write. And by listen to you I mean love you for your art. Love your art. Because even though making your art is one of the joys and hells of your life, love for it is one of the others. And that’s all any of us want anyway. To be loved for whom we are which is what art is when it’s good. And to love. With abandon. Which is the end result of all this anyway.

2. I learn something new while reading a graphic memoir that smells like cigarette smoke I got from the library so that I associate the author with the smoke and it seems apt: Anyway, I learned that if I don’t check my two university emails constantly out of anxiety and dread but read, I feel better. The problem is I have this anxiety thing whereby I go crazy if I run out of good books. And by run out I only mean I’m constantly requesting them to pick up in the drive-thru of my library but my library being local and small doesn’t mostly have the books I’m requesting so they have to come through interlibrary loan. And that takes a long time. From there I buy the books I fall in love with. Used. Because there’s no way I can afford all the books I’m trying to read. And a lot of them come and I don’t want to read them upon starting to read them, so I maybe get one or two out of the current pile that feed me. And I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t read what I don’t want to read, and I don’t teach what I don’t love. So, the constant battle to bring in, find books at my local library sometimes gets obsessive. As in I panic when I’m on low and low on books to weed through. So, there’s that. And it’s too complicated not to use. And, at the beginning of sentences while I’m writing. And it’s too complicated to use my one university library; the other one doesn’t really exist because I teach online for them where I don’t seem to really exist. So back to the one that exists: it doesn’t have a drive-thru. It requires a complicated walk across campus and having to act like I’m fine and greet people I know whom I care about because I don’t want them to think I’m not okay or students that I don’t want to think I am mad at them or don’t care. And I notice I get the time while I’m reading plus five minutes after to feel better. But it’s really not five minutes, and it’s really not while I’m reading and it’s more like 30 seconds. And that’s even sometimes. So, it’s not like perfect science. But all I have is that and breathing, and breathing, even, is tiring. The dread and despair I’m currently feeling has moved in for the duration of winter and spring. If I’m honest, I’ll get three weeks high to later summer when I don’t feel dread and despair for hours during every day. I know, I know, I’m lucky to only feel it for five to seven hours. But then there’s the anxiety of the first flash of it coming. Usually about noon. It’s like the flash of light migraine headache sufferers describe comes hours before the migraine that puts them to bed, sometimes for days, often for 24 hours. In severe pain. I see it but it’s not light; it’s, for lack of better words, like a dark jagged bolt that doesn’t physically hurt but goes down the center of your body, head to toe as it has split in two at the pelvis and it wavers into being unkempt almost as if it doesn’t quite want you to get the whole all-out crush of despair or would if it had feelings and dread and pain but like it artistically, if it had artisticness to it, wants to give you just enough of a warning to know today will be like every other day of the last 10 years of your life minus those three weeks a year. Sometimes I respond by getting frantic with “doing.” I run errands like a crazy woman. I say I’m going to get everything done today in preparation for this fantasy I have, this hope, all the irons in the fire we’ve had for five years, that we’re moving where there’s ocean and it’s warm. Really warm. And the ions will fill me, the blaze of light will fill me, I’ll have this reserve like a reservoir. A beautiful one surrounded by lowlands and where it’s hot and where there are tiny towns, maybe even ghost towns to explore along its rim because its rim will be huge as it will be almost never-ending so more like an ocean or a gargantuan lake that’s really like the ocean and not dark and lake-ish. And sometimes with dread in tow, a lighter one, I resignedly wait. I do what I have to do—grade papers, teach, clean, write the things I must write if I can, not the things I have to write as in need to, my writing, and, like I said, appeal to the universe, wait, Say, “Just get through this minute and why are you so indifferent, Universe and God, if there is love,” and this minute and this, and turn frantically to the hope that we will move, and back and forth in a kind of panic in my brain, and frantically go through all the things that might make me feel better but don’t, rejecting them one by one, and drive and avoid parking places that I think will make me feel sadder than I do and avoid the places themselves that I think will make me feel sadder than I do and avoid errands that I think will make me feel sadder than I do, and phone calls, and texts, and emails and tasks, and pictures, and views, while doing the ones that I can but really can’t, exhausting myself even though I have no other choice but to get tired because it all takes so much energy to be alive even though I want to be alive. Until, if I’m lucky, sometime in the evening or at night it lifts. Until tomorrow. This is what I have to look forward to. But you won’t know it unless you suffer in the same way and I tell you, but I won’t tell you because it takes too much energy and there’s nothing you can do. Speaking at this point is exhausting. So much so that while speaking someone having asked me a question the only other feeling that I can get during this time, sometimes, on some days, in some hours, is frustration. I just want to be left alone. But I don’t want to sleep because I don’t want my girls to know and I don’t want the dread of waking up and feeling panicked because of all that I missed and having missed it I did harm to my family or girls and all that I have to do. In addition, it is impossible to keep all the bad memories in abeyance but it’s not like they are memories. They are feelings sitting before scenes in my mind. I can barely see the scenes (although I know what they are) because the huge gray bubble before the scene, not a perfect bubble but more of a slack kind of thick and heavy balloon, is there, and it’s not normal, not made of normal earth elements as far as I can tell because it’s impossible to get through it, no matter what tools. Stand up, I tell myself. Walk here. I feel the dread and pain. Walk downstairs, I tell myself, get the thing. Feel the dread. Pick up the spool of thread, the pencil, the cup, the duster or piece of paper or whatever and carry it back upstairs where you need it. Use it. Do the next thing. This for hours and hours. And hours. If it lifts, it’s not flash. I’m just in it, the balloon. But it sort of billows on the downlow and it’s a bit lighter until later when I’m still not trusting it’s gone because it’s on the periphery. And now I can feel anger. Not rage. But anger—why do I have to do this?, what can make it stop?, how can I get out of here?, etc. Every. Single. Day. Until the three weeks. Which last year were laced with panic because of the fear of the end of them. And the hope that this, dear god this, was going to be the last time. The last three weeks I’d ever have to give up. And that being near the ocean and in the warmth and heat year-round would work. For the rest of my life. From 52 years on. With all the other things I’ve put in place: medication, dialectical behavior therapy, and my beautiful and miraculous Emotional Energy Worker, after having weeded through a million other things. Fifty-two years I’ve made it, so from 52 years on. But even now as I write this, in it, there’s the fear that, the belief that, nothing will help, I’m kidding myself, despite documenting this working it’s all a farce because maybe, I tell myself, probably and somehow it wasn’t true then and besides I’m disappointing people anyway, causing them harm then and now by my existence except that it could be worse, my existence, I missed my chance, it’s all hopeless, I’ll never escape this, it’s here to stay. And that’s how I live. Trying to keep it closeted because there’s nothing anyone can do about it anyway and I don’t want to cause those I love the harm. The weight, the worry, the fear. I want my girls to not know this ever ever ever and I fear their even knowing it might harm them. Now I’m done. I did it. I wrote about it. I came here, knowing the writing would be slack. Probably a waste of time. But all I had was the next thing that occurred to me and it’s not like it sprung up happy. It just occurred. Not inspired. But I was sitting here trying to do and my laptop was open, and I expended the energy opening a page and that was exhausting, and I could barely do it without tears except that crying, even, is too much effort, takes too much. The pain is unbearable and there’s nothing that can be done. So, I wrote. Because there is nothing to be done. That’s all I can say. Then it occurs to me to try and make friends with it and I think that this may be the beginning of it lifting for today. Like Sonya made friends with her pain but also doesn’t but tries to live with it not accepting it but both allowing it and not giving in. Not believing in it but believing in it. And writing. And I would never know this, truly know this, if the book hadn’t been art. And I can’t quote from it to prove it to you because I am whacked. And because her writing is beyond that. Me showing its craft. It is eloquent but true while my writing is not eloquent right now. It is just here. And I’m just here. And that is all. But her writing has burrowed into my soul. Yet I don’t know if you’ll ever see this or even if that’s possible if I’ll let you see this. So, it’s what gave me a kind of truth today. And that’s the biggest compliment of my life: Because, also, while guessing my worthiness in every other way, I don’t with what I choose to read. I can tell you I only read art. I put down what isn’t. Call it literary knowhow or what you must. Call it psychic, but without schooling and with schooling I’ve known: If it’s not art, out of hopelessness, I’ll turn to the next thing. That won’t do anything for me. And it can’t be my family because during this time I’m trying to protect them, so I act or am grateful they are away for just during this time if this time ends. Sonya’s book is art. Read it. Read it if you are or aren’t in pain. Oh, and read her book Cover Me. It’s good too. And Lauren Slater’s stuff about depression. It will slay you. In the best of ways. Love ways. Like Sonya’s. And send Sonya stickers for her cane that’s really a walking stick but for pain which makes it really a cane and also it’s not shaped like a walking stick and Lauren, well, I don’t know what to send Lauren. So maybe just read her books. Reading them you’ll experience art and love and feel better. Unless there’s something wrong with you. Just kidding but not really. I value other opinions in the opposite direction, just not about this: Pain.

3. It is noon the next day, 12:10 to be exact, and there’s the flash. And I must say this before I flat-line metaphorically-but-it-doesn’t-feel-metaphorical-at-all-way: I’m thinking about Sonya and her book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. Read it. I’ve got it right next to me. It’s excellent. Read it. She’s a rock star.

4. It is 2 more days later, and I had the flash an hour ago, so the full-on crush is here. Please be with me as I try to write this anyway because it’s so funny, it’s all I have to write about, and I have to write it, there’s some kinda need, even though it will be like dragging a beyond-heavy suitcase with no wheels miles to your car after flying with its accompanying gazillion connections around the world and having all middle seats: After much consternation and emails back and forth with security at my school about my lost ID (I wasn’t worried about having lost it, the last one I lost I didn’t renew for 5 years) about WHERE it would be waiting for me like it was alive, all tense and everything, and WHEN, all their caps, I could pick it up, security at my school not being security (put it this way, if there’s a shooter, they’ll probably offer us up), each member of their team running his or her own show and making up the rules as she or he goes along. And then not sharing them. So, after all this work that’s harder than my actual teaching, I go to the place and at the time they’ve said and, well, you know how history goes. But it’s not even that. Dread and hopelessness, as usual, in tow, it was the sitting there knowing my ID was in a drawer within my reach in some suck-the-life-out-of-you gray, institutionally ugly office and waiting for some guy supposedly coming post 7 calls by the security chick sitting next to me to find out the ineffective person she can call to get help and being told she has to wait for this guy supposedly already “on his way here,” due for his shift, I realize I’ll never be well enough to survive this. But I need to make copies and I already drove the 45-minute commute to get here having backed myself into a corner and yelled at myself about my last five years of taking the easy way out and just making copies at a place in our town and that this has probably cost us thousands, I force myself to wait, you know, because it’s money that was earmarked for our girls. And food. And it’s not until the guy shows up, 45 minutes later, and shows the chick in the office where my ID is in the unlocked drawer in front of me and affirms that that’s where they always keep the turned-in lost ID’s and there it is in an envelope with my name on it, the drawer that I had pointed to and politely begged the chick to check out but that for some unknown reason I didn’t have the energy to ask her for said she “couldn’t” and rooted herself in for the duration, that is, didn’t leave so I could rip the drawer off its tracks, that I allow myself to get mad even if making sure I don’t show it, that I, moments later, freed, vow to steal. Yes, steal. From the copy room where I’m headed, a closet where you use your faculty ID like a wand. Just to get in. Something juicy like a set of markers in every color and wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were scented, every kind of fruit, or the rare thin chalk that comes in, say, hot summer sky palest blue almost white, pasty red as if tinged cookie dough and pink, schoolish and bringing back memories of the feel and smell and deliciousness of construction paper. Don’t get me started about the joyous possibilities–once I found a package of it with every shade of brown you could think of, the label noting this was because it was multicultural, as in, for skin, People, skin–or a set of pens where the ink glides across the page. And mind you, this is the first time it has ever even occurred to me to steal, at least directly. But I can’t help it, the wanting revenge, out of context, I know, but so like one of, was it Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s man against the status quo things? Even though I’m not a man because we know it’s really woman against whatever in this case. And even though nature and the machine, etc., are not status quo technically, they kinda are as it feels like they have big egos, and, well, they DO. Go figure. But when I get there, besides the two giant copiers (yep, copiers against me and if you don’t believe it, depend on a copier even for only a few hours), there’s just a lone pen and a box of reams. Sure, I contemplate hauling out the whole case, I even consider only taking one pack, but I’ve just had a lesson in cameras as eyes into rooms. In that I knew I’d be picked up having just spent 45 minutes watching dreary gray monitors of nothing given it’s a Sunday so that mid-teaching on Monday Security, having reviewed the tape like all good detectives do, would arrest me, and especially because they don’t have guns or tasers I’d have to fight back, make it that I’m proving a dire point, like in my world (yours, too, probably, if you are reading this) a respected sit-in, and my students wouldn’t buy it and lose all respect for me in more ways than one. And I’m just not sure about the jail experience. That jury’s still out. Sure, my husband could maybe post bond, but I’ve heard stories, yes, from my friends, all those people unjustly arrested or tear-gassed. (Okay, maybe not friends friends, and maybe I don’t know know them, since I didn’t come to fruition until the 80s, but people I felt for and applauded and shook my fist at “the man” for, arrest records following them the rest of their lives.) How it takes days for a judge, his leisurely afternoons taking precedence, the wheels of “the system” grinding like summer-heat-induced slowly, his feet on his desk while he looks at a magazine (Playboy)—okay, maybe not but I tend to scarily stereotype male southern judges, assuming they are all from the south and it’s the 60s and retroactively conservative–to decide how much springing you should cost, or the crappy criminals’ phone doesn’t work when you make your one call so that they sarcastically say to you, Oops, sorryyyy! My bad! Or something close (and that’s if you are lucky) and just lead you back to your cell so that your husband has to be a sleuth to find you, and my husband, despite being brilliant, is not good at sleuthing things unless for like answers to physics problems, keys or his work ID. Things that are less worldly or are dicier, say, emotions spewing, no, it doesn’t occur to him to follow the trail. He’d rather wait for it to blow over or go away. Just when you think you are going to hurl yourself into the street because you are so done with waiting for a response other than a kind of controlled frustration, he’s still weighing options. And, of course, this is better than regurgitating. And I love him for it, even if it does make me want to scream. So, I just make my copies like everyone else does, if not on a Sunday, and go to pick up the picture I left the frame people to frame at Michaels, weeks after the time they gave me to pick it up cuz I didn’t want to take any chances, and by now you’re already guessing how things went. Still, this time it doesn’t occur to me to steal. In a place where many, many people, I’m told because it never occurred to me, do. (Truly I was shocked cuz I assumed most petty stealing happened on the job where you could rationalize, is my guess, you’re getting back at the Machine/Man/Society/even Nature because it all stems.) Because of all kinds of cool stuff. Even if I want to just look at and not make anything from but turn the directions upside down. So, I just leave after an hour with my frame and gift my parking spot to someone waiting, the dread having coated every cheery item, determining its tone, over and over, until it rears up like a dull beat. Here. And then here. On that monitor. That you watch with a kind of other-worldly but controlled, fixated, intense abandon despair landing like a tether ball over and over in your face so that over and over you have to push it away while your love sleeps, because all you have left is a hope-ish will, a willish hope. Man against the machine. Man against man. Man against nature. Man against his body. Man with his body. Man coaxing his body. Man fighting his body. Man. Breath. Your brain. Your consciousness. Tuned to a desperate kind of bargaining love. Illustrating, I’m sure, all that is sacred, like words, when they have to be said. Like something I can’t state yet but let’s call it being alive.

5. We were talking about education. And I said, out loud, because it’s true: When I walked into kindergarten (preschool wasn’t really big in those days and I’d had it but it was private and avant-garde so, in a nutshell, different from public school for which I was being indirectly forewarned and where my teacher wore this kinda flowy not gauzy but sort of see-through rayony but looking spiritual outfit that’s the only one I remember except that I think it was a dress and you couldn’t actually see through and it was spiritually greenish. I think it was Montessori. Anyway, she patted our heads. And we had “community chores.” Basically, it was like a commune for preschoolers, but all flowy and positive except it wasn’t. That was a farce. I was always in trouble for spacing out and not doing my chores. Sure, I was creatively punished but they didn’t call in punishment. So whacked I was that my strongest memory is crawling, yes crawling, from one classroom to another to my sister’s desk and reaching up and tugging at her dress so she’d notice and save me only seconds later to be whisked by someone, flowy lady?, away.) I knew I was fucked. (And, yes, I used those words.) I knew it was all over, the interesting and wonderfully fiascoish but more like interesting (at least the good parts) and allowed-to-be creative and “out of the box” (geez that’s prophetic, “box.”) that was my life before preschool. I just didn’t flourish being smashed down and soon-enough conforming and taking that slow deliberate walk toward despair and started, day one, having made a 99 percent on a placement test just as school began, to feel bad about everything and confused and mess it up. So, I was screwed. And it took me years to recover. In fact, I still haven’t recovered post education, counting from grad school’s end, as of today, 21 years, 2 months, 11 days, 15 hours, 17 minutes, and 35 seconds, well, now 38. But seriously. I’m still fucked. Apparently.

6. So for all of us read Pain Woman Takes Your Keys by Sonya. Huber. Be alive to your pain.

7. P.P.P.S. My sister after all is said and done: “You just need a lanyard.”


About the reviewer: Katherine McCord’s two books of poetry are Island and Living Room (prose poems). Her third book, My CIA, is a lyric essay/memoir. My CIA was named a top ten book of 2012 by the Review of Art, Literature, Philosophy and Humanities and added to their ongoing list of Great Nonfiction reads. It won a Baker Artist Award; was showcased on Maryland Public Television’s, An Artworks Special; and was featured through an art installation co-produced by Maryland Institute College of Art’s MFA in Curatorial Practice in early December 2013 in Baltimore. She has published widely in literary journals and magazines such as American Poetry Review. She has an MFA in Poetry and an MA in English/Creative Writing/Poetry. In 2011 and 2014, she won Maryland Individual Artist Awards (state grants in creative writing in poetry). She has been awarded finalist/semi-finalist status in the Emerging Writer Fellowship Competition, The Writer’s Center, Maryland; the Joaquin Miller Cabin Reading Series, Washington, DC; the Autumn House Press Open Poetry Competition; The “Discovery”/The Nation Poetry Contest; the Poet Lore Narrative Poetry Competition; The Chester H. Jones Foundation National Poetry Competition; The Maryland Poetry Review Poetry Contest; NDR’s Poetry Chapbook Competition for her manuscript, Muse Annie; and the fellowship competition, Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania and Kenya, 2013. She teaches Creative Writing at Stevenson University and University of Maryland University College. Finally, recently she won the Gabehart Prize in (Creative) Nonfiction for an excerpt from her manuscript, RUN SCREAM UNBURY SAVE; was named one of three finalists for the Tony Quagliano International Poetry Award; was awarded a Hoffer Legacy (Creative) Nonfiction Award for My CIA; was named a finalist for her manuscript of prose poetry, Muse Annie, for C&R’s Summer Chapbook Contest; and (incredibly good news) won the Autumn House Press Open Book Award in Creative Nonfiction for her literary memoir manuscript, RUN SCREAM UNBURY SAVE, which means they’ve published it as of February 1, 2017.