Impediment

I still remember the sound of the rope slapping the flagpole outside Mrs. Majewski’s classroom at St. Louise. All spring, while we diagrammed sentences, practiced spelling bee words, and solved for x, it clanged stability, longing, and the lengthening lure of the sun.

Seventh grade was the year the flagpole was closest to my classroom and the year the orthodontist cemented a bar between my top teeth and gave me a speech impediment. Each evening my father had to insert a tiny key into the metal bar that spanned the roof of my mouth and crank it open half a turn. The goal was to make extra room for my teeth by widening my jaw. (I remember a lot of joking about the irony: I wasn’t exactly a kid who needed a bigger mouth.) My father and I both dreaded this ritual; it hurt me to have my mouth cranked open, and it hurt my father to reach his hand into my mouth and cause pain.

I remember sitting in class that year, not raising my hand because I hated the way my voice sounded. You can’t pronounce words right when your tongue can’t hit the roof of your mouth. Words were my thing; I didn’t understand this new fear of speaking.

I’ve wandered into this memory unexpectedly this morning, and now I’m picking at it, trying to figure out why it’s here.  Lately I’ve been talking to teenagers about what it means to have a voice. I love talking to them; they reach deep when they aren’t pretending. Those who have found their voices claim them passionately; those who are still looking bare their yearning so intimately that sometimes I have to catch my breath and look away. Can a government have a right to privacy? Is Wiki-Leaks going to save our democracy or doom it? What sorts of things silence a person? Can an individual person change the world or does change come from a group? Why would anyone be that mean? These are the sorts of questions they lob like innocent bombs around the room, and the answers matter. “How do you live in the world?” is an urgent question when you are seventeen.

Yesterday when the students’ conversation ebbed, we read the first chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.  She writes of her childhood silences, “It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak.” She remembers her “broken voice skittering out into the open” when she had to “perform.”

I thought again of the bar that used to keep my tongue from reaching the roof of my mouth. One day after school that year, some of the boys in my class were dropping pens onto pictures of tanks. They were making the noises some boys make when they bomb things, a dramatic descending whistle followed by a long, sputtering, guttural explosion when the pen hits the tank on the floor.

At one point, John started telling a story about “this crazy guy” who lived next door to him. The man had been torturing a cat in his yard. John went into graphic detail, but I won’t. Suffice it to say it was horrific, and the other boys laughed.

I don’t remember that many specific moments from seventh grade. I remember the position of the classroom in the building (upstairs, on the McMurray Road side), and the direction our desks faced (toward the office and the church, away from the library), and writing an essay on autism that my older brother showed to one of his friends. I’m not even sure I’ve gotten the teacher’s name right, but I remember exactly what the boy said his neighbor did to the cat.

As I walk deeper into this memory, trying to figure out why it stayed intact, I feel the present, with all its confidence and bravado, falling off the horizon behind me. I see my hair grow longer. I’m wearing knee socks. My tongue twists around uncomfortable metal in my mouth. I walk up the stairs from the playground, turn left past the principal’s office, and take a quick right into the classroom. I see where I’m sitting in the fourth row of desks toward the windows, three chairs from the back of the room. I see the moment I’m avoiding slide into focus.

The boy who is speaking aligns his aim, lobs his weapon out of the launcher on his desk, and whistles as it arcs beautifully and falls toward its target on the floor. The listening boys are laughing. From this distance I can see that I am measuring my reaction against their potential judgment of it in real time. Seventh grade: calibrating, revising, reacting.

Suddenly, though, the story changes. I realize I know the man John is talking about, and that he could draw a line that reached right from that cat torturer to me. Worse, I know that John knows, and I am terrified that he is about to draw that line.

It must have been tempting. It would have transformed his story into a weapon. It might even have been the reason he began telling the story in the first place. “Isn’t he the guy who…?” was the question I dreaded to hear whistling toward me.

The way I remember this story now may not be the way it happened; it could be that John drew that line, and I lied. It could be that I was wrong: maybe he didn’t know the line existed, and I didn’t have to be afraid. But the way I remember it now, he looked at the girl with the long hair and knee socks, and he knew she was afraid, and she knew he knew, and he didn’t draw that line. The way I remember it now, a little girl was given a gift from a boy who was bombing a sheet of loose-leaf paper with a pen that was about to explode.

I let the horizon roll itself up like a yoga mat behind me and leave that little girl back in Pennsylvania to fend for herself. I look around the classroom I’m in today and wonder if they still crank kids’ mouths open with little keys. I’m thinking about all the voices speaking this morning, and the voices not speaking, and I’m wondering about all of our heavy words and silences. I’m wondering if there is a student in the room who is terrified that her secret will be said.

They must make either ropes or flagpoles out of something different now, because, although I’ve listened for it on windy days, I’ve never heard this flagpole slap that same hopeful, melancholy sound. When my palatal expander was removed, I lost my speech impediment. I resumed raising my hand to answer questions and read out loud. But there were still things I didn’t say.

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Revelation

Am I really the only one who never realized that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the ABCs are the same song?

I learned this riveting bit of trivia from Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque’s first Poet Laureate, at a workshop in January. It was a throwaway line, something like, “You know, the same way Twinkle Twinkle…” He wasn’t expecting to reveal truth with that aside, but for me, it eclipsed everything else he had to say.

It’s not like I haven’t thought about these songs since I was five. Twinkle is contemporary music for me. If that idea seems hard to imagine, you probably never had a child who played a string instrument. My granddaughter decided she wanted to play the violin when she saw Celtic Woman on TV. In retrospect, she was still in her princess phase, so maybe she just wanted to wear the sparkly dress, but we’re enthusiastic grandparents, so off we went to violin lessons.

The Suzuki method leaves nothing to chance. There are games for learning to hold the bow, games for naming the parts of the violin, games for getting to violin lessons on time. (Ok, I made that last one up, but there ought to be.)

The first thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up violin is that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star becomes the music of your life. She’ll play the twinkle theme in quarter notes (the way you are used to hearing it), and then she’ll play it in triplets (think twin-twin-twin-kle-kle-kle), which she will understand as “lavender octopus.” She’ll play Twinkle to the rhythm of “fuzzy yellow caterpillar” and to “I practice each morning.” Just last week she started playing it to “I’m [pause] a monkey.” My point is that she will spend some part of each day for the next two or three years (and counting) playing the song I didn’t know was the ABC song.

The second thing that happens when your granddaughter takes up the violin is that you realize she’s having a lot of fun, and you’re just watching. Hence the third thing: you buy a violin and start playing Twinkle Twinkle every day yourself.

I have to admit that I thought it looked easy. I’ve played the piano on and off for a long time—how hard could it be to learn an instrument when you only have to read one clef?

It turns out, there are at least three reasons it’s harder to learn to play violin than piano.

1. The notes on a piano know who they are. If you put your finger on middle C, the 24th white key from the far left of the keyboard, the tone you hear will be, with a high degree of statistical certainty, middle C.

Not so on the violin. You will put your finger in the same unmarked location where you are certain you put it yesterday to play a D, and you are likely to play a D flat (who plays a D flat on purpose?), or a D#, or if you haven’t been practicing enough, you might actually play a C or an E.

2. Learning to play piano, you might have to practice scales in contrary motion (one hand singing do re mi fa…the other do ti la so…), but both hands are doing roughly the same thing in different directions. You do not have to finger a scale in your left hand while your right hand makes unnatural stroking motions with a stick.

3. You do not have to hoist a piano onto your shoulder and hold it in precisely the right place with your chin to play it.

Finally, if my husband or my dog were writing this list and loved me less than they do, they might add that it never actually causes your family physical pain when you practice piano.

So.  All that is to say that I’m quite familiar with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; it’s not an abandoned relic of my childhood.

Which brings me to the ABCs. With five older siblings, I’m sure I knew the alphabet well before first grade, but circa 1970, I (and the forty-four other students who would line up in front of and behind me through eighth grade) marched around Sr. Esther’s room, carrying canes with letters on them. Along the way, we jumped in tires and probably even clapped out beats as we sang the alphabet song. I loved those canes.

I remember 1970 as the year we colored everything yellow and circled words that rhymed. At some point, we also learned to say the alphabet backwards, presumably to make looking up words in the dictionary easier. (I can’t say this skill has ever helped me figure out if equanimity comes before or after erotic on the fly, but it does make it easy to impress teenagers on the first day of class. As does writing your name forwards and backwards at the same time with a marker in each hand, which is really no different than playing a scale in contrary motion, but I digress.)

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had a love affair with the alphabet since I was a little kid. I used to say periwinkle was my favorite color, just because I liked how it sounded. And when I checked the dictionary just now to make sure periwinkle really is just a fancy way to say purple, I learned it is also a sea snail, which is every bit as much fun to say.

So at some point when I was three or four or five, I learned the song that taught me to cast my wonder onto the stars, and I learned the song that gave me twenty-six tools I could use to explore that wonder.

“How I wonder what you are” still pulls me onto the back deck with my sleeping bag each November to watch the Leonids. “How I wonder what you are” still calls me to my keyboard to explore that mystery, the way Rilke does when he explains life in eleven syllables: “it is alternately stone in you and star.”

When Hakim Bellamy said casually, “You know, the way Twinkle Twinkle and the ABCs are the same song,” what I heard was, “in the beginning was the word,” or, in the words of my old teacher, John Dunne, “if it all means the same thing, it means God.”

Back when I was first learning to sing to the stars and to love the world with letters, I had to leave for the bus stop when the trolley came for the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Today, I have to stop writing and get ready for work when I hear my neighbor’s garage door open.

Before I turn off my desk lamp, a little pool of light illuminates my hands, spidering over my laptop. The backs are flat and my fingers curl gently toward the keys. If I were to put pennies on them while I type, an old piano trick for practicing scales, they wouldn’t fall off. If the moonlight caught me just then and you looked in the door, you wouldn’t be able to tell if I were playing at a Bach Invention or playing at salvation.

Click here to read Rilke’s poem Evening  

  Click here to get to know Hakim Bellamy

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Spring

Riding my bike home from work yesterday into a thirty mile per hour headwind (with gusts to 44, according to the National Weather Service), I realized that no combination of my fitness level and my bike’s gears were going to get me all the way up the hill between Coors Boulevard and home. I also realized that you don’t really need spring in Albuquerque. Winter here is not an endurance test. The sky stays clear blue, cranes fly in to fill the fields, and snow doesn’t stay long enough to slush into puddles. Even the lessening light feels more like a respite than a reason for despair.

That wasn’t true growing up in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this fact recently when my sister came to visit. (Note to regular readers: you can relax; Judy and I are both happy to report that there’s no surprise ending here!) On a rare, overcast New Mexico day, Judy looked at the sky and said something like, “Oh, good, the sun’s out.”

I had forgotten that for the first twenty years of my life, a day where the sky stays a light milky gray could have felt sunny. In Pittsburgh, once winter comes and the days go short, the sky steels itself, untinted by any hint of blue. Ash Wednesday there was redundant. By February, anyone who didn’t know that they were dust and that to dust they would return just wasn’t paying attention.

On one of those short days, long before we were using words like dementia, I was standing with my mother in the kitchen of the house she’d lived in since 1967. We were looking out the window at the woods beyond the back yard. The trees with their empty branches scrawled on dull sky looked like charcoal sketches on a dingy tea towel.

“They’re all dead now,” she surprised me by saying. “They aren’t going to bloom this year.”

My mother doesn’t easily change her mind, so after a few minor protests I didn’t really argue on the trees’ behalf. The words felt sad, and portentous, and I was glad when a blue jay landed on the birdfeeder and brought some color back into the afternoon.

It’s easy to feel like the trees will never bloom again in March in Pittsburgh.

I remember those childhood winters as a series of annual illnesses. All the color fell from the trees, long nights usurped the light, and cold mornings woke you in silence.  My friends and I stopped collecting bright leaves and ironing them into wax paper placemats, stopped playing kickball and flashlight tag, and started moving quickly from house to car to school bus, bundled tightly against the earth’s cold breathing. Every single year, the whole world grew quiet and died.

Sometime in late March or April, just when you were sure it was going to be winter forever this time, you’d come home from school, drop your book bag in the hall, and see a vase on the kitchen table full of pussy willow branches your mother had cut in the backyard. They were as gray as the sky, but a light-fuzzy-dawn-gray that hinted at life. The next morning waking up, you’d hear finches singing in the locust outside your bedroom window. You’d still scuff through slush on your way to the bus stop, but you could feel it coming now.

And here’s the thing. Every single year, no matter how long or bleak the winter had been, it came. The dogwood bloomed, forsythia lit up the driveway, azaleas flanked the front porch, and walnuts ripened in bright green hulls. Even the tadpoles could be counted on to swim around in creeks and jelly jars, as long as there was someone in the neighborhood young enough to remember to catch them.

In his sumptuous poem, “A Color of the Sky,” Tony Hoagland writes, “Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,” which is precisely how I felt when I got off my bike at last yesterday afternoon. “Windy today” in Albuquerque means fifty mile an hour gusts and dust suspended like fish food in the air. It means trees so flustered they throw pollen at you, and air so brown you can’t see the mountains at the edge of town. In Albuquerque, the earth in spring tells a different story than the one I learned as a child, and even living here almost twenty-five years, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

As I write tonight, I’m in out of the wind. My throat is raw, my eyes are itching, and I’m still feeling “less than brilliant.” I really don’t know much about the world, but growing up in Pittsburgh taught me this one important thing: Spring comes.

Every single year, the earth makes a promise and keeps it.

My mother was wrong about the trees that year. I’m here like Thomas to tell you: I slid my hand into the wound in the earth’s side, and I saw the woods go green.

(Click here to read “A Color of the World” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171303)

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Guns

Yesterday’s Senate action to make sure we don’t expand background checks on gun sales reminded me that maintaining the (deeply flawed) status quo is grueling work. I thought I’d take it upon myself to help our hardworking Senators by drafting a form letter they can use in the future. 

Dear Grieving Parents of [insert child’s name],

The United States Senate wants you to know that we will stand beside you in this time of deep sadness. We will light candles, send cards and teddy bears, and go to our churches and pray. We will also watch a great deal more twenty-four news than usual. Some of us may even commit selfless acts of genuine kindness on TV.

However, we think it is important to let you know what we will not do. (You might want to share this information with your surviving children so that they can better understand the illusive nature of their safety.)

1. We will not pass any laws that criminals are going to break, because that would just be stupid.

2. We will not pass any laws until we are sure that they will be 100% effective at ending all crime. Incremental steps that don’t instantly solve the entire problem are also stupid.

3. We will not give up or in any way limit our right to own military assault weapons, because military assault weapons don’t kill people, people kill people.

4. We will not give up our right to shoot dozens of rounds of bullets with a single pull of the trigger. If you were a hunter, you would understand. Game animals travel in herds.

5. We will not take any action to try to keep guns away from criminals and the mentally ill, because they will just get them anyway (see #1 above).

6. We will not place any limits on who can buy a gun, sell a gun, or shoot a gun. Any step in that direction makes it more likely that the government, which is secretly planning to invade your home, will write your name down and come take your guns.  Just like they took your car and your cat and your dog when you registered them.

In short, we will not take any difficult action to enhance your child’s chances of survival. We have decided that the murder of children (and adults, for that matter), while highly unfortunate, is a cost we are willing to bear.

We hope you understand how deeply saddened we are by your loss.  The teddy bears and balloons should be arriving shortly.

Sincerely,

Your U.S. Senate

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Company

One Wednesday evening last fall, I found myself sautéing sage leaves. I can’t claim to do this with any regularity; my October Bon Appetit just happened to show up as I was trying to decide what to cook for my relatives, who would be getting off a plane at ten-thirty that night. I was looking for food that would satisfy them if they hadn’t had a decent meal since Pittsburgh, that would say “I’m so glad you’re here!” and that wouldn’t reproach them if all they really wanted to do was say goodnight and go to bed. Who wouldn’t fry sage leaves in that situation? By the time I left for the airport I had chilled the champagne and done everything but drizzle the butternut squash tart with the Serrano pepper honey simmering on the stove.

As they came toward me through security, the gate agent was pushing Uncle Don (at 87, my last living uncle on my mother’s side) in a wheelchair. He was wearing his Marines Semper Fi baseball cap and talking to the agent. My cousin Tommy (proud bearer of the title of oldest cousin on my dad’s side) was pushing Uncle Don’s fancy red walker, wheeling his own suitcase, and almost succeeding at balancing Uncle Don’s little blue suitcase on the seat of the walker. Uncle Larry (last living uncle on my father’s side and newly retired from the priesthood) and my brother Paul were carrying, dragging, and balancing the rest of the luggage. All of them looked like they might be rethinking that decision not to check the bags.

That was the last moment anyone looked back on. It was a magical five days, the kind of visit you always imagine having until your real company has replaced their fantasy doubles, set their glasses down without coasters, left the gate open to let the dog run away, and failed to be duly impressed with the view of the mountains from your backyard.  This company wasn’t like that. (And if you have ever stayed at my house, rest assured that I’m not talking about you.)

That first night, we didn’t get to bed until four; it was as if we’d all agreed to wring every last bit of life out of these few days together.  Thursday night I baked a six-layer cake I’d found in that same issue of Bon Appetit. Nine eggs and fourteen squares of dark chocolate later (this was a serious cake), we were singing happy birthday to Uncle Don, as he turned eighty-eight. “You know,” he said, “you live alone for so long, and then people do something like this for you, it just makes you want to weep.”

Mine looked almost like this.
Mine looked almost like this.

Saturday morning I make pancakes (plain old Bisquick and blueberries now that we’ve reached day three) shaped like sixty-fives to celebrate Tommy’s birthday. My husband takes Uncle Don to the casino so he can play bingo, and the rest of us launch into another day of sightseeing. When we meet for dinner later, Uncle Don raves about the two (“not one, but two!”) hotdogs he ate at Wienerschnitzel and slyly shows me the bingo markers he has slipped into the trunk of his walker for the ladies in his “harem” back home.

I forget to warn my relatives not to make eye contact with the mariachis, so soon an orange-haired woman and her husband, who met fifty years ago in their church choir, are serenading us. They sing happy birthday and Una Paloma Blanca, and we’re all fast friends by the time the check comes.

I’m still singing about that white dove flying up to the sun as we walk out of the restaurant and see fireworks exploding in the east against the Sandias. We sit down on a bench in front of the restaurant like we’re sitting on the front porch on Marvle Valley Drive (and I won’t change that to “Marvel” just to make spell-check happy, because that street was misspelled my whole life, and I’m trying to tell the truth here). We watch until the last flare fades.

No one feels like going to bed when we get home, so we turn the Notre Dame game on, play some pinochle, and listen to Uncle Don tell stories about how he met Aunt Ann. For some reason we start googling our birth years. Uncle Don was born in 1924, the Year of the Rat; 1955 puts Paul in the Year of the Sheep.  For some reason we find this hilarious. Sometime after midnight we talk about how fast the days are going and call it a night. In bed my husband and I marvel (there, spell-check, happy now?) at how these days are glowing so richly by.

Sunday morning the sky is full of hot air balloons, and I’m trying to decide if I should wake everyone up to see them. The coffee’s ready, and the last thing I expect Paul to say when he comes out of the guest room is “I think Uncle Don is dead.”

But that’s exactly what he says.

I could tell you a lot more about this story; I could explain how the police came and Uncle Larry said last rites and I cooked a pot roast and we all moved into that shimmery borderland you walk in when death reminds you that it’s been there breathing beside you all along.

I could tell you about Uncle Larry’s Christmas card this year, in which he said he’d love to visit again, “with a slight adjustment being that all who arrive together will depart breathing.” I could tell you about Uncle Don’s comment, earlier in the week he died, that some nights he would lie in bed alone and say, “Ok, God, why don’t you take me now, I’m ready,” and how sure I am that he said that prayer that night in my guest room.

I could tell you about all the jokes we make now about the thorough vacation experience available at my house, and about how happy everyone is that Uncle Don died here, surrounded by family, at peace in his sleep after a day that included mariachis, bingo, pinochle, fireworks, and hotdogs.

I could tell you about the envelope the funeral home sent me, full of left-over laminated flag bookmarks with Uncle Don’s obituary on them, and the mass cards bearing the dates October 4, 1924-October 7, 2012, along with the complete text of The Halls of Montezuma, but I’ve said way too much already.

It’s a short story, really.

It’s the one I told the people whose names I found in his address book and called that Sunday morning: Uncle Don came to visit, had a great time, and died.

In her poem “Train Ride,” Ruth Stone writes, “All things come to an end. No, they go on forever.” The lines repeat throughout the poem, and you can feel the train jogging along through the music. I used to think the poem was arguing with itself, trying to decide what kind of a world we live in, what kind of lives we live.

I don’t think that anymore. Monday afternoon I drive my last living uncle, my cousin, and my brother back to the airport. I watch as planes pull away from the planet. I know that when Ruth Stone (who didn’t publish her first book of poems until she was sixty) says, “All things come to an end. No they go forever” she’s not arguing with anyone. She’s just telling all the truth there is to tell about the world.

 

 

 

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Signs

I’m not really much of a cyclist. Take one look at my teal ten-speed and you’ll notice at least three dead giveaways. No toe clips. Two big metal baskets on the back. A peeling purple bumper sticker that says “So many books, so little time.” Clearly, putting my feet on the pedals isn’t my primary passion.

The fact that I’m not a real cyclist also shows when I’m meandering down the river trail. I tend to spend most of my time looking up, wobbling into the other lane, watching for porcupines and bald eagles in the still bare cottonwoods. Frequently, I see them.

A few Sundays ago I was about six miles in without spotting as much as a scrub jay. Riding the river trail is a little like driving toward The World’s Biggest Cross somewhere in the middle of Texas. A straight line of pavement peels away clear to the horizon.

So I was surprised to see something big and black change the shape of the line ahead. I was even more surprised when I saw the empty ribs arcing gracefully up into clear air. It looked like a picture I might have seen in my brother’s Boy Scout book of a canoe before you put its skin on. It looked like a moment Georgia O’Keefe might have captured and called “Rib Bones on Trail.”

Just south of the bones, at the point where the tail connected to where the body used to be, a brilliant spot of fresh red marked some still uneaten bits. I have to point out that I’m not talking about a squirrel or a rabbit. This animal is big.

The trail along the river is ninety-five parts urban, five parts nature. It’s where city people like me go to be outside without worrying that we won’t find our way home. It’s not really supposed to be wild, in the “animals are eating each other in the middle of the bike trail” sort of way.

A few hours later I rode back and he was gone. He hadn’t left a mark, no blood or crime scene chalk recorded the spot where he died. I tried to imagine a city Open Space employee out clearing carcasses at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. It seems more likely that whoever’s meal I’d interrupted came back to finish the job.

All week I kept thinking about those ribs. I saw their shape in the way the trees arched over the bridge. I thought of them when I went for a run and felt my own torso, breathing. I talked to a biologist friend who convinced me to call him a beaver. I googled “beaver size” and learned that they can weigh as much as seventy-five pounds, and that they are most vulnerable when they travel on land. I googled “beaver predators” and learned a coyote, fox, eagle, mountain lion, or even a large hawk could have been eating breakfast just before I rode by.

As I rode home that morning I kept thinking about the scene in Kundun where they dismember the body of the Dalai Lama’s father, and offer it to be eaten by the birds. Vultures flock in and carry bits of the body away, much as I imagine a bald eagle might have fed on this beaver. I had never heard of Tibetan sky burials before. In an article in the Orange County Register, Nawang Phuntson, a professor and Tibetan native, takes Scorsese to task for failing to provide the “sacred philosophy” behind the sky burial. He explains that the practice is grounded in the belief that “nothing should be wasted, that death should be used to sustain life.”

I’m thinking about those sky burials and about using death to sustain life when I see the Canada Goose perched high in a cottonwood, keeping an eye on the trail. I wonder if she has been sitting here all morning, if she witnessed the moment when the bald eagle tugged at the beaver’s heart, and carried it, still warm from beating, into the sky.

 

 

 

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Strong

Tonight when the big orange dog jumped up on the leather couch he couldn’t settle. He’s a lanky dog, so sometimes he can’t quite maneuver himself into a comfortable position. The problem is this: after he turns south and shakes, and then turns north and rubs his head on the back cushion, and then twitches his back paw and turns south again, thinking perhaps he’ll lay his head on the arm rest instead of in my lap, his fur has gone all static electric wild, and he’s totally freaked out. You can practically see the sparks shooting and his synapses shorting, and you just can’t figure out how to help him. (And if you are thinking that at this point a rational person would instead be thinking about how to get the big hairy dog off the couch, I get it. But that’s not the house I live in.)

Tonight as his fur splays out in an electric halo, I hear myself tell him, “Just give up and lay down.”

Just give up and lay down. They are the kind of words that hang around in the air after you say them, determined to mean more than you intended. You keep humming them like the first three notes of a song you used to know, until your neurons get their act together and you remember that once on a very bad day, a very good priest said, “Don’t be strong.”

Seriously? I like strong. Strong is easy. Strong is cry later in your car. Strong is keep showing up on time. Strong is put the dishes in the dishwasher, prep for class, get the laundry done. Strong is “Good, thanks, and you?” or “I’m ok. Really.”

Strong is when your voice doesn’t catch when you find yourself reading out loud this line, spoken by the irritating mother in The Sound and the Fury, who, having lost her son Quentin to suicide, realizes her granddaughter Quentin is missing and says, “Where’s the note? When Quentin did it he left a note.” Strong is reading straight on through to the next sentence, without your students seeing that your heart is now on the outside of your body, all static electric wild.

I like strong.

Sometimes, though, words are spells.  When the priest said “Don’t be strong,” I stopped being strong. I cried outside under the cottonwoods. I cried in the classroom. I cried in the church and in the cemetery and in the morning and on Thursdays and when birds startled out of trees. I cried when Orion appeared on the horizon and when the cranes flew in. I wasn’t strong.

In 1994 I tumbled over a horse’s head and shattered my wrist. A great surgeon pinned my bones to a plate and stitched me back together. I remember walking through O’Hare Airport before it was fully healed; all I wanted to do was to protect it, to hold it close to me like a little broken bird. But I was strong, and I had somewhere I was supposed to be, so I had gotten on the plane. I remember how all the people around me looked like weapons; I clenched my body against them, the way morning glories fold their petals as the light wanes.

It doesn’t work like that when you’re not being strong. You don’t have any petals to close. You walk through the world without any skin, as though you’d just had your chest cranked open for heart surgery and the surgeon has forgotten to sew you back up.

When you’re not being strong, everything hurts. Things that happened decades ago when you were being strong sense your weakness and rush back to hurt you all over again. Things that haven’t even happened, like when the kind looking man at church tells you he’s come here to kill Satan today, hurt you as much as if he had actually taken a gun out of the little gun-sized pouch on his back and begun killing the people you love. When you’re not being strong you learn to call these sorts of moments trauma.

When you’re not being strong, you don’t just relinquish the job of protecting yourself from the world; you also relinquish the job of protecting the world from itself, which you hadn’t even known you’d been trying to do. You see this in the shape of your shoulders. Months later, when you have forgiven yourself for all the pain in the world, you actually choose to keep your chest cranked open and decide not to step back into your skin. You see pale green top the trees and marvel at how well the world has spun on without your constant attention.

My words don’t have the same incantatory power over the dog. He jumps off the couch, heads outside to bark and sniff for a while, and finally comes back in. This time he lands the sweet spot on his first try. As I write, his head is in my lap and I’m bending my arm at a funny angle to type around an ear. Every now and then he nudges my laptop, as if to push it away and nuzzle closer. “Give up,” I think he’s trying to tell me. “Lay down.”

(Oh, and one more thing in case it’s been a long time since you’ve read The Sound and the Fury. The second Quentin didn’t commit suicide. She escaped out the window and shinnied down Caddy’s plum tree. Life came and called her, and she ran.)

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Into the River

Way back in high school, I was the friend who would carry your secrets. Tell me your problems–I could pick them up and carry them around those high school halls without my shoulders bending a bit. Nothing marked me. People thought that was a good thing. I thought that was a good thing. Friends came out to me, told me about their abortions, explained their problems with their parents. I skipped on, their secrets and my own floating above me in a helium balloon sealed tight and tied securely to my backpack. Life was easy. I was happy.

Not that long ago, I realized that I’ve spent much of my life carrying that balloon, walking along the shore of the river, keeping my feet dry. Next to me rushed a river full of life: muskrats, beavers, river trout, crayfish, snakes–all of them were swimming by me. I kept my distance. I happily portaged other people’s problems down the river, slinging them over my head like a fiberglass canoe, but I never got my feet wet.

Suicide has a way of throwing you into the river. For a long time after the second of the two worst phone calls of my life, I drowned, I tumbled, I washed by places I wished I could stay. I fought the current, looking for the break when I could make my way back to shore.

But then a funny thing happened. Somehow my wet feet found the bottom. They  eased into the muck where tadpoles were burrowing and reeds were beginning their long, faith-filled journey toward the sun. I found myself walking in the river. It wasn’t easy. I kept losing my balance on slippery ground, and my feet grew heavy with mud. Sometimes I’d fall down; sometimes the weight of the water would keep me from walking at all. But once in a rare while, the water would buoy me up, and I’d swim.

One day I forgot to angle for the shore.

Here in the river cranes call from the marshes, eagles cast shadows, geese v overhead. Here in the river life is harder, my own problems snag on branches, my friends’ problems weigh me down. Here in the river cynicism and joy battle it out in me each day. Here in the river when the cranes call, I lift my eyes into the blooming morning sun.

This blog is called “live love leave,” and it’s about trying to learn how to do all of those things with grace. It’s about learning to play the violin, training for triathlons, loving things that are fragile, and loosening my frantic grip on the world. It’s about letting the world hurt you and love you. It’s about the shape of your shoulders as you try to stop carrying the world.

This afternoon I walked out into the hallway of my school and some kids were playing the Game of Life. It was an English project. Heathcliff and Cathy and all the gang from Wuthering Heights were there, riding their horses over the moors and ruining each other’s lives. (OK, Heathcliff was doing most of the ruining, but that’s not really where I’m going with this). I remembered how my old best friend Jacqui and I spent many hours of our childhood spinning that wheel, losing a job and going back two spaces, having a baby and pushing another little pink peg into our convertibles, getting married to Henry or Eddie or some other boy we loved from afar in fourth grade. (I suppose I should reverse those last two items. It was the seventies; we were in Catholic school.)

Not that long ago I realized that I’ve spent a lot of time learning to play life. This blog is about what I’ve learned, what I’m still learning, what I don’t even know I don’t know yet. If you plan to keep reading I have a spoiler alert: I make a lot less money than I used to. The shape of my shoulders has changed.

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