“Her Mother’s Child” by Julie Sondra Decker
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“So I hear our flower has bloomed.”
The grinding stone slips from my fingers and clatters into the mortar, echoing the rhythm of my heart. Aubrey grins down at me, gathering the question from my eyes: Who told you?
“Iris told me herself.”
I shake my head and press my dusty fingers to my lips. Speaking of moon times to her father? That girl…
Aubrey rolls his eyes, still merry. “No, not that,” he says, “but she’s been worrying out loud about getting picked for Briar’s sunday, and she could hardly be doing that if she were still a child, yes?”
I tap my head and give him a grudging nod. You’re smart, Aubrey.
“I’m just observant.” He sobers. “You should talk to her. She needs her mother.”
I make my sign for “later” and he accepts it wordlessly, touching my shoulder briefly before moving past me and out the door. Oh yes, I’ll talk to her. Not that advice from me is likely to do any good.
As I resume grinding roots into heavy yellow powder, the worry eats at me. What if I cannot help my daughter with her problems? What if I am not equipped? If only she were like her older sisters — a breeze to advise, from early boy troubles to marriage advice — but Iris…the way we talk past each other has only gotten worse as she’s grown. How could a child who grew in my belly have come into the world with so little of my blood? But as her mother, I must do something to soothe her, even if it’s nothing but listening. Will she want my support?
I’ll never know if I don’t start the conversation, because she certainly won’t.
Wiping yellow dust onto my smock, I rise from the stool and check our stores for the ingredients of Iris’s favorite treat. Miraculously, everything is in stock. I take this as a sign that I’ve chosen the right approach, and I whistle a tune of praise to the Goddess as I mix the oats and syrup. Sound feels odd traveling through my lips, but I only stop once the oat bars are finished and wrapped on my daughter’s bed, bearing a note that says Thinking of You.
She finds me later, holding my note, her face full of words.
“Mama?” she says, eyes and hopes open wide. “Can I talk to you about something?”
I pat the cushion next to me, and she moves onto it with unconscious elegance, tucking her feet under her, so fluid and comfortable in her body. Where did she get that easy grace? Certainly not from me. But my daughter’s worries have climbed onto her shoulders, upsetting the balance she normally carries. My hand finds itself on her back, rubbing like I can knead the troubles out of her if I try. She sighs.
“Briar’s sunday is a week from today,” Iris says. “Do you think he likes me?”
I put a finger to my lips and look at the ceiling, keeping delight off my face with an effort. Iris is coming to me with her boy troubles! I close my eyes and search for inspiration, but I have no inkling of how to answer. I have never seen this particular boy pay my daughter any mind, but there’s no nice way to tell her such a popular boy probably has no intention of choosing her. Risking a glance at Iris, I feel confusion flickering across my brow before I can stop it. The wetness in her eyes is not born of hope. She carries dread.
“He’s going to declare in two days,” she says. “What if my name is on that list? I’ll have to — ugh! Why did I have to get my moon time? It’s nothing but trouble.”
So she doesn’t want to be chosen. Does she feel it’s too soon, or does she not like Briar? Frustration chokes me. I long for an easy way to reassure her, but I cannot do it without words. Real words. I touch her face, running my thumb along her cheek, and then I make my sign for paper, using both fists. This is important.
Iris brings me the pad and ink, and I scrawl, reminding her first of the obvious:
If he requests you, you can always submit a decline letter.
“Oh, I’m sure that would go over very well, Mama. Let’s just get everybody mad at me.”
He’s a priestess’ son, not the ruler of the world. You can say no to him.
She crosses her arms and huffs. “No I can’t. I’d just have to stand in the river praying he doesn’t come to me.”
What makes you think he would pick you, out of all the single ones?
Her eyes grow misty, a notch up from damp. “He’s been really nice to me at group. He’s fine and all but I don’t want him to pick me. I want to wait.”
I smile, a little knowingly. My flower has an intended, is that it?
She smiles back after glancing at the paper, her face maddeningly blank. “I guess everyone will find out if I make it to my sunday without getting picked by somebody else.”
My hands itch to tell her. She’s never come to me for this before and she mustn’t regret it; if I fail to give her a perspective she’ll embrace, this might be the first and last time. I touch her face again, and we lock eyes. I make an important sign. The sign for secret. She nods.
“I won’t tell.”
You can refuse if Briar asks you to take a place in the river. I’ll help you do it tactfully if you must. But if he lists you, and you agree, and he comes to you, you should consider staying.
“Mama!” she cries, and tugs my arm to try to stop me from writing, but I grasp her fingers and warn her with my eyes. I am used to being interrupted by those with voices, but there are times I will not tolerate it. She will listen, though I can’t make her hear.
You don’t know what it’s like in the river, I continue. The Goddess guides our movements. Both the movements of those on sunday and the movements of those who wait. You may be surprised what you suddenly desire if you are chosen. I have given six children to a man I would not have chosen.
Suddenly the desperation is gone from her face. “You didn’t want Papa?” She glances behind her, furtively, and I make the sign for secret again.
I didn’t think I would want him, I confirm, and I dreaded that day. I too had a chosen one I hoped to call to the river. But I was chosen before my sunday. The Goddess works in mysterious ways, Iris, and you are alive because I respected Her. You should wait and see who She guides you to.
“I won’t have to worry about it if he doesn’t list me, anyway,” she says, her voice thin, her eyelids heavy. “I’ll decide what to do then. But right now I hate that idea. Hate it.”
Even if he did choose you, and even if you did go with him, you’d still have the three years to make up your mind, sweetie. Remember that.
“I don’t care. We’re not the same at all. He’d probably give me some name I’d hate, some fairy queen name, something that doesn’t fit at all.” Her scowl is a tiny cyclone ripping across her face. How did she get that storm inside her? I’m thunder at my worst, but Iris is lightning. And yet her name means “rainbow.”
I once came to her after one of her tantrums and prodded her to bring that rainbow out of the clouds. I said that when I could still speak. Does she remember my voice?
My pen is all that’s left of it. I lift the point to the paper once again.
The Goddess is bigger than any of us, Iris. And She knows what will make you happiest. I thought I knew what love was when I said “I love you” to my chosen one. But the love I have now — the love that gave me CHILDREN — is deeper than you can imagine.
When I look up, Iris’s eyes are stony. I see her reading my words a second time before she looks up.
“So love isn’t real unless it gives you children?” she asks coldly.
I didn’t say that. But if I hadn’t listened when the Goddess whispered in my ear, I wouldn’t have you now. And you are my everything.
Iris stands and puts her hand on my shoulder.
“If he picks me I’ll ask you to write a letter,” she says. “And you might want to get rid of this so Papa doesn’t see it.” She indicates my conversation pad with its admission of doubt. Before I know it she’s pinched the corner of the paper, leaving a tiny flame eating into the ink. As she marches past me and leaves the room, my first instinct is to quell the fire, but I reconsider and let it flare up again. I watch it burn, keeping it tame as it destroys the evidence, until I am holding a handful of ashes.
Iris comes home from group with the lights returned to her eyes, a bounce in her step and her long hair flipping about behind her. She skips past me, but then she spins on her heel, returning with a quick sideways embrace and a kiss on the cheek.
I won’t be writing a letter.
Later that week is the sunday for our man of the hour, and the priestess has spared no expense for her only son. Briar still looks boyish to me. Is he less mature than he should be? Or perhaps age fifteen looks like a baby to me now. The priestess leads opening ceremonies, and then releases us to our first-course meal so we’ll have the energy to dance. Finally the solemn hymns and bell chorales cycle on before merging into the revelry.
Briar handles the call-and-response chants masterfully — unsurprising for a child of a priestess — and we answer him with voices and drums as the men light the bonfire. My daughter’s voice rings out beside me as I strike my drum. I hear the joy in her song. Where did she get that tone from? Even when I had a voice, I had no melody in me to pass on, and Aubrey sings like a frog. It’s her own, I realize. She learned it from the birds and the Goddess, or forged it herself. The beginnings of an adult voice are hiding in that song of hers. As she matches every response call with her hand clutched in the Goddess sign over her heart, I know she’s thinking it: I’m so relieved he didn’t choose me.
When the chanting ends Briar drops to his knees and bows to the bonfire. The flames bow back, acknowledging him as another new master.
Finally the time has come for Briar to go to the river. Waiting for him, wearing white and shivering behind the grass, will be those who have accepted his invitation. I watch as his father blindfolds him with a simple white cloth, and I shudder. I’ll be sending my Iris to do this soon — if another child’s sunday doesn’t come along before she’s fifteen and steal her away — and this will happen for one more daughter and two sons in due time. I myself was once a child in the water, waiting to be chosen, shocked by the bond that developed when his choice was me.
Briar is a priestess’s son, so of course he’s taking his time as we wait. He’s taken the riverbed laws to their most literal interpretation: anyone with whom he’s felt the Goddess’s spark was supposed to be invited, and priestesses and their sons have probably spent eternity having that spark with everyone they meet. That river is full of potential mates; it’s no wonder my daughter worried she’d be one of them. When he emerges with a girl, taller than he is and glowing, they walk arm in arm to Briar’s parents, and the rest proceeds as expected. No rejection of his choice. No hesitation in tying the children’s hands together with the braided grass rope. Beaming faces. Sung blessings.
And off the two new partners go to the meadows, asking for the fruitful field’s living Goddess to grant them fertility for their future. The rest of us are left to the second feast, and villagers approach to toss their well-wishes into the fire. Everyone wants to be seen blessing the priestess’s son’s union. I wonder what he will name the girl, and what she will call him.
Iris rides the horses with her brothers and their friends, kicking up dust across the land. I watch her in the fading sunlight, reluctant to interrupt the moment with my dinner bell. Her hair in its single long plait resembles the braided leather of the reins she holds, sleek and black and whipping her back as she rides. I admire the grace she maintains on the back of the trotting animal — so unlike her joyful but clumsy brothers, and so unlike her mother. Where is my child really from? Did the Goddess form her in my body without any input from me?
I ring the bell.
In bed that night I lie awake listening to Aubrey’s breathing. He’s beside me, always beside me. What would my life have become had he not come to me in the river on that night long ago? I never imagined I would meet someone like him and have six children. I never thought I would have any children at all. But now one of the children who was never supposed to be is sprinting toward her future, thinking she knows at fourteen whom she’ll be happiest spending her life with. The way I felt before. Before I was chosen, and before my intended married another when she couldn’t have me.
Is my first love glad, as I am, that the Goddess led us through sorrow to separate paths? Does she ever think about me?
I shift under the blanket until my back is against Aubrey’s. His heat fills me even as he dreams, infusing me with the Goddess’s warmth. We’re of the same flame. We always will be. When I reach for his arm and bend my hand into his, his fingers curl around mine in reflex. He accepts me like we are one body, without thinking, without waking, without willing. We simply are.
I’ll never know now, but maybe my first love would have felt like this too.
I can only hope Iris’s will.
Iris’s sunday comes on a full moon — a stroke of luck no one but the Goddess can arrange. She will choose her first love in the full sight of our celestial mother. Tonight, I will be entrusting my daughter to another person’s care, and I will be asked to bless a union about which I know nothing. Tonight, someone will give my daughter a new name. Tonight, she will become someone new. I have spoken my child’s name for the last time.
I will never speak her new one.
“I’m scared,” Iris whispers in the tent before the ceremony.
I pause my braiding to touch her face. She catches my hand.
“I know who I’m meant to be with,” she says. “What if I accidentally come to someone else? Or someone gets in the way on purpose when I can’t see?”
No paper is handy to reassure Iris with words, so I settle for making the Goddess sign over my heart. Be calm, I try to say with my eyes. The Goddess doesn’t make mistakes. She turns her head roughly and exhales like a horse.
“Yes, yes, the Goddess has a plan. I know. And I also know people cheat and nobody talks about it.”
I take her face in both hands and turn her toward me. Then I hold up three fingers.
She grunts. “I don’t know, Mama, three what?”
I press down two of my fingers, leaving one standing, but Iris still shakes her head.
“I’m never good at this,” she whines. “I wish you could just talk.”
I wave my hand between us. You and me both.
I hold up three fingers again and pantomime choosing one, drawing the chosen finger to my heart. Iris’s expression changes.
“Ohh. Yes, I know. I only have three in the river? So the chances of getting the one I want are really good?”
I nod and make the Goddess sign again. And the Goddess will make sure you get the one you want — or, at least, the one you should have.
“I shouldn’t have even had to pick the other two. Why bother? Just for the drama? It’s such a useless show. It doesn’t make sense to have a silly minimum. Why do we have these rules, anyway? Why can’t we just pick who we want without ceremonies or bringing the whole village into it?”
I shrug and put my Goddess sign above my head. It’s beyond us to know why She does anything, but we have our ways.
“And I think that’s wrong. Why does it all have to be such a mystery?”
I give a voiceless laugh and shove her gently with my fingertips against her shoulder. You should talk! But maybe that is why she refuses to tell her family what lucky potential mates she’s chosen. Perhaps she wants to answer these cruel mysteries with a little mystery of her own. I fasten the first white feather into her hair and reach for more thread.
“I think the Goddess already paired me with someone,” she says, adjusting a feather stem so it no longer chafes her ear, “so I don’t see why I have to pretend the choosing is happening in the river. I shouldn’t have to be blindfolded. I think love is something we should do with our eyes open.”
I raise an eyebrow and turn away to get the honey jar. She stands still as I paint her lips with the honey brush, and her eyes remain hard. I draw a quick breath and blow it sharply into her face.
Iris snorts and rubs her hands across her cheeks. “That doesn’t work anymore, Mama.” She drops her hands and glares. “You can’t ‘blow away’ my worries. I’m a woman now.”
I smile and nod, and though she continues to stew, she doesn’t balk when I draw her forward and begin to apply her ceremonial silver paints. She closes her eyes and lets me dust her lids with shimmering powder.
The fear that was so plain to me in the tent is nowhere on Iris’s face as she calls the chant. Her graceful gestures are mature and feminine, spinning from her hands with confidence and power appropriate for a new woman. This is not a show for her. She is ready, and she knows she is ready. I wish I was ever like her. Such a spirit — wherever did she get it? I want to see myself in her, but I cannot. My hands answer her on the drum, twice as loud as everyone else’s to make up for the blessings I cannot voice.
At the bonfire, Iris is on her knees willing the flames to bend to her, and I feel the heat flushing through my own body. She is my blood, no matter how much we differ. She was born from me, as surely as we all were born from our parents, with the same fire in our veins, all the way back to when the first creature was formed in the Goddess’s forge. Her divine will guides wildfires to spread, and we do the same, giving birth to new flames without becoming smaller ourselves. My little spark-turned-blaze rises to her feet once the bonfire has kneeled. She is ready for the water.
Aubrey ties her blindfold and leads her to the bank.
I watch her pass the grasses and disappear from sight. She doesn’t turn toward me for reassurance — mine or hers. Her future is in that river, and Iris has plunged in to meet it without a shred of hesitation. I wish I ever had that confidence.
Waiting with my fists in my lap, listening to the crickets under the full moon, I remember my night in the river all those years ago. When it was my time. How I saw him, saw Aubrey, coming through the grasses with his eyes hidden. How I felt so out of place, standing among other girls, the mud between my toes, my dress awkward and heavy in that chilly water. How he turned slowly toward me and reached up to take the blindfold off.
No one ever tells you that sometimes they peek.
And then he came for me, my husband Aubrey, and I found only a tiny nugget of dread still lodged in my heart when he reached me. Why? I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d avoided declining so I wouldn’t hurt his feelings or make enemies of his family, but I loved another. I’d expected to spend that night comforting the others who’d been rejected– or spared — and return to my family for the feast. And yet, when he came for me, a voice in his gaze made me listen with my eyes. I felt the spark they’d always talked about — something I’d also felt with my other love — and it didn’t matter that I hadn’t wanted to love him. I’d tasted the spark with this man and wanted to know what else he could do.
We didn’t fall in love in the river. I was idealistic, but even then I knew love takes months and years. It happened to us in time. And I discovered I could love a man, and that I did love him. It was baffling. It was unexpected. And it was true. I became a completely willing participant in making this man my companion. He’d thwarted the blindfold to get to me, but I never considered it cheating. The Goddess guides what we do in the river. She must have wanted him to use his eyes to find me.
Wet footsteps — two sets — carry to my ears moments before the grasses rustle and part. Iris emerges from the bank shoulder to shoulder with a wild-eyed curly-haired young lady. The trembling between their interlaced fingers and the glow across their faces leaves no doubt they were each other’s intended.
My child is her mother’s daughter after all.
I’m on my feet and at my husband’s shoulder before my mind catches up to what I’m doing. There we are, ready to receive her, ready to receive this strange girl into our family, ready to give our girl to hers.
They don’t speak — they are, after all, not supposed to — and as they stand hand in hand waiting for our approval, I see everything. Iris has her bottom lip tucked under her teeth and her lower eyelids struggling to contain tears, and her companion holds her arm as if protecting her from wilting into the ground. Iris searches my face, looking for the words she knows I can’t speak aloud, looking for acceptance and fearing condemnation.
She thinks we will be disappointed.
They must have worried about this for months.
Breaking protocol as subtly as I can, I touch her cheeks and shake my head. How? How could I have raised you to believe I might reject your choice?
I find the braided grass bracelet in my waist sack and hand it to Aubrey as quickly as I can. They shouldn’t worry another second. I clasp their hands together and offer their wrists to my husband, and he nods as he begins to tie the rope.
Tears of happiness, made silver by her eye dust, slip down Iris’s cheeks and drip into her hair. I watch the way her partner grins at her, jostling her shoulder with her own, clearly trying to say “You were worried for nothing, silly!” She bobs her head and tries not to make any noise.
I risk another touch on Iris’s cheek before she moves away with her companion and they approach the other girl’s parents. Their faces carry nothing but joy — no surprise, either — and waste no time in tying the girls’ other hands together with an identical rope. Finally, the solemn part of the ritual is over and everyone can speak again.
Well, except for me.
They stand on the platform, beaming as they receive their blessing as sung by the whole village, and then away the couple runs, their hands awkwardly extended toward each other as they make for the fields. We fall to the feast, we parents of the sunday child claiming the head table with the other girl’s parents. I do not know the other parents by name — though of course they know me, that one who lost her voice years ago — so we make introductions and discuss our daughters.
“Did you know?” asks the father. “You looked surprised.”
“I had no idea,” says Aubrey. I nod toward him.
“They’re always at our place,” the father continues, “usually in the barn. We knew what they were up to. I think they were worried about what you’d think. You know. About girls with girls.”
“What do you think?” asks Aubrey, squinting as he fills his mouth with a yeast roll.
“Expected, really. Her older sister also went to a woman.” The other father shrugs. “I guess no grandchildren for us. But you don’t have that problem.”
The other mother smiles at me. I smile back.
“Well, we believe there is no wrong choice,” says Aubrey, spooning hot yams onto my plate so I don’t have to ask. “If the Goddess picked those two to be together, they should be together. They’re sure to find out soon if they’ll last.”
The others discuss what’s next for our children, determining the most convenient location to build a cabin for them, and I pull my old trick of pretending to be involved by nodding occasionally. I stare at the fire in the center of the grounds, watching villagers tossing their blessings for our daughters. My mind is on Iris’s present, not her future. What name is her love bestowing upon her right now? Did she think I would dream of rejecting her? How long has she worried she will disappoint me?
Has that been at the heart of our failure to connect these last few years?
Watching the sunrise alone on the hillside, I jump at the touch of fingers on my shoulder.
“You didn’t sleep?” my daughter asks.
I shake my head and rub the hollows under my eyes.
She sits down next to me, and I see her smoke-stained fingertips toying with the broken grass rope.
“I didn’t sleep either,” she says. I smirk and she matches the expression, staring into the distance. I wave my hand in front of her eyes to make her turn.
My hands form her name sign. I wave the “petals” of my right hand and put a question on my face. She smiles.
“I named her Laurel,” she says, “and she named me Grace.”
Grace. I know at once this new partner must see in my daughter what I see in her: that fluidity of movement I always admired without possessing myself. She lacked it at birth — I did not give it to her — but she grew it herself and mastered it. It’s the perfect name. It’s who she’s become. She’s not Iris anymore. My hands don’t move, though. My fingers stay frozen in the flower sign.
“You can still call me that with your hands, though,” my daughter says. “You don’t have to change my sign. I like being your flower. Just make it more…graceful.”
I swallow hard and nod.
“Are you disappointed, Mama?” she asks, her voice going hoarse. “About me and — and Laurel? About…that I didn’t pick a boy?”
I shake my head hard and accompany it with emphasis signs. Doubt still lingers on her face, so I draw her to me and hold her close. I can feel her trembling, and when I pull back and see her eyes haven’t cleared, I heave a great sigh.
I make the sign for paper and point at the house. I need to tell you a story, Iris. Grace.
She rolls her eyes. “You know, you should just bring your paper with you all the time so you could talk whenever you want. Why can’t you just do that?”
I answer by pointing again. Paper, NOW.
“All right, all right. If it’s that important, fine.”
Exactly, I think as I watch her run away. Nothing like rarity to communicate the importance of a message.
Once I have my voice in my hand and my daughter returned to my side, I find a question at my fingertips instead of the tale I wanted to tell.
Did I do something to make you think you would not be accepted if you chose another girl?
Iris — Grace — blinks and looks up. “What?”
I tap the paper. She can’t exactly “mishear” me if it’s written down.
“I — you know. I thought you would want me to have children. Laurel can’t give me children.”
You should choose for love, I write, and if children are to be, then the Goddess gives those too. But the love comes first.
“I thought you’d be upset. You seemed to think it was silly of me to know who I wanted when I’m this young. And — and you really seemed to want me to end up with Briar, or at least a boy, so I could have children.”
I shake my head, and then remember I have my paper and write it more clearly: I didn’t want any such thing. What I wanted was for you to keep your options open.
“Do you still want my ‘options open,’ then?” she says with a sneer. “Do you think I’m going through a phase?”
Don’t put words in my mouth, I write, slowly and deliberately. I am quite capable of expressing what I’m thinking, and nothing could be further from my mind.
“Sorry.” I can’t tell if that’s contrition or ice in her voice. Her eyes point away, down at the grass, and her hands between her pointy knees continue to knead the braided grass rope. I take her chin between my fingers and turn her gaze toward me again. Her face is still streaked with silver powder and trails of soot tracked by fingers across her cheeks. It’s impossible to tell which girl left what marks.
Iris, I write, but she interrupts me by smearing the ink with her fingertip, and I remember.
Grace, I try again, and she nods. I too once loved a woman.
“What?” she says with wide eyes. I don’t bother to tap the paper this time. I keep writing.
I promised myself to another girl. We thought we would spend our lives together. But I was taken from her when your father chose me, and since I came to love him in return, we both realized it was never meant to be.
“That’s awful, though,” she says, staring at the paper. “Didn’t you — want to leave and be with her? What happened to her?”
She wed another as well, I go on, and I believe she is happy, as I am. But yes, I do wonder what our lives together would have been like. I’m sure we would have been happy in that life too. But of the two loves I’ve had in my life, this is the only one the Goddess guided.
My daughter shrinks, buckling under an invisible weight. “Mama, you aren’t — you aren’t telling me I’m not supposed to be with Laurel, are you? You’re not telling me you think I’m going against what the Goddess wants?”
No. You now have three years to live together and find out if this is your future. If it was meant to be, it will be.
“But you still think I took this into my own hands too much and now I’m doomed to fail with Laurel, don’t you.”
“Shh.” I hold up my hand as I shush her, and she startles, unused to hearing any sound from my lips. I fill the resulting silence with the scratch of my pen: No, Grace. I don’t want you to fail. I want you to complete the story your mother never finished, and find out for yourself if it’s as beautiful as I always thought it would be.
“But…Mama, I peeked.”
I touch her shoulder but she isn’t looking at me.
“I picked her on purpose. I didn’t want to be with someone else. I took off the blindfold.”
I turn her face to me again and point at the paper. So did your father.
She looks up with wide eyes. “He did?”
He did. And our marriage is still blessed.
She grins tearfully. “Papa peeked? For you?”
I nod and touch her hair. One white feather is still tangled in it.
“So why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?” she asks. “I didn’t even know how you felt about woman-loving women, and all this time you were one.”
You never asked, I write on the corner of the paper, and with that I tear it off, fold it up, and slide it into my daughter’s fist.
I stand and return to the house, leaving my daughter sitting on the hill with my words in her hand.
|Julie Sondra Decker is an author from Tampa, Florida. She writes fantasy and science fiction for adults and children, and is known as a prominent voice for the asexual community. Her nonfiction title The Invisible Orientation (Skyhorse/Carrel) — a Lambda Award finalist — was published in September 2014. Her short work has been accepted by James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Timeless Tales, Drunk Monkeys, and The Toast, and she blogs for Psychology Today.|