Stuck in the Middle - Spring 2021

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Stuck in the Middle Spring 2021 || Vol 2, Issue 1 || Rebirth ©2021 Jennifer Walter and Ryan Gonzalez

Fonts: Montserrat by Julieta Ulanovsky; Architects Daughter by Kimberly Geswein. Recycling icon on back cover by Oliver Kittler from the Noun Project. All used under Creative Commons. Cover art & doodles throughout this issue by JW unless otherwise noted.


Change is inevitable, but sometimes there are events in our lives that completely transform who we are. And sometimes we take new paths intentionally in order to make a better existence for ourselves and others. We asked our contributors to tell us their stories of reinvention and rebirth. This zine is about how their mindsets changed and how those outward transformations manifested.

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Letters from the editors Partly Cloudy Summer 2020 - June 13th I'm Not Religious or so I Tell Myself Nice to See You Again Illustration Shunyata Cavities New Chapters Midrange Changes Almost Resident Repurposed Now I see in Technicolor Frozen Photos Contributors

SITM Vol. 2, issue 1

J.W. & R.G. James Lieven Nic Umbs Donna Sarkar Sara Gonzalez Jennifer Walter James Lieven Audrianna Wichman Nic Umbs Cat Byrd Audrianna Wichman Rachel Kubik Eli King Nic Umbs Ryan Gonzalez

Spring 2021

Rebirth in 10 songs 1. 1080p - Sammus, Jean Grae 2. Impossible Soul - Sufjan Stevens 3. Wolves - Jensen McRae 4. Big City - Kero Kero Bonito 5. Rings - Pinegrove 6. Malika - Hiatus Kaiyote 7. Born Again - Saint Motel 8. Re-Do - Modern Baseball 9. Changes - David Bowie 10. Far Away - Ingrid Michaelson

Today I woke up with a headache. We left the windows open last night for one of the first times this year, since it’s starting to get warmer. But of course, that has a natural downside — while letting in the cool air, we also let in the allergens. Spring is the season of rebirth; it gives us beautiful flowers and vibrant wildlife to look forward to. But there are also growing pains, like the allergies that come with it. Such is the case anytime we endure changes in life. We take the bad with the good, and often with significant growth comes significant struggle. The writing and art in this issue captures a lot of subthemes that fit under the umbrella of rebirth: exploration, transition, and self-discovery, to name a few. In many cases, we see a small spark lighting a life in flames, and the result is a newfound existence that rises from those ashes. Our contributors showed us the rebirths they’ve endured in their own lives, creating a patchwork of both subtle and overt experiences. We also have several first-time contributors in this issue, and it’s an honor to be able to showcase their work. I hope this zine gives you a chance to immerse yourself in some incredible poetry, stories and art. And that you’re inspired to reflect on rebirth in your own life — no matter how small the change. Oh, and for all of you with spring allergies: hang in there.


-Jennifer Walter

Rebirth is a time for change — and spring has lots of that, especially this year. The weather’s getting warmer, flowers are starting to bloom, and COVID-19 cases are slowly declining in the United States, thanks in large part to vaccination efforts. After a year full of fear, grief, and mourning, it’s a welcome relief to shed happier tears over what we’ll be able to do again. We’ll be able to go to in-person events. To no longer fear simple grocery store trips putting us in the hospital. Even the mere idea of being able to see friends and hug them without fear of getting anyone sick brings tears to our eyes. But while we’re rejoicing at these thoughts, many of us are also left realizing that “going back to normal” is going to require some major changes. Essential workers need better treatment. Our healthcare system is a mess. And racial justice is something we need to continue to strive and fight for. Many of us know the nation needs more than just the status quo — it needs a rebirth. And while our small midwest zine may not be able to solve those bigger issues on our own, we can try our best to tackle the theme of rebirth underneath this period of time. From battling inner demons to questioning what rebirth even looks like and everything in between, our contributors share their stories of rebirth, ponderance, and triumph in this issue. As is often the case, reading these tales has been a time full of joy and heartbreak. The act of vulnerability is a brave one — especially when the scars aren’t fully healed — and I’m honored to receive the submissions we’ve gotten. I hope, dear reader, that you find the same sorrow and jubilation that I did too. 2

-Ryan Gonzalez

Partly Cloudy James Lieven

we are sculpted the way wind sculpts drifting clouds molding, moving herding churning flocks just by wind being wind and clouds being clouds until they are something else


Summer 2020 - June 13th Nic Umbs


I'm Not Religious or so I Tell Myself Donna Sarkar

I’m not religious or so I tell myself. Black, luscious hair — my mother’s hair, her pride and joy burned by the very man that kneels at the sound of a sermon. I’m not religious or so I tell myself. Love, the type that makes your heart swell and head swoon. Love, the most powerful thing in the world isn’t enough when there’s a “my God” and “your God.” I’m not religious or so I tell myself. Will worship stop the demons in my head, the ones that tell me I’m not enough? I’m not religious or so I tell myself. I’ve seen it do good — it's saved my best friend not once but twice. So why does my blood boil when the man that I adore utters the word “amen” before we eat.


I’m not religious or so I tell myself. April 10, 2020: There are shards of glass scattered across my kitchen floor tempting me, my wrists ready to feel the prick, but instead, I find myself with my head down and hands clasped. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing. I still don’t. But if you ask me, I’ll say I’m not religious or so I tell myself.


Nice to See You Again Sara Gonzalez

Bedtime. Lights out. “Is this how it’s going to be forever?” "..." “Do you really want to do this right now?” Lamps on. Sitting upright. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore.” Stunned silence. He goes outside to smoke a cigarette. I sit there awkwardly trying to get a hold of anyone I can to keep myself from totally spiraling into the abyss this night has become. He returns and we discuss issues I’ve raised a million and one times, many of them centering around communication. I’ve said my piece, as I’ve said it before. I have nothing left. “Communication is a two-way street, you know,” he spits at me. If only you had picked up on this concept sooner, my dear.

* * * Our story had been dead far long before this climactic event. The beginning of the end was most noticeable to me when I picked up a young stud at a nightclub during a weekend girls’ trip. Nothing really happened during our one night tryst but it keyed me in to the idea that not all was well at 7

home. Though I knew something was wrong, I had no idea just how right things could turn out to be. This ending became the catalyst for finally picking up the strewn about fragments of my life. About a month before the breakup with graduation only a few weeks away, I decided to blow off a little steam as school was winding down. A night out at a sports bar with my gal pals and their men. I invite my best friend of 10 years to join us. He is free and meets us at the venue. Drinking. Dancing. Catching up. He and I discuss training for our annual obstacle course 5k race. “Remember when you wanted to tell me something last year,” he starts, “what was it?” My face flushes and I sheepishly respond “I was going to tell you I loved you.” Confessions of profound feelings are exchanged. I illustrate how stuck I’ve been feeling and let go of pent up unease. And so it begins. A new beginning. The one I’ve been looking for, authentic love a decade in the making. It’s finally time. Exploring. Laughing. A fresh, clear outlook. For the first time I feel like I have an equal rather than a dependent or a caretaker. 8

As the honeymoon phase comes to an end, old monsters reawaken. Depression. Anxiety. Insecurity. Fear. They threaten to rip our hard-fought wonderland apart. “I don’t know if I can be with someone with a mental illness,” he sobs as we board the crazy train for the third time this month. Panic-stricken but compelled by the bright future I sense, I decide – this shit ends now. It’s time to tame these demons once and for all. I finally accept medication to soothe my imbalanced brain. It’s a bit of a ride but I find the sweet spot. Therapy works miracles for unpacking old baggage and learning to cast-off old coping mechanisms no longer proving useful. At long last, the train is back on track. The demons are always with me, they never left and they never will. But they don’t control me anymore – they’re more like pets that get a little too exuberant from time to time. Among these cohorts I find something else... it’s me. I reflect on the chaos I’ve been through for what seems like forever and I say to myself, “Hey you, it’s nice to see you again.”



Shunyata James Lieven

a long night has passed and this dusky metaphor hoists me on tremoring shoulders one last time all i know is sun and stars hearts, waves, weight, and shadow weary words of a waning storm see them, carry them let them go infectious shame and fear weaned of captive wits make me small again fill me with water and place me on glistering flames steam shall open my mouth instead of thirst hold me again like the lovers before fold me, put me in your pocket show me everything else 11

that words don’t touch or silence doesn’t seduce close to a humming breast asleep in an empty room


Cavities Audrianna Wichman

I know that my teeth have holes in them. I can feel it when I eat and when I run my tongue over them. They ache. When they finally crack and break, they will either ooze sticky neon jelly gunk, the rotten memories of all I’ve eaten and reveal perfectly tiny new teeth underneath, regenerating like the limbs of a sea star, fully alive and ready to try again, or they’ll simply explode in a puff like the slightest kiss of the lips or the orb of a dandelion gone to seed, a gentle explosion powdery and dry and leave no trace behind, my gums barren and dead.


New Chapters Nic Umbs


Midrange Changes Cat Byrd

Every year, the fields lining the roads can change, The contents are rotated, crops are switched out. In Iowa we learn that this is good for the ground, Different crops pull different vitamins from the ground, So, switching between corn and soy is beneficial — Which helps prevent barren fields. In this frame, change is good. But, also in Iowa… Changing yourself is bad. In this different frame, everyone should remain the same… All hair, all eyes- don’t forget thoughts. You should always love your family, tolerate your family — Unless they become different from you. You should always be content working the same job, Seeing the same people, wearing the same clothes — Why should you want more? Why would you want to be different? Do not take me wrong, no one says these things out loud, They are the silent whispers that float out between rows of corn in the summer breeze. For those, like myself — Those whispers, those unspoken chalk lines… They are suffocating. The twist and tear at your individuality, 15

And then suddenly there’s nothing left. Unless, a switch is flipped, And sometimes it is, sometimes it is not… That event is rather unfortunate but, For those who manage to grow past their family, Who grow past their trauma and rural life — Shine bright and passionately, No matter how scarred. It was a neglected childhood, It was the raising of two younger siblings, It was growing up mentally ill but too scared to say anything for fear of trouble, It was being mature for your age, in elementary, It was… Lack of a support system. But then there was art, Amidst all the bad, there was art — Painting and drawing and singing and theater, Writing and reading and ceramics. There was art, when the girl of 14 needed something most, Art shone a light in that darkness.


Art eventually flipped the switch, brought the fields out of hibernation — Brought the crops back to life. Art brought color into the drag rows of corn against the blue sky… Even with art, change is not easily navigated. Art makes allowance, art makes reason but… Even among reason there will be resistance. Through the art, the story has just begun, But like the art, the story is vibrant and far from over.



A reply to "Ghost Letter" by Richard McCann

Audrianna Wichman

It felt like a ghost town to me, or maybe I was the ghost in town. The blisters on my feet barely kept me grounded as I floated between ethers of art studios and tourist traps. The chaplain taught me to cut myself open and turn myself inside out. I heard him instruct me to put my sparkling guts on display, and as my soul left my body, I thought he was you. Nick and Michael glowed celestial like the cozy yellow cover of my bible of sorrows, Chinese lanterns soft and safe, coaxing me to the other side. I wonder if the ghost town will again welcome you or me, in another million years. I’ll look for you in every streetlight and smile at the burning blisters on my feet.


Resident Rachel Kubik

In the passenger seat of a U-Haul was me, looking out the window at nearby nothingness. In a little more than eight hours, this would no longer be my backyard, I thought, as my mom lectured me about marriage: typical parental conversation these days. That 10 degrees Fahrenheit February day was hectic: stuff out by 10:30, papers signed by 11, arrival in Milwaukee by eight. But I didn’t feel stressed, I felt free. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders as I knew the person I called my boss was no longer in my life, there would be no more coming home to an empty apartment as my coworkers went home to their families, no more passive 19

aggressiveness justified as Minnesota “nice.” No more small farm towns whose residents have nothing better to do than attend casserole — all right, hot dish — cook offs and threshing festivals. Back to the hustle and bustle of city life where you’re one small hole in the cribbage board of the masses hurriedly driving by you on the highway daily. A change from a twice weekly to a daily meant writing a lot more, and most of all I was looking forward to seeing friends and family again and being close to all the businesses, tall buildings and landmarks that had become familiar during the last five years. It felt so thrilling to no longer be a visitor in the place that felt most like home.


Repurposed Eli King

If death begets life why should I fear mine? After a forest’s inferno subsides scorched soil rears saplings. And unconcerned with cataclysm the crypt of Chernobyl is charged with chitters and chirps as the wilds reclaim their birthright. Even a star’s demise distributes its dust assembling new constellations. Such as you, such as I. For the pencil cannot tell its story unless it is whittled away. So why should I fear the fingers of death come to scatter my stardust? 21

Now I See in Technicolor Nic Umbs


Frozen Photos Ryan Gonzalez I dra w a lin e in m y life sin g in g th is is th e n ew wa y I beh a ve n ow

— “Rings” by Pinegrove

I look at photographs of my previous self with shoulder-length hair and a beard, splotchy like a Jackson Pollock I was a cold wave passing over the people I frostbit before dissipating the frigid air froze me too; I sacrificed letting music make me cry, my hair follicles rise, turn my skin into a sea of egg cartons


send that tingle up my spine like I’ve had a nice glass of wine labeled “sobering epiphanies”, instead trading it to be Uncomfortably Numb But no one wants to invite cold shoulders over for dinner or late night crying sessions so, I’ll try and lower the pressure and let a warm front through telling myself: this is the new way I behave now



Audrianna Wichman knew she was a writer ever since her third-grade teacher told her she used too much voice in her book report. After cultivating an appreciation for language throughout school, Audrianna attended Winona State University, where she annually contributed to Satori, WSU's literary and arts journal, and won two creative writing prizes in 2019. While taking a class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Audrianna truly began to embrace her identity as a writer and has been chasing that feeling ever since. She enjoys creating in all forms, from writing, to makeup artistry, to tea-making from her own garden. Born and raised in Muscatine, Iowa, Cat Byrd has been creating in any capacity she could since she was young enough to walk. Living in and around Muscatine her whole life, she has grown around the rural ideas that tend to hold art back, but you may recognize her from the mural groups at Quad City Art's Metro Art program. She primarily paints and illustrates, but finds writing and similar collage and word-based mediums calling her name more frequently these days. She seeks to explore vivid word pictures through poetry and similar writings and how it affects our lives. 25

Donna Sarkar never saw writers like herself represented in books and magazines. She grew up yearning to be a voice for minority communities. Today, her second home is the paper — where the pen and her ideas meet. Currently, Donna works for Discover Magazine and brews creative ideas from her hometown in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eli King was brought into this world by a novelist, and it only makes sense that love of words was passed along in the process. As a storyteller, his usual tool-ofchoice is music, but prose and poetry have always been some of his favorite means of self-expression. A recent graduate from UW-Milwaukee, he is the director of choirs at Greenfield High School by day. By night he is a songwriter, poet, casual essayist, armchair philosopher, and a lover of theatre. He is thrilled and grateful to contribute to this publication.


James Lieven is an aspiring designer who has always had a great appreciation for the arts. Somehow between the chaos of getting his shit together, he finds solace in the form of scribbling poetry, plucking stringed instruments, painting, or almost anything else that caught his eye when the mood struck. Originally from Milwaukee, he's taken the Midwest with him at graduate school in Colorado, where, unlike his house plants, he intends to continue to learn and grow to the best of his ability. Rachel Kubik works as a reporter in Wisconsin, but has lived in Illinois and Minnesota for chunks of her life. She can't quite pick a favorite place and enjoys traveling and exploring new areas. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and writing-intensive English from Marquette University. Besides writing, she loves art and music and tries staying active. Sometimes, she still has no clue what the heck she's doing.


Straddling the divide between science and art, Sara Gonzalez has always had a great appreciation for both logic and creativity. Born and raised in West Allis, WI, Sara earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Waukesha’s Carroll College in hopes of becoming a forensic scientist. When that dream didn’t pan out as envisioned she returned to school for dietetics at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee and now helps adolescents through their journey toward eating disorder recovery. A trained clinician by day and artist by night, her works center on reconnection and self-acceptance.


Thank you for reading Stuck in the Middle! We're a Wisconsin-grown zine seeking to amplify the voices of people living in the Midwest of the US. We publish three issues per year: Spring, Summer and Winter. Full prompts and submission requirements are listed on our website. You don't have to be an experienced artist to join our community! We especially encourage unpublished writers and artists to submit their work during our open submission calls. We don't bite, and are always willing to offer constructive feedback, even if your work is not selected for publication. Visit our site and follow us on Twitter to stay up-to-date! Website: Email: Twitter: @sitmzine The Earth is on fire. The least you can do is recycle this zine.