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Rianna Pauline Starheim

Rianna Pauline Starheim writes about human rights and wrongs, fire, war, PTSD, and resilience. Her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Pacific Standard, and New America. 


Strange Luck

Spring 2021 | Articles

All summer I found thousands of four-leaf clovers. I had been living at a firehouse since COVID-19 broke out, volunteering as a paramedic. One slow shift, my EMT partner Sam and I found a couch on a grassy hill overlooking a leveled construction site. It faced west, so we sat and watched the sun sink. All year I visited that couch—parks and cemeteries too—looking for a place to grasp what was happening in the world. There was no nearby mountaintop.

Virginia summers are generously alive, green swirling, churning, twisting over itself, seeping from the ground. Picking blackberries at night, the darkness that conceals the berries equally disguises the thorns. I froze gallons of wild berries for February—the most difficult month—when I am often overcome with an unmoving restlessness. “I wish I knew more about your hopes and dreams, and perceptions of everything around you,” my mom wrote in a letter. My sister harvested parsley one lazy Saturday. “Other than the parsley,” she wrote, “I don’t have plans.”

Narrative Rhythms

Winter 2019 | Essays

Electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors are like nonfiction writers: taking in the world and spitting it out in fewer dimensions with more meaning—maybe even some sense.


Winter 2018 | Essays

In Kabul’s largest cemetery, the weather is winter morning air. Jagged headstones fan up the mountainside with a view over a sprawling swampy lake. The Shuhada-e-Saliheen cemetery (the name means “pious martyrs”) is built near a crumbling citadel, ancient stone walls tracing the mountains’ ridge. Rusted Soviet tanks are scattered across the high ground. A ragged Afghan flag—black, red, and green—whips in the wind. Dust. During the summer, this swamp sometimes dries to field.


Under Pressure

Spring 2018 | Essays

Nitrous oxide, N2O, is a fuel racing crews use to propel their cars hundreds of miles an hour. Under intense pressure, it allows the same engine to produce more power. Blends of N2O fuel rockets. They might include, for example, nitroglycerin, which is a drug carried on ambulances to dilate blood vessels, to let more blood through. Nitroglycerin is also one of the most explosive substances in the world.

N2O leads to substantial increases in performance over short periods of time, but the stress on the engine is astonishing. “There’s an element of sustainable that’s been always missing,” I say about my life when an investment banker turned energy healer makes this analogy between destroyed N2O engines and an adrenaline-filled life. He nods.

Life Is Why

Fall 2017 | Essays

The average adult has eight pounds—twenty-two square feet—of skin. Healthy adults can lose a liter of blood before going into shock, and vital signs help monitor the onset and stages. Unlike adults, children can lose nearly half their blood volume and still have a blood pressure holding steady. With shock, “adult vital signs go up the mountain and then drop off,” our EMT instructor Nancy says. “Children’s are like, ‘I’m okay, I’m okay—DEAD.’”

Photo by Rianna Pauline Starheim

Rainbow Weather in Kabul

Spring 2017 | Essays

In Afghanistan, kite string is run through crushed-glass powder before it is coiled. Kite strings bite. My instinct when I’m cut is to grab the string tighter. But I have to let go. I’d rather be up with the kites. Catching the wind with the helicopters, the mountains, the birds—warblers, crows, rosefinches, bluethroats, blackbirds, doves.