Bruce Black lives in Sarasota, FL. He is the author of Writing Yoga (Rodmell Press), as well as personal essays and articles that have appeared in Tiferet Journal, OmYoga Magazine, MindBodyGreen, Yoga Times, The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, and Reform Judaism Magazine. His most recent story was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses.
The End of Shloshim
Thirty days have passed since we buried Dad. It’s the end of Shloshim, the start of a new stage of mourning. Whether I go to shul (Yiddish for synagogue) to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in the traditional way or say it alone on my early morning walks, Dad’s death remains the same. Kaddish doesn’t change the truth or eliminate the pain of his absence. He’s gone, thirty days away from life, from breathing and smiling and enjoying poached eggs and toast and his cup of coffee for breakfast, from kisses and hugs and Father’s Day cards that were never sent because he died before I could put them in the mail, having bought them only days before news came of his death. I’d planned to mail the cards in time for them to reach him on Father’s Day. Instead, I got on a plane to bid him goodbye and left the cards on the dining room table, unsigned, without addresses, for where could I send my Father’s Day cards now that he was gone?
I haven’t yet shaved. When I look in the mirror, I see an old man with a gray beard. No longer am I the boy in my dreams but fifty-five years old, the same age as my father was when I stood next to him in the waves off Montauk Point or walked beside him on our way to shul for Rosh Hashanah. I still remember wondering what it would feel like to carry a tallit bag like his under my arm and to wrap myself inside a prayer shawl the way he wrapped himself in his. He was so young then, but I didn’t know it. I thought he was old. How our perspective changes as we grow old and death comes for us.
The end of Shloshim marks the end of something but I’m not sure what. It’s different than the end of Shivah, the seven days of mourning that we sat at my brother’s house in Highland Park, New Jersey. During those initial days of grief we were still numb, not quite able to grasp what had happened. Maybe that’s why tradition recommends that mourners stay inside and not go out, not as a punishment or torture, but rather as a safeguard to protect a mourner from his own lack of focus, an inability to concentrate on the simple tasks of life like crossing a street or driving, because his thoughts are pre-occupied with loss.
For seven days I inhabited a cocoon of grief, visited by friends and members of my brother’s temple and community. I was taken care of by family, allowed to melt into my own state of sorrow. And then at the end of the seventh day I emerged from that cocoon, ready to return to the world, but not quite whole again, not quite able to find my balance.
Hence Shloshim, the next stage of mourning after sitting Shiva, was a way of acknowledging that, while a mourner can go back to work and resume the daily rituals of his life, a major shift in life has occurred, and it may require another thirty days—not just seven—to regain one’s equilibrium, to focus on the world again and not find oneself distracted by grief.
So for thirty more days I lived in a kind of middle-world—neither numb with grief and shock but not yet fully present, not yet able to be fully attentive to the world again. Still forbidden from cutting my hair or seeing plays or listening to music or attending parties, I continued to mourn. The shock of death hadn’t fully worn off yet, and the tradition forgave me my grief, even as it raised expectations that I return to the world. No longer would the minyan, the ten-person prayer group, come to our house so I could say Kaddish. Now I had to go to shul to say Kaddish. I was encouraged to leave the house, to begin living again.
But thirty days didn’t diminish my grief. Once the initial shock wore off and the truth of Dad’s death began to settle into consciousness; I noticed how grief deepened with each day that passed. It wasn’t just deeper but more profound. In the early days of mourning I could protest, pretend death might not be true, imagine someone spreading false rumors. I could believe that I’d be able to see Dad the moment I entered his house. But now that those days have passed, I can no longer deceive or delude myself. Dad is gone. I’ll never enter his house and see him there again. After thirty days, this is the new reality, my new reality.
And yet, after thirty days, I still listen for his voice. On some days I believe – or convince myself – that I can hear it. It’s as if he’s walking beside me or sitting next to me, his arm over my shoulder, the way he used to comfort me when I struggled as a boy to learn Hebrew. The same patient, wise, and encouraging tone. The same concern and love in his voice that I heard in those days long ago. I don’t want to lose the ability to hear his voice, to imagine him nearby.
But I’m afraid after thirty days my memory of him will begin to fade, the same way my memory of Mom faded after her death, and I’ll lose him a second time. That’s why the end of Shloshim is so hard to bear. It marks a full thirty days since we laid him to rest. And the days keep moving forward. And memories keep receding into the past. And I can’t stand still, trying to hold onto the past, without moving forward into the future. I can’t stay in this place the way I tried to stay in one place holding onto memories of Mom. That strategy didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried to cling to her and to our days together, she slipped away, and my memories of her slipped away, too. Maybe it’s just inevitable, the way life works. You can’t cling to the past or avoid the future any more than you can halt time. Perhaps the end of Shloshim is an acknowledgment that you have to move on.
So perhaps I’ll shave off my beard later today or, at the least, trim it. And maybe tomorrow or next week I’ll go for a haircut. At some point I’ll listen to the radio again, to talk shows, to music. I’ll watch TV and go to the movies. In other words, I’ll continue living. I’ll return to life.
But I’ll keep saying Kaddish too, for the next eleven months, on my own and with my congregation on Friday nights. I’m still not sure why I need to say Kaddish, except that it’s a prayer that Jewish tradition says a mourner should recite after the loss of a loved one to honor his or her memory.
I don’t see how saying words that I don’t understand, in a language that Dad didn’t understand either, makes any difference. How does such a prayer help Dad? How does it help me? And yet, even with these questions, I still find myself needing to say it each morning.
Saying Kaddish is as much about the sound of the words as it is about their meaning. It’s about the repetitive quality of the syllables, the way chanting the prayer on my morning walk as a kind of personal mantra lends my steps a certain cadence, as if I’m in step with the energy of the universe, as if the divine is surrounding me and pulsing through me as I walk and chant the ancient words. There’s something comforting, too, about saying (or sometimes singing) the words while gazing at the sunrise or the clouds or the blue sky. It’s uplifting to feel the morning breeze on my skin as I say words of praise to God. And it’s comforting, too, to feel as if Dad is in the breeze touching my skin or in the songs of the birds or in the cries of the seagulls overhead or in the gentle rustle of palm trees.
This morning on my walk I listened for Dad’s voice, trying to hear if he needed me to say Kaddish more often or in the presence of a minyan. Did he still need me? Did I still need to feel needed? I strained to listen but didn’t hear him make any request. He seemed content. He seemed happy. He seemed fulfilled. His life had been a good one, filled with blessings, and he’d managed in the end to overcome his fear of death, a fear, he once confided to me, that he’d been aware of ever since he’d watched Mom suffer before her death from liver cancer. He said he didn’t know if he’d be able to be brave like her or if he could withstand that kind of pain.
He was given a different ending than Mom. Thirteen years on dialysis, heart and breathing issues, poor circulation in his legs that required the amputation of two of his toes. These were his challenges, and they were not without pain. But they were nothing like the pain Mom had to endure. Yet even though he had his own pain, his own fears, he overcame them. He displayed the kind of courage and optimism in life that inspired everyone who came in contact with him. He seemed to radiate life, and every day he expressed joy and gladness in simply being alive to anyone who he met—nurses, doctors, drivers, waitresses, sales clerks, whoever they might be—and they responded with appreciation for his spirit and determination.
It’s funny how these thoughts swirl through my head. Memories. Recollections. Snippets of conversations. Pictures frozen in time, then gone, replaced by others, as if memory is made from a huge album of pictures, with hundreds of pages that you can turn forever and never finish turning.
How do I honor Dad’s memory now? What can I do to keep his name alive in the world? Maybe that’s partly the function of Kaddish. It extends his place in the community another year so he isn’t gone completely. But does it really? Is saying Kaddish really about remembering Dad and honoring his memory? Or is it more about my need for some kind of comfort, and, ultimately, closure?
Each life is like a bubble on the sea. I came across this idea in a book on Tibetan meditation. We are all bubbles, our existence fragile and temporary, and when we burst, we rejoin the sea to form new bubbles. If Dad’s life was a bubble, it lasted 94 years. In that span of years he had loved apples and pies and golf and America and being Jewish and Israel. He had loved Mom and my brother, Rick, and me. He had loved his second wife and her children, too, and all of his grandchildren. He had grown and changed over the course of his life, yet deep down he had remained true to himself. There had been something mysterious that had made him who he was. Call it soul or spirit, identity or DNA, or simply a bubble. Whatever you want to call it, that’s the part of him that survives.
I wish I could feel his arms wrapping around me again, embracing me just once more. All I feel, though, is stillness, a hollowness in my chest, an emptiness in my heart.
And yet, there are some days on my morning walks, after I finish saying Kaddish, when I would swear that I hear his voice.
It sounds practical and wise and oh-so-near.
It sounds like he’s whispering in my ear.
Thirty days are over, son, I hear him say.
It’s time to let go.
It’s time to move on.
Living While Large
I’m about to give a reading at the local library when a stranger comes up to shake my hand, an older woman who says she lives just a few streets away. “You look nothing like I expected!” she blurts.
“No?” I am surprised she’s spent time imagining what I look like.
“I pictured you as tall,” the woman says, “and slender, and dressed in a sophisticated way, kind of, oh I don’t know, sporty.”
She seems oblivious to the fact that she’s telling me I’m short and heavy. And, despite my best efforts, not sporty. I bite back the absurd impulse to correct her on that last count, to tell her I am so. But I don’t bother; I’ve grown adept at pretending to ignore such slights.
They’re surprisingly common. From the time my husband and I got engaged through the early years of our marriage, my father-in-law used to say, pretty much every time we shared a meal, “you sure don’t eat much for a fat girl!” My father-in-law found his words hilarious, repeated them each time as if the thought were just occurring to him in that moment.
Some jabs take longer to land. At meetings for a non-profit whose board I am on, Stacey—one of the staff members—invariably calls me Laura. When folks correct her, she laughs, saying, “I keep doing that, don’t I?” It took almost a year before I figured out why: the actual Laura, who had been away on a leave of absence, came to a board meeting. She is Latina whereas I am white; she’s several inches taller than I am; and she dresses in a flouncy, frilly way, with layers of scarves and an armful of bracelets. Visually, the only things we have in common are our gender—and our heft.
Mentally running through the list of people that Stacey and I have in common, I’m forced to consider that maybe Laura and I really are the only fat women she knows. None of the staff are remotely close to overweight. Neither are any of the other women on the Board. In fact, I have not met anyone with whom the organization works who is heavy. Still, this is America, where more than two-thirds of adults are overweight, so you’d think she’d encounter other fat women somewhere.
But it’s possible she doesn’t. Despite these statistics, I am very often the only fat woman where I am. Recently, my husband and I went to the Galapagos Islands. I was the only person on the cruise boat who could not find a wetsuit that fit. Even the 6’6” tall park ranger from Texas found one. At home post-trip, in a pique of indignation and shame, I looked up the most recent U.S. census data about height and weight. The ranger is in the 99.5th percentile for height for men in the US. I am in the 69.5th percentile for weight for women in the US. And yes, that’s heavy—but it also means a lot of women are my size, or bigger. I was angry that the ship was prepared to accommodate a guy who was a total statistical outlier while ignoring the needs of, potentially, 30 percent of the women on board. But in actuality, almost no large women were on board, leaving me to wonder whether the cruise line was usually right in not expecting us. Could it really be that women my size are as seldom seen as the Galapagos albatross? And if we are that rare, then why?
Lack of a wetsuit notwithstanding, I snorkeled with the sharks and sea lions every day. I love swimming. In both high school and college, I swam on the men’s swim teams. Even now, decades and pounds past my athletic prime, people at the pool where I swim still sometimes ask if I’m training for something, so unabashedly inquisitive about someone who looks like me doggedly doing laps that they break the protocol of locker rooms, that tacit agreement we all make to pretend we don’t see one another.
I want to be clear about my motives in mentioning what a good swimmer I am. For it could be a way of saying “despite all my earnest exercising, I’m fat because I got an especially raw deal in the gene lottery.” Or, more insidiously, it could be a form of distancing, a way of saying “I am not like those fat people who don’t work out and so are somehow more deserving of being fat than poor me.” What I do want to point out is the curious fact that an active fat body, like a pregnant body, is something many, many people feel free to comment on. (And, full disclosure, to acknowledge the deep joy that comes with moving unfettered).
I’m mostly over my wetsuit pique, in no small part because I’ve gone online searching for a suit, and now know that the dearth in the Galapagos wasn’t entirely the cruise line’s fault. They could have had wetsuits for large women, yes, but even if they had, none of them would have fit me because I am fat in the wrong way. Apparently, if you are large and desirous of a wetsuit, you need to be uniformly large—which I’m not. I suppose I could transfer my huffiness from the cruise line to the wetsuit industry, but they’d just be at the end of a long queue since most apparel makers ignore the existence of a large and growing market.
Those apparel makers really confound me. Stepping back from the unpleasantness of going clothing shopping as a large woman and simply considering the situation from the standpoint of economics, I marvel that the marketplace offers such limited options. Within forty miles of my home, for instance, only one store consistently carries workplace appropriate clothing that both fits and appeals to me. To be sure, this dearth is partly because I live in rural Maine. But percentage-wise, there are as many large ladies here as anywhere else in America, and most of us need work clothes. So while I realize the number of big women who want a wetsuit might not constitute a economically viable niche, the 30 percent of the U.S.’s female population my size and up does need to dress every day. Do apparel makers not see this? Not see us?
I want to understand this strange mix of visibility and invisibility, to figure out how a surfeit of visibility can result in erasure. Partly, I want to parse this oddity—the strange fact that “extra” presence is transformed into absence. But also, I want to understand it literally, want to know where the other ladies are. Why don’t I see my form reflected more often in the workplace, in the boardroom, at the pool? Why doesn’t Stacey know anyone besides me and Laura who are plus-sized?
Some of it, I suspect, is due to prejudice that starts taking a toll early—to the stereotyping of overweight children in schools that leads teachers to assume these students are less intelligent and to grade them accordingly. In studies of both middle school students and college students, researchers found that non-overweight students get higher grades than overweight students who are equivalently intelligent, conscientious, and hardworking. After eliminating all the other alternatives, the researchers concluded that teachers discriminate against these students through “direct or indirect pathways” that lead to lower grades. If teachers are unwittingly giving overweight students the message that they aren’t as smart as their peers, surely that effects the aspirations of some and their pleasure in school itself. And even if it doesn’t effect the aspirations of a given student, it has an effect on her ability to get into selective colleges since her grades are lower than those of her classmates.
How great it would be if parental support countered whatever pernicious treatment heavy girls experience at school. Alas, that’s not always the case. Researcher Christian Crandall found that parents are less likely to support overweight daughters in their desire to attend college than average-weight daughters. Perhaps I don’t see a lot of like-weight peers because heavy girls are so often discouraged, both directly and indirectly, from pursuing higher education and thus from entering careers that depend on advanced degrees.
Luckily, I had incredibly supportive parents who encouraged me to excel in school. But even we who manage to surmount school challenges eventually discover the workplace is no easier going. Overweight people earn less than their non-overweight co-workers and frequently experience weight-related bias by employers and stigmatizing by peers, which can makes it hard to enjoy a job. But switching jobs is also difficult, as considerable weight-related bias occurs in the hiring process.
I’ve worked in English departments and Art departments at small colleges and large universities and others in between. I’ve served on the boards of many non-profits, ranging from environmental organizations to a fishermen’s alliance to a doctoral program in aesthetics. Surely none of those interests are de facto off-limits for heavy folks. If statistics bore out, one out of seven of the women I have had as colleagues on boards or in the workforce during the last decade or so should have been big. To the contrary, I can count on one hand the number of women my size with whom I’ve worked.
Since we’re such anomalies, you’d think we’d be impossible to miss. But that’s not the case. And I’ve been struggling to understand why. A psychology experiment offers a key; although it’s been around for a while, I just learned about it recently at a conference. One of the speakers showed a video clip of six young women passing around a basketball. He instructed us to count the passes made by the team in white shirts. After, he asked how many passes, and the proud audience members answered nearly in unison. Then he asked us how many had noticed a gorilla walking across the court. Some folks laughed, raising their hands. Nearly as many looked flummoxed. He re-ran the video. Sure enough, a gorilla walked on court, stared at the camera, waved, and walked off.
The video illustrates a phenomenon called “inattentional blindness.” The core feature of inattentional blindness is an inability to see something in the visual field, something completely un-obscured, because we do not expect to see it. Inattentional blindness is the opposite of “we see what we want to see;” it’s that we don’t see what we find implausible.
Stacey’s conflation of me with Laura and my neighbor’s assumption that a writer must be tall and slender (and that those traits are prerequisites for being sophisticated) are but a step away from inattentional blindness. Let’s call their malady “inattentional near-sightedness.” Having been culturally schooled to assume a woman with my kind of body must be lazy, smelly, self-loathing, disgusting, unhealthy, gluttonous, stupid, (shall I go on?), they cannot make sense of my being, and so, rather than revise their mental category, they just don’t quite see me.
Many of my friends, in contrast, just don’t quite see that I am fat, a different version of “inattentional near-sightedness.” And while that’s kind of sweet, the disconnect is revelatory. My friend Mary says she never thinks of me as fat because she knows all the things I do in the world. Lois insists I’m not fat because I am confident and happy. Corinne points out that I eat healthy food I’ve grown myself, says I am “curvy” not “fat.”
And they’re largely right. Right that I am busy, and mostly happy and mostly confident and a fine grower of food. Right that I have not come by my extra pounds by using food to fill empty time or an empty heart. But here’s the thing: their love prompts them to shift me out of the category, not to consciously challenge the stereotypes associated with the category. Which I get: these women have also come up in an America where it’s hard to escape the nasty extras that go with the notion of fat.
Years ago, I worked at a small college where one of the older women in the department took it upon herself to assure/warn us younger women that “you will never lose a pound after 50.”
“And how is that different than now?” I asked.
“You’ll see” was all she said.
Back then, I wasn’t able to lose any significant amount of weight, but I managed to stave off gaining it rapidly. Five years ago, all that changed. Shortly before I hit the magical 50, the strategies that had worked to keep my weight from sky-rocketing abruptly ceased functioning. My colleague had never mentioned menopause, but now I know what the “you’ll see” was. Pound begat pound. The slide from curvy to unambiguously fat began.
Here is a thing that you don’t know unless you know: it is terrifying. Terrifying when you realize you have long since given up snacks, sweets, seconds, that the only thing left to give up is nutrition itself. Terrifying when you submit to that obviously unsound tactic and find that fasting no longer budges the needle on the scale. Terrifying when you have to give up certain activities because they are too hard on your joints, or abrade your chubby thighs, or leave you gasping for air. Terrifying when you realize you have almost no effective exercise options with which to replace the ones that hurt too much. Terrifying because you know all those individual terrors add up to a trajectory that only serious illness is likely to change.
And serious illness is likely. Being overweight is regularly associated with increased risk of significant chronic illnesses. But here’s another thing you probably don’t know if you aren’t overweight: it can change your relationship to illness in some really foolish ways. In my mid-thirties, I got very sick and lost thirty pounds in just under eight weeks. Although I knew the bad things that were happening to my body, I was ecstatic.
When I returned to my teaching post, I got lots of compliments on the “new me.” One of my students, though, visibly bristled when she heard the professor across the hall congratulating me.
“Doesn’t she know you were sick?” She asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, “but she also knows how hard it is for me to lose weight.”
She sat silently for a while, clearly working up the courage to say something more.
“When my mom had cancer,” she began, “the ladies at her church would tell her how great she looked. It was crazy. Here she was dying, and all they could talk about was how good she looked because she’d lost weight. I couldn’t stand it. My mother would say ‘thank you,’ but I could see her wincing, so I’d whisper ‘fuck you,’ just loud enough for my mom to hear, ‘cause I knew she’d never say it for herself.”
I am sensible enough now not to hope for illness, but that doesn’t mean I am always wise. This year, for the first time, I cancelled my annual physical (twice, to be completely honest) because I just couldn’t bear the contempt my doctor doesn’t hide about my weight.
As I cancelled the second time, I recalled a moment a few years ago, riding in the back of the ambulance on which I volunteered as an EMT. We had reported to a home for a patient who turned out to be bedridden and so large that three firefighters had to come help us move him. After we dropped off the patient at the hospital, the other EMT on the call wondered aloud, flabbergasted and obviously disgusted, how someone could let himself get so big. Lots of uncouth things get said in the back of an ambulance, especially on the ride home, but a cardinal rule is to never blame the patient for their condition—not the guys who OD, not the drunks who flip their cars, not the octogenarians who fall on black ice. No one, period.
That moment is so sharp in my memory both because I realized how deep his prejudice must go, that he must feel some version of it about me, and also because barely a week later, at an annual conference for EMTs, I attended a workshop on “Lifting Safety.” The instructor explained that an ever-increasing proportion of our patients would be heavy—partly because the population is getting heavier, but more importantly because emergency medicine has become the health access point for people who prefer not to engage the healthcare system directly as a result of the prejudice so many physicians express toward overweight patients.
Significant percentages of medical doctors report that they believe overweight patients are lazy, dishonest, indulgent, and unlikely to be medically compliant, as well as that we lack willpower, lack adequate hygiene, and have family problems. In one survey of more than 400 physicians, respondents were asked to indicate “patient characteristics that aroused feelings of discomfort, reluctance, or dislike.” Obesity came in #4, after drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. These same physicians describe overweight patients as often “hostile.”
I’m on the hunt for a new doctor, ideally one who isn’t prejudiced, though I’d settle for one who can hide it. And I’m very lucky I can do this. I have very good health insurance, and it does not bind me to a certain medical network. I know how to do the research to find out how other patients have felt about prospective physicians. I can drive a long way for care if I need to. These pieces of luck are just a few on the very long list that separates me from someone like the housebound patient we transported.
Which is part of what I should have told my ambulance colleague. I wish I’d had the gumption then to speak, to tell him no one wants to be dangerously fat, you jerk. It begins slowly, with some bad luck, maybe a whole cluster of bad lucks. Over time, the bad luck can get compounded, leavened with accumulating reluctances: a disinclination to be commented upon, or an unwillingness to have folks judge the contents of your cart at the grocery store. Being seen and found wanting begins to slide into not being seen, as clerks in clothing stores walk the other way, as work associates call you by another’s name. And just as weight begets weight, each pound makes it more difficult to find clothing in which to exercise, let alone to do the exercise, so too does having been rendered invisible beget invisibility. It gets exhausting, this not being seen. And so, tired of being invisible in plain sight, one may choose to be invisible on one’s own terms instead.
That’s what happened to our patient. The second or third time we came for him, his caretaker told me that a few years earlier he simply stopped leaving the house, finding it too painful to be out in the world. As he grew more sedentary he also grew heavier. Eventually, he’d become entirely bedridden. I hold that lesson close, like an amulet. For unlike my ambulance colleague, I know that man is not some hapless other who let this happen; he is me—he is so many of us—if we’d had his myriad bad lucks instead of mostly good ones.
 C. MacCann and R. D. Roberts, “Just as smart but not as successful: obese students obtain lower school grades but equivalent test scores to nonobese students,” International Journal of Obesity (2013) 37, 40–46; doi:10.1038/ijo.2012.47; published online 24 April 2012
Heather Durham is a naturalist and nature writer who holds an MS in Environmental Biology from Antioch New England University and an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She lives and writes in a feral river valley in the foothills northeast of Seattle. Learn more at heatherdurhamauthor.com.
Earth to Earth
When bigleaf maple leaves larger than your face turn yellow with bronze fungal spots, it is time. When the quiet, lackadaisical songbirds of late summer join in fervent, chittering mixed-species flocks, trembling the cedars, it is time. When the rains return for real and the forests won’t dry until next summer, when licorice ferns green and unfurl and mushrooms of muted reds and purples appear out of dead wood overnight, it is time.
They are coming home, to die.
I come to the river to watch. A silver streak in the pebbled shallows. A crimson flash that seems a trick of the eye, or the water. But no – a fin there. A whitewater tail swish, just there. Chinook, also called King, salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.
One September morning I stood not on a riverbank, but next to a rectangular holding tank containing a writhing swarm of Clackamas River Chinook. I pulled oversized rain gear and galoshes over my polyester park ranger uniform and awaited instructions from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery technicians I’d volunteered to assist.
You want me to do what??
I reached in to the steel box of river water and slid a hand along a smooth, spotted coppery-red body longer than my arm, then squinted as his tail lashed water at my face. A deep white gash adorned his side like a medal, reminding me that he was one of only two or three of his parents’ three thousand or more eggs that had survived to adulthood, and survived the journey a thousand miles and six years in the open ocean, then back up three rivers home again. Oh the places you’ve been.
I grabbed tight, with both hands. One around his thrashing tail, the other straining to grip the thick slippery belly just behind the pectoral fins. Pulled the gasping King from the water and struggled to hold him still as he writhed. He whipped his head and tail into a rigid bow and just as quickly snapped back the other direction. Fearing I would drop him, I kneeled and bear-hugged that fifty-pound sea creature to my chest.
When I’d gained control I stood and held the fish out away from me, placed his nose in a notched pedestal, and held on. One of the technicians raised a metal baseball bat and brought it down, thunk, on his head. The salmon went limp.
They come home to die.
Not this death, I knew, but the still rapid and no less violent death that comes from a journey so arduous it literally takes the life out of a body no longer acclimatized to fresh water, a body physically beaten, starving, and which, if it hasn’t already become prey, always dies within days after spawning. Because that is the natural cycle. Life begets life. These lives began in the hatchery, in human hands. They end there too. There’s no spawning habitat in a cement pool.
I told myself this as I smiled and joked with the hatchery technicians and tried to ignore my hands shaking. At the end of the day after I’d showered but still stank, when I still shook, I realized they weren’t the tremors of discomfort with helping kill fish.
I was giddy.
I was electrified by my intimacy with the mighty Chinook in that moment when life becomes death, an intimacy that no books, experts, or naturalist training could teach me. An intimacy that my acute observation skills could not show me. The intimacy of death, like sex, means to know an other in the deepest, most visceral sense. Hunters know this. Murderers too, I imagine.
Many of the fish I helped kill that day at the hatchery had their eggs or sperm harvested to make more hatchery salmon; then they went on to feed people. Others were trucked back to the open river and left to rot, to feed everything else. Though we may be greedy animals who take more than our share, we are learning, or maybe, remembering. Remembering that no lives are lived in isolation. That some lives reach farther than others, and continue to ripple outward even in death.
Salmon who fight their way home do more than just pass on their DNA. Salmon carcasses, whether digested by other animals or decomposed into rivers bring ocean nutrients like nitrogen, carbon, sulfur and phosphorous that fertilize riverside plants and feed insect larvae. They in turn support entire river ecosystems, including juvenile salmon. All of which nourish forests far from rivers, down to mushrooms on cedars thick with insectivorous songbirds. Death begets life.
Mary Oliver asks us, in “The Summer Day”: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I ask, on a fall day, what might we do after that?
If I could, I would not seal myself in a box, nor burn my body to ashes and dust. If I could, I would give myself to the river, to be torn apart by eagles and bears, to be nibbled by fingerlings. Soaked up by cedars or washed out to sea. To discover a new slant on intimacy.
I am not alone in this. “Green” or natural burials are becoming more common in the west, and for more than just environmental reasons. Instead of chemical embalming and hermetically sealed steel boxes, shrouds and cardboard. Instead of urns interred in marble mausoleums, ashes thrown to the wind or waves. Or planted with seeds to grow into trees. I would prefer to feed a cougar or a murder of crows, but barring such luck, planted with a cedar sapling in an Oregon riverside forest would do.
But I’m not just talking about my body. We all more or less accept the idea that our physical bodies stick around here, dust to dust. Whether we attempt to seal ourselves from the earth or not, the earth will eventually take us back. But what about the invisible parts, our life forces, our vital energy, or yes, our souls that might too pass on?
No matter how secular your beliefs, you naturally wonder more about this as you grow older, as you watch loved ones die. Old age, accidents, cancer. Suicides. When someone wants more than anything else to be gone from here, where do they go?
What if an afterlife exists, but as multiple religions seem to suggest, somewhere else, up in the proverbial sky or in some other dimension? Maybe somewhere with other human souls but without the warmth of our sun, the ocean breeze or rain-soaked earth, somewhere without trees, rivers, birds, bugs, or salmon?
No matter how pleasant it might be, no matter how blissfully serene, I don’t want to go there. Earth is the place I want to stay. Whether that means I come back as another awkward and struggling human or a battered and struggling Chinook is no matter. As long as I come back. When I die, I don’t want to leave. I want to come home.
It’s fall again; time to return to the river. I came in hopes of spying that silver flash I can still feel in my hands, against my body. I’m looking for life, but finding none, I follow a familiar smell to the source. There, in the shade of a yellowing cottonwood on river-smoothed stones. Eyes already pecked out, dulled white teeth in a broken jaw, battle scars on a sleek body longer than my arm. A raven watches, nearby.
Jen Soriano is a Filipina-American essayist and social justice strategist originally from Chicago. Her literary work has appeared in STIR, aaduna and Waxwing, with an additional essay forthcoming in the 2017 issue of TAYO Literary Magazine. Jen holds a BA in History of Science from Harvard, and is currently an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Making the Tongue Dry
I’ve blown a bubble, and rather than chase it with the wand, I catch it on my tongue where it stays – plump, seductive, shining – till it bursts.
My infant son shrieks with delight, claps for more. Is this a natural human impulse, to desire bubbles even though they burst?
The residue has left an acrid dryness on my tongue. I run the kitchen faucet, cock my head to catch sips of the stream.
Rinse. Spit. Repeat. A dozen washes, but the bitterness remains.
Faucet shut, I walk with baby on hip to our balcony. In the harsh afternoon light, we quietly watch the surface of Puget Sound recede.
Nearby, a monumental face reflects on the same waters. Four stories high, she looms like a sentinel over the Sound. She is sculptor Jaume Plensa’s version of tragedy: Echo, the disembodied Greek mountain nymph who loved Narcissus, protected Zeus, and was condemned by Hera to forever repeat others’ words.
Echo’s eyes are mathematically angled toward Mt. Olympus. They are full of longing and calculation.
From our balcony, beyond the silos of a rusted grain elevator, I can see Olympus’ bald twin peaks. They are jagged breasts jutting frontward from a bony spine. I imagine what Echo might say, if she could:
“I want to speak about bodies, bodies austere and plundered, then changed into new forms.”
Instead, lips melted, she echoes only the hum of cargo ships cutting ponderously toward sea.
Bubbles have burst and bodies have withered, from Athens to the Pacific Northwest. Clear-cut spruce and pulped hemlock, amputated pensions and popped securities. Now mercury rises in direct variation.
The product of this equation is my infant son’s hair matted with sweat, seagull droppings steaming on Echo’s head, my father’s ankle bursting with gout. And bald eagles — or is it plucked chickens? — coming home to roost.
Bulging deficits. Damaged climates. Seismic shifts.
Backs of workers. Spine of earth.
Subtraction. Extraction. Contraction.
The end of this long division is not a natural number.
How can I explain this to my baby? Better to just blow bubbles that burst?
Let’s begin here: with the origins of the word. Austerity: from the Greek austeros, meaning “bitter”, “harsh” and especially, “making the tongue dry.”
Bitter like creeks run with dust.
Bitter like once-tree ash flying wild now unrooted flame.
Bitter like blood from biting tongue to bear cuts, like hungry backwash on sand.
Harsh like nets cut beneath the failing trapeze.
Harsh like once-run water crippled now spigots drip rust.
Harsh like skin from bare backs mending holes in silk pockets, like a starved Narcissus and a nymph turned to bone.
Dry like Echo’s tongue, thick with longing for her Olympus home — even the baldness of it, the austerity of it — where just last summer she could lap its ice peaks like popsicles. Now she licks gravel and dirt.
Dry like tongues unleashing stories of bootstraps and chains. Like mouths demanding first a tightened belt and now the belt itself. Dry like those who — from Greece to Puerto Rico to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest — go thirsty to grow the nest egg of Narcissus.
Eco, I mean Echo, the four-story nymph, reflects soberly across the receding Sound. She hums the cutting of cargo ships pondering toward sea.
She wants to part her lips and blow seeds of the unimaginable, not to reap-eat what has passed. She is weary of plunder and its brother austerity, bored of all the counterfeit bubbles that burst.
Echo longs for transformation from tragedy. She calculates the balance of myth. In myth there are dreams: flexible bubbles, stable waters, dandelions.
How can I explain this to my baby? Will he grow to blow bubbles that burst?
The silent Sound continues to recede, like water draining reluctantly from a bathtub.
“Let’s begin here,” I say. “With the origins of our world. And the ancient lesson that all things old must give way to the new.”
My infant son giggles again. From our balcony, the afternoon light recedes to purple dusk. I dab his forehead, but fail to stop the sweat from salting his right eye. He stops laughing, rubs a tiny fist across his lids, opens his eyes once more.
“Are you my little Narcissus, admiring your reflection in the Sound?”
I trace his gaze across the water, beyond to the horizon, where the bald twin peaks of Olympus are dragon’s teeth on fire.
Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is pursuing a PhD in English and creative writing. His work also appears in Orion, Southwest Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere.
Sailing the Iowa Sea
It’s Iowa City in October, and I’m riding my bicycle on an ethereal day, hinged on the moment of snow. There is a touch of clouds and radiant light in the trees that are changing into their death suits. They are giving up their hands, the wind kicking them up into glowing bursts of crimson and plum, swirling around my bike pedals as I ride, crunching in spokes. They are a color blizzard, piles of radiance like butterflies landing onto a field — everywhere — on car hoods, on people’s hats as I bike pass, curling around children’s legs. The sound is like gentle waves floating through the air.
“What you’re seeing,” Professor Drake says, when I meet him outside his Geosciences Building, “is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Dr. Lon Drake, professor emeritus, wears boots, khaki, and flannel. He angles forward like a greyhound as we walk towards his car. He is bald, ropy muscled, with a face like a lean Sean Connery.
“The emerald ash borer is on its way here,” he declares, and pauses, contemplating the Asian beetle threatening Iowa. “Everywhere from here on to the East Coast, ash lines the streets of America. All those golden trees you see; you won’t see any of them in a few years. There will be whole streets in the United States without trees.”
We walk away from his office, Drake, a tall man, a full foot ahead of me in every stride, somber in his pronouncement of death. “Yet, I still think it’s a good idea to move some things.”
Another change is taking place, other creatures besides the ash borer on the move. Over one thousand documented migrating — on the run from heat — all across the lithosphere. Man-induced climate is cranking the thermostat, and sweltering species are moving out. One thought is, since we’re mixing them up, we might as well help them along. Drake was the first person I’d heard of doing the same, moving things, changing the world to save them.
So, I called him, looking, I guess, for some kind of guidance. Like many people, I am baffled by the extinction crisis. The 35 percent or so off all life slated for the chopping block by 2100 due to climate change and other human-caused crises. Given that most governments and companies don’t seem to be shutting down their heat-birthing factories anytime soon, I don’t know if I want to move endangered things myself or am terrified at propagating new kudzu-like monsters. I feel I needed a wise man, a mentor, a light to show the way.
You wouldn’t have expected me to grow into an environmentalist. My dad was an oil man, as his father was, and we were raised Rush Limbaugh conservative in West Texas in the nineties. I remember vividly watching my dad spit and shake his fist when Al Gore was on TV. But my father was beset by a brain tumor when I was in my late teens, and that, I think, sent me looking for some other kind of life, something to fill the void of loss of both parent and future. So I entered a decade-long search for purpose, which cumulated in my becoming an eco-writer and part-time activist. Saying this signifies that I’ve come to a fixed point in my life. But everything, including the climate, points up how change is the constant. I’ve grown weary with the dire news on the green front. Maybe it’s time for an intellectual relocation. At least in how we perceive the desirable world as stagnant, as refurbished Eden.
One needs mentors. Lon Drake, aged eighty, glares at me with a certain kind of skeptical charm I’m used to from old professors, the kind who have dealt with the curious and imbecilic for so long. At 31, I feel like an awkward sophomore in Drake’s lecture. I follow the professor to his car, a dilapidated, rusty Ford Bronco. Drake is being kind enough to drive me to his farm, so I can see what he’s been sweating over for the past 24 years.
Talking in Drake’s car is difficult because of the rattling noise of loose windows and ancient bolts, and I find myself screaming to be heard. “This is not a quiet car,” Drake says. “But it gets worse. There’s no A.C., so watch what summer is like.” He lowers the windows, which fill with wind. The air cannot escape the sealed back windows, so it tornados and eddies inside the car. The glass rumbles basally, the decibel volume of a cranked hi-fi system.
“See?” Drake asks, and then the windows switch up, the experiment, I realize, concluded.
Suddenly, he daggers me with his eyes. “Don’t go thinking we can just move around species willy-nilly with this project. My approach is much more conservative. You have to test things.”
While I shift in my seat, startled, he goes on, “Think of butterflies. As much as people like butterflies, they come from caterpillars. Caterpillars eat voraciously. And if every one that was hatched survived, they would wipe out an entire forest in a couple of years. That’s why they’re bird food. They’re a key piece of the puzzle. But you have to make sure you have the birds around. The right checks. If they’re not, well, goodbye Iowa.”
As we talk, the houses and buildings fade and corn stalks rise up on all sides — yellow and green shadows, intermittently broken with the knee-high, chipper and olive green shrubs that I know to be soy. More is grown here than any place in the world.
I stare at waving corncobs, the intermittent black and white cattle. Staring at the bloated, bovine faces, I remember that for all the corn in Iowa, native plants of Central America, half of it isn’t consumed by people, but by cows that are originally from southeast Turkey. Soy, of course, is from China. Pigs from East Asia. Homo sapiens from Africa. The North American continent is a patchwork of unintended consequences and immigrations.
It’s a peculiar beauty, for me at least, the Iowa landscape. I moved here from the red rock canyons and moonscapes of the Llano Estacado in West Texas expecting Midwest cesspools of pesticides and reeking manure. And proving this assumption, the state has been ripped from one end to the other, less than one-tenth of one percent of the prairie, now filled with herbicides, cancer clusters, overfed hogs, genetically modified, top-heavy chickens. More pigs than people, more corn than trees.
But when Europeans think of countryside, they tend to conjure scenes of farmhouses dotting horizons, fields of green and gold, specks of Holstein heifers. Sheep. Wordsworth and Coleridge used to enjoy walks in what they called “fields,” which were really pastures. This is nature too, in a way. And the transformation wrecked on Iowa is charming to the right beholder, the sunset electrifying corn leaves, the sparkle of endless plants, the awesome mirror effect of rows upon rows, the horizon a green and gold glitter, dipping like the arch of a whale’s back. As someone who became a wilderness backpacker, it wasn’t my idea of aesthetic beauty until I came to Iowa for graduate school. The fields, and their meditation-inducing undulations, won me away from the idea that mountains were the only sublime environment. My outlook, I realize, can morph as easily as John Deere uprooted Iowa’s black gold.
I mention something like this to Drake, who snorts. “It’s just corn and beans to me,” he says. “From a biological standpoint, it’s a desert. It’s an industrial monoculture. A disaster. I’ve worked on oil spills, and this isn’t much different from driving through a wetland where they’ve spilled a lot of oil. Here we just spill a lot of fertilizer. If you want to call that nature, I don’t know.” He shrugs and then grins. “However, it is a good place to conduct experiments in assisted migration. I mean, why trash a perfectly functioning ecosystem when you can come to Iowa?”
Driving down the crumbling gravel road through leering oak and maple branches of Drake’s home, my first thought is that Drake has co-created what might be the best view in the state. His cabin cradles a sunset-facing slope atop prairie hills of rolling evergreen and coffee brown bordered by neighbors whose acreage is bigger than small Iowan towns. Drake has football field-sized yard of rewilded Indian grass, blue stem, perennial flower upon perennial flower, all nicely leading to the center of a lake that is clear and supine. A wood canoe is tipped over at the water’s edge, waves tickling gunnels like in a Wendell Berry poem.
Here turkeys migrate through a prairie yard once corn. So do endangered bats. Coyotes hunt as well as bob cats and perhaps mountain lions (Drake saw paw prints). Pheasants roost. Vultures circle. Deer crisscross Drake’s land and are easy game for Drake and his son. Sixty years ago, there were no deer at all. Only that bulky and golden, Yucatan grass, zea mays. Drake is keeping alive the last smattering of local floral and fauna that are beset by the tidal waves of agriculture and climate change.
At the top of the hill, he has built a three-story log cabin. Drake tells me that he’s restructuring the west end. He’ll make a front door level with the bedroom, rebuilding the driveway, re-tinkering the porch. He will make it so you can take a wheelchair right to the bedroom. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “But I’m not desperate for the driveway. One day I might be.” One day of course, he will have to move away with his wife, who is already severely arthritic.
With Drake at eighty, kids grown, and 30 miles to the nearest hospital, how long can he keep saving things beside himself? The answer is somewhere between days and decades. After then, he’ll find a willing hand to pass his work onto. Or it may all go up in a puff of prairie smoke.
Drake raised his cabin by hand with lumber scoured from abandoned barns. The state’s rural population has fallen apart, like most everywhere, and hardwood was easy to scavenge. All his windows are composed from rotting greenhouses. Drake details how he heats his house from the basement’s wood-fired stove. A pipeline of reverberated steel snakes through the walls and carries the warmth. His air vents are the bomb-bay doors of a World War II B-17 bomber. Drake took two full days to fix its nest of wires. The doors that once delivered fire to Dresden now deliver heat to his bedroom. What was once the threat of death now aids the life-sustaining force.
Later he shows me a picture of the house frame under construction and, because the beams Drake found were so short, the picture looks like the hull of a frigate, all crisscrossed with a lattice of sea-worthy logs. Upside down, the cabin, Drake’s handiwork, the prairie ship, is sailing across the grasses of Iowa.
As we stroll around his property, we talk about bobcats that have shown up at Drake’s door. Buzzards circle overhead, probably eyeing a rabbit. We maneuver through junipers Drake has planted until we come out of the woods and face his experiment.
The young immigrant pawpaws are four-feet tall, rabbit-ear leaves of emerald and banana-yellow. These are the edible trees that conquistadors in the Mississippi Valley survived on when lost. The pawpaws are spindly but their trunks seem hard-wrought like cables. And while they grow as far north as New York, they haven’t, until now, made it to Iowa, where the state siphons the cold from Manitoba. The shorter spice bushes have a rusty tinge to their leaves and a crinkliness as if beer-battered. Each spice bush is three feet tall, bending in the slightest breeze. The last plant experiment is pipevines that resemble bean stalks that snake up the brush piles, their leaves a wrinkled-pea green.
No one has ever recorded these species living here in any sort of numbers. The nearest grove of pawpaws that Drake knows of is in a river bend at the Missouri border.
Along with his three plant species, Drake has performed yet another unprecedented act, one not entirely his doing. Since planting the new Iowans, Drake has witnessed all three of the corresponding butterflies that feed almost exclusively on these plants show up and nest.
These butterflies (the zebra swallowtail butterfly, the spicebush swallowtail, and the pipevine swallowtail) whose caterpillars rely on these plants, have flown the distance, knowing somehow, finding some way, to the fifty or so plants Drake has installed.
In other words, it’s not just three new species but six that are making their homes in Iowa. Butterflies that birds had not eaten previously in Iowa.. Their colors, when spotted, add shades to the prairie mosaic. The butterflies and three prairie plants have redefined the dimensions of our world. Field guides will need to be rewritten as Iowa is insected anew.
Fortunately, the birds seem to be taken with all the new caterpillars. Every batch Drake has seen has been picked clean.
“All I thought when I started this little experiment,” he says, “is that it’s already getting warm enough for these species to live here now. But I never though I’d be this successful.”
I feel unabashedly stunned learning about the butterflies. That an experiment like Drake’s would synchronize with three other life forms not remotely close to the area is almost cinematic. Like a movie about ghosts and baseball filmed in nearby Dryersville, Drake has built it and they, fluttering, nectar loving they, have come. His results show that hand-guided change is not just possible, but potentially far-reaching.
But I’m skeptical too, wondering how many people like me can follow Drake’s route, when we don’t know how much longer Drake will be around to lead our little migration ships. When I ask him how he feels about changing the state, he shrugs. “I’m cautious, but somebody was going to do it if it wasn’t me. Somebody was going to make that move. It was one of those things you could see on the horizon.”
I take a few pictures of Drake’s experiment, and then he ushers me onto his front lawn, the main event, a prairie, for which he has labored twenty years — the rolling Indian grasses and Blue stem, baptisma, wild iris. A delicious menu of names I can’t remember. Eighty species by Drake’s count, none of which existed in the bygone corn days.
I reach out and touch whatever Drake points out, heading downhill, taking a few samples that fall off their stems and stuff them in my notebook. The bladderpod, I note, is a five-foot scrawny plant with airy flower sacks like crinkly candy wrappers sewed together. When lightly squeezed, each sack belches white flour onto my fingers.
Drake is handling a cobalt blossom named bottle gentian because of its shape. I realize he has the cracked and near-bleeding fingers of a blue-collar worker, like those of my Texas oilman grandfather, defying the notion of soft-skinned nature lover.
“This is all an uncontrolled experiment,” Drake says, “I like to let nature do most of the work.”
We round a bend of tall grass near the lake, and I don’t see the alligator until I am almost on him. I leap back, slipping in the mud, all of me in the air. I land and slide, as in some horror movie, sinking towards the mouth. The reptile is gaping, half-in, half-out of the water, polyethylene body disguised in bark, painted eyes darting into mine.
Drake leans back and laughs throatily. “So sorry, but don’t worry.” He helps me up. “These guys haven’t moved up here quite yet. It’s not that warm. This was my son’s idea.”
I scrape mud off my pants, and my stomach descends from my throat. After enough futile brushing I ask, eyeing the life-size reptilian edifice, “Will it ever be that warm?”
Drake shrugs. “Well, remember, this all used to be an ocean here. There were crocodiles swimming over your head. We don’t know yet how far we’re going to take it. You look at governors and senators who don’t believe in evolution let alone climate change, and you have no idea how much change is in store.”
Later he says, “My interpretation is that climate will soon favor woodlands here instead of prairies. So that’s why my place is a matrix of forests and grasses. I’m hedging my bets. I’m Iowan. I don’t like to give up on the prairie.”
“Even if alligators come?” I ask.
Drake grins mischievously, “I’ll be long gone by then.”
The last thing he shows me before we leave is his solar heated bat house. It is about the size and shape of a traffic signal light, painted charcoal black and perching on a pole twelve feet on the ground. It is solid on all sides except for tiny, half-inch slits on the bottom.
“Are they up there now?” I ask.
“Oh sure,” Drake says. “The problem with raising bats is when young, they’re like little naked jelly beans and have to be kept warm. This thing is filled with sand that heats up during the day and stays warm through the night.
“Who put the bats up there?”
“Oh, mom. She comes by when she’s pregnant. I don’t have to do anything.”
“So you mean, you build this thing, and they, they just come?”
Drake laughs. ”It’s kind of an Iowa thing.”
He soon stops laughing, eyeing me again. “But it’s not like that with all species. Some need a little more coaxing; some won’t come at all. Some of course die out.”
We walk along the pond, the crystal water rolling in the fair wind, frothing on the shore. The clouds pass low overhead, reflecting in the lake mirror. Reeds and grama grass waves roll towards the shore like advancing, inevitable armies.
We arrive back at the house, and after getting back inside Drake’s Bronco and driving off, we discuss how things might change people’s attitudes. Time wears on people, I think. With wildfires, super storms, floods, and heat, there’s only so many warnings before people realize the climate isn’t kidding. Drake takes a deterministic view: things evolve from their origins as clearly as toxic spills from a tanker.
“The facts of the world don’t change lives,” he says, “except for a narrow range of people. Someone’s going to be a pro-environment or not from birth. For the majority of people, they continue thinking the same way they were raised.”
Quickly I refute this assertion, telling him about my conservative Texas upbringing.
Drake raises a finger in the air as if I’ve brought up his point. “The exception to that is the rebelliousness of youth, which I think is our salvation.”
He tells me about his little brother millionaire businessman who owns a pillared Mc-mansion. Drake argues global warming with him every time they meet, one dialogue bleeding into the next. The brother’s three kids have grown up to be the opposite of their father.
“They have totally rejected his money-brained mindset,” he says. “His oldest daughter even lives in a log cabin that she’s built by hand. She has chosen a primitive lifestyle, trying to have the smallest carbon footprint she can make. I laugh every time I see them together.”
Then Drake sighs. He has it the other way around. Lon’s son owns a fleet of trucks in Florida for lawn care, treating millionaires’ grasses and golf courses with enough chemicals to destroy all the Iowan prairies. He burns more car gas in a week than Drake does in a year.
“So I guess, it isn’t necessarily how you were raised, it’s how you respond.”
He looks over suddenly graver than usual. “That’s why when you do this assisted migration thing,” he says, “or whatever you do, I think you personally have an obligation to take a stand, wherever you chose, because people need some basis for making their decisions. Don’t be all wishy-washy. There’s enough of that.”
I feel a warm charcoal underneath my shirt but remain quiet. Drake has been kind enough to drive me the thirty minutes out to his place and back, answer all my questions. The least I can do is nod in ascent.
“Really,” he says, “I think you should get personally involved. I think you have a responsibility to try and convince yourself that there is a path.”
We drive in awkward silence, and I look to him, the hard-wrought canyons in his face, the knots of wood in his thumbs, and I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t have many pupils left that he’s leaving me with the charge of making up my mind. I think he rejects the notion of mentorship as indicating a future direction. Looking at Drake I feel like I’m following him through tall grass, and as he pushes ahead, he is ensnared by the gnarled life. Eventually he will disappear, his path obliterated. I think of the Vikings sending their elders off into the murky sea to eventually vanish within their waters. Soon, I’ll be left in the ghostly field alone.
But I am a rebel, as Drake knows. I affirm this by mentioning some quip about the landscape we’re driving through, still finding the serenity of the Iowan countryside. Drake doesn’t argue, just nods this time. I think he is giving me space, room to fill out his logic with my own.
Drake is responding to his environment, to the changes wrecked on a part of the world we can only see in microcosm in his backyard. The fact that he owns that history, that tableau of how eighty species responded to their climate, like our culture and survived, isn’t just science; it’s identity. Drake is a hybrid, sticking to the prairie he knows and loves, but cautiously welcoming the terrifying changes that must come. Nature, as Darwin knew, favors amalgamation, but also, ultimately, death and its service to life.
I wonder if I have enough flexibility, for the humility to understand that what I do will likely have very little impact, and even, perhaps, only seed the next thought, my child turning away from me as I did my father. To prepare for my demise and ultimate oblivion. To know that even the genes inside of my body aren’t my own, but my mother’s, father’s, evolution’s. To try, work, rebuild. I have to experiment, my solutions necessarily different from everything that came before. I wonder as we drive back to the city about a future where people experiment like mutations of DNA, to see where the next adaptation comes as old lives wink out. A constant testing of our familial and ecological landscapes.
We stay silent for most of the way back to the city, Drake’s window open, the wind fanning his flannel shirt, the noise of the air filling the car and drowning the rumble of the ancient engine, the bright noon light cascading into the car and on the ears of fresh, yet-inedible corn, flapping around like in a yellow and turquoise sea as we sail back to the city.
A Glittering of Hummingbirds, a Charm
I am the knife and the wound it deals.
Walk to the beach everyday. This self-prescription, a pledge I can keep. The northern, rocky beach of Orcas Island is a quarter mile from the artists’ residency, with clear day views of Lummi Island and Mount Baker. On fog-drenched mornings I can still see and hear the slate waves lapping, mergansers adrift, bobbing unbothered by winter waters. I sort rocks in the rain, pick over driftwood and snail shells, their rigid lips plugged with pebbles impossible to spit out. I listen to the hypnotic buzzing of light aircraft ascending over the sea. Focus on these, and my mind settles for awhile.
This is not a nature essay. Except that every essay is an inquiry into the nature of something.
A hummingbird emerges from the bluing dawn outside the window, bowing its head to the feeder. This may be the tiniest bird I’ve ever seen. Cup it in my hands and its wings could still flutter. One moment the bird appears dull, monochromatic as rain, but the next slight turn, a fiery jewel. I begin to doubt what I see, but the bird book tells me I’ve just met Anna’s hummingbird, a species that doesn’t leave the island.
The night before I left Pittsburgh for Washington State, fear spread its first tendrils around my heart, which convulsed, trying to shake off the sickness, the building dread. I thought about canceling. I told myself to stop. Please stop. Not this again.
Six years earlier, I’d left someone whose all-consuming self left no space for empathy, even when I was at my most needy. I no longer recognized myself—anxious and depressed and so dull. I’d been awarded a month-long residency in Vermont where I intended to write, return to myself and then to an apartment I’d leased in secret. Only I felt disloyal and guilty and told him anyway, calling it my “summer writing studio,” a farce we both pretended to believe until I slipped and mentioned the two bedrooms.
There are children on the edges of this story. And they make it impossible to tell this story. They also make it impossible not to.
He told his first set of children, the ones from his first marriage whom I’d helped raise, that their biological mother had abandoned them. I imagined the trio as victims in a fairy tale—a lonely woodcutter and his two children starving for love in a cottage deep in the forest. Who could counter this sad story when he had custody and she lived in another state? Who wouldn’t pity this man the burden of single parenthood and its companion, loneliness? Then, I still believed I could trust the evidence someone else laid out for me.
On my third morning at the beach, I perch on a boulder to meditate on the waves and notice what appear to be the legs of a crab rising from the water. Squinting, I recognize the feet of a sea bird cramped and curled like claws. Waves slap out from a boat’s wake, the water raising one drab, bedraggled wing like a greeting. Not waving, but drowning. Not drowning, but drowned.
The hummingbird chooses the only feeder that appears empty. Sugar junkie craving the syrupy sludge at the bottom. Head raised after a long drink, its body forms a vector from sleek tail to needle bill, poised like an arrow. I see movement in its throat and what looks like a fine spray from the end of its bill, gargling before an operatic burst of song, its rapid, ribbon tongue unspooling to taste the air.
I left for Vermont, for a future unknown, and the thrill of escape eroded with every mile. Low-thrumming nerves morphed into fear, ballooning into terror after a sleepless night in a house full of strangers. He was a long day’s drive away, but I was afraid. After thirteen years, I was leaving a man who’d once held a kitchen knife to my throat.
This is not a hostage story. Except that it is. And suddenly I want to apologize for being a cliché, for having these experiences, for not knowing better, for still feeling the effects. Which is to say I (still) want to apologize for being human.
Every morning I return to the rocks on the beach. I breathe slowly. I let the constant waves lull my brain: rest, rest, rest. I tell myself, Don’t think of the dead gull. Which summons its image from the crypts of my mind. Okay, at least don’t look for it. There, Mount Baker, snow-capped and stunning. There, mergansers, puffing their heads. The clouds shape-shift, sunlight burns distant but fierce, and I feel my life pulsing from every cell. Still, I look. I look until I see those pale legs: The dingy wing separating like a frayed hem. I never draw closer to look at the whole corpse, but I never sit on the other side of the rocks either. I hope that one morning I will not see any evidence of this fallen thing submerged and stuck between shore and sea.
We made dinner together in his apartment one night in our first months together, his children gone visiting their mother. I was chopping lettuce when I felt him behind me, mouth warm on my ear. Then the thin, cool edge of his knife at my throat. My brain blanked. Love or danger? I froze, waiting to learn what to believe. He kissed my neck. He used that knife to finish preparing a romantic dinner for two.
I could not stay at the Vermont residency. Panicked and frantic, my brain wired for motion, I bolted, leaving one kind friend’s house then another, weaving my way back to the good things left from my marriage: the biological children we shared. I picked them up from daycare and called him. Choking with the shame of my vulnerability, this all-consuming distress, I told how I’d broken down, terrified, unable to stay. His words, little knives severing my last threads of hope: “Have you ruined my chances of going there now?”
I keep the evidence I need to remind myself of the nature of a relationship six years in the past and receding, but still punctuated with court filings and contemptuous messages, ugly exchanges over those children who I keep pressing to the far edges of this essay. Not forgetting, but protecting them.
We lived apart for a year before I moved to join him. In one of our many emails, I wrote, “Danger is sexy. You’ve held a knife to my throat before.” He confirmed this memory, adding, “I suppose I had a need to ‘push’ your trust in me to see if you really did trust me.” Encouraged, I elaborated, recalling how I smiled and pressed my body back into his. But he insisted that he would have remembered that. No, he told me, you didn’t smile or even flinch. “I thought you’d do something.” But I froze and I waited. For thirteen years. Love or danger? When I finally tapped into that other possibility, I ran for my life.
There are still children darting along the edges of this story, children I leave behind for these necessary retreats. There is guilt and fear. Anger when my phone calls go to voice mail and my texts asking about times to talk to our kids go unanswered. Memories of him telling my step-children, the ones created in his long ago prior marriage, how their biological mother had abandoned them. The piled weight of his scorn and contempt followed by long, silent stretches that still say you are dead (to me). But, finally, too, there is my refusal to play dead.
One spring a student shared her writing teacher’s favorite metaphor: Love is a hummingbird with its throat cut. Another impressed student stole the line for a short story. I was sickened but careful in my response because I, too, had once been impressed. I’d craved the sugared rush of violent passion, terrorism packaged as some twisted test of trust and love. His knife, once at my throat, remained there for years, held by my own willing fingers.
I keep my promise to visit the beach every day. On the windy, rain-slicked morning that I don’t see legs or wing when the tide pulls back, my heart seizes. If it’s not there, where I expect to find something horrible, I don’t know where or when I may be ambushed. I edge closer, wanting a glimpse. Nothing but the brutal, empty kisses of water and rock.
A gathering of hummingbirds is called a bouquet. A tune. A glittering. Or a charm. On my last morning on Orcas Island two hummingbirds frolic in the mist, luminous as light shattering water. When they pause to rest in a bare hydrangea, they rub their bills against the branch like whetstone. Staying sharp, staying ready. They will not be caged in hands, even gentle ones. They are no one’s sacrifice, not even their own.
Stacy Lawson is a writer, director of the Queen Anne Writers’ Studio, yoga instructor and keyboard activist dedicated to encouraging truthful and brave dialogue on difficult topics–illness, death, education, politics, the environment. She writes with humor, experience, and facts to hopefully broaden thinking. Her work has appeared in Under the Sun, r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal, Raven Chronicles, and The 34th Parallel. Stacy lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons, and her four-legged writing partner, Juneau. For more information about Stacy check out her website.
It’s Just Sex
How the fuck do you talk to teenage sons about their bodies and dating and girls and sex without coming off like Dr. Ruth, or the more up-to-date, Laci Green. Green is Youtube’s sexy squealer–she who causes ear bleeds in her badass videos talking sex, all kinds of sex, straight-up–no bullshit. Check out her video on anal or butt sex, she uses both terms, to see what I mean. Note-to-reader, it isn’t likely that I will be mistaken for Laci–I am probably older than her mother.
I am not a prying Jewish mother of stereotype, something out of a Woody Allen film. I’m not “a patron saint of self-sacrifice,” as Sophie Portnoy, from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint describes herself. I’m not the mom trying to be hipper than I am not. I just want to make sure that my sons keep themselves safe. I want them to know their responsibilities. I want them to know that sex is not just about getting laid.
Based on the boys’ ages and gender, now 13 and 17 but back when this started 7 and 11, I thought that this should be my husband’s domain, but Steve is far more reserved than I am. It is just sex. I repeat this over-and-over again. We teach them how to navigate their emotions, to chose the mitzvah–the right action (when they could sit on their asses), to be caring, to do laundry, to cook, to clean. Honestly, I knew that I’d have to lead this. Six years ago, in the fall of 2010, I signed up my 52 year-old husband and my 11 year-old son Daniel for a father-and-son sex-education class at Seattle Children’s Hospital. All our friends with kids the same age–single or married, moms or dads, gay or straight– were signing up (or being signed-up) for the class. We Seattleites–hip, open, tech savvy, often progressive, not typically religious, and groovy–happily outsource sex talks for our children.
I came of age in the late seventies and early eighties, after the sexual-revolution, in an era when abortion was legal and accessible, before HIV/AIDS came with murderous intent, when a new safer birth-control pill was a Planned Parenthood away. I was born in a small window, in a family, in a city where sex was a frontier to be explored without shame and the devastating consequences that previous generations had to bear. Young women, like me, could discover our sexual selves with appetite in relative safety. Herpes was not desirable, but it was not deadly. And, being sexually active did not earn you a slut stamp.
My kids will never know the freedom that I experienced. I have reminders stashed away that I can’t bear to toss– a stack of miscellaneous pictures of me with friends skinny dipping at Tassajara, a Zen retreat center in northern California–home of the Tassajara bread book. I still have my journal from the time that I camped on a beach in the Sinai Desert the year after high school. Never mind that I was in an Orthodox Jewish seminary in Jerusalem then. A lot of my friends from school hitched rides down south to the Sinai Peninsula (then, under Israeli control, now restored to Egypt)– Nueba, Dahab, or Sharm el-Sheikh.
In my early twenties, after a brief Orthodox marriage, I continued my exploration with men I knew from school or work in the name of casual, or, maybe, a better term is friendly, sex. I studied sex with lovers who were sometimes friends and not quite boyfriends in the dark and light while stoned and while straight, indoors and outdoors. I think of it as an independent study in sex. Good sex does not come without good technique, practice, and an open heart. I was not a drinker. I’ve not had a drunken night ever and have never woke in despair wondering who was next to me or where I was.
I want much the same for my kids, but times are different.
A week or so before the class at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Steve leaned against the leaded glass window in our bedroom while I stretched out on our white queen-size bed. “You two have talked about everything already,” he said, trying to get out of taking Daniel to the class. His arms were extended behind him, his palms resting on the windowsill.
Instead of answering, I looked at the dark-rimmed rectangular glasses framing his beautiful green eyes, his salt and pepper hair, the muscles on his forearms, and at the black t-shirt hugging his long torso. Nice, I thought.
“Come on,” he tried again. “Daniel’s getting sex education at school this year. That’s enough sex for now.”
I didn’t answer. I just kept looking him over, thinking that if we didn’t have two kids downstairs, who were likely to barge into the bedroom at any moment, we’d have sex.
At twelve, I discovered a purple-brown stain on my jockey underwear. I was at a friend’s house; she was a year younger than I was, and had already started her period. I didn’t want her to know that this was my first period. I searched under the bathroom sink for a stash of pads but found none.
I wadded up toilet paper, placed it between my legs on my blue jockey briefs, and ran home– six-blocks uphill– afraid of gushing onto my jeans. I climbed our concrete steps two at a time and crashed into the house. “I started my period,” I yelled to my mother and darted into the bathroom. I sat on the toilet with my underwear around my thighs and stared at the dark stain that was exactly the same size as when I first discovered it.
There was no congratulation, no now you’re a woman, nothing. My forty-three year-old mother, tired after a long day at work, yelled back at me, “I’ll call dad to pick up some Kotex and a belt.” I wonder what she was thinking. She was probably making dinner after working all day. She’d been through it three times before. If I remember correctly she used the same tone as if she were saying, “I’ve asked dad to pick-up milk on the way home.”
When my dad arrived home an hour later, I was slightly embarrassed as he handed me the white and blue A&H bag from the store where he worked as a pharmacist. No words were exchanged. I locked myself in the bathroom and pulled out the pads and the flimsy white elastic belt circa 1973. I threaded the pad wings through the gauzy belt and slipped it on. Neither of my parents mentioned my period again.
A year later, my father brought home self-adhesive pads, and I threw the stained belt away. Later, I found my sisters’ tampons and gave up on pads altogether.
There was never a talk.
By the day of the sex-ed class at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Steve had stopped asking me to go, and he and Daniel were ready. They left home after an early dinner, and by the time they returned home a few hours later, I could tell that something was different.
“How was it?” I asked
“Great!” Daniel said.
“Actually it was pretty good,” Steve agreed. “Well, except for the penis opera. They divided us into two groups and passed out song sheets. The boys sang the high parts, and dad’s sang the low parts.”
“You loved that,” I said ironically. Neither Steve nor I like games.
“Mom, can I show you the handouts?” Daniel asked, eager to share them with me.
“Sure. Go upstairs and get ready for bed, and I’ll be up in a few.”
With Daniel upstairs, I gave Steve a single thumb-up. “You survived?”
“It really wasn’t a big deal,” he said. I refrained from reminding him how many times he had tried to get out of going.
I went up to tuck Daniel into bed and found him on top of the covers, going over the handouts. He was reviewing the book list. “Can we get one of these tomorrow?” He looked serious as he pointed to a few of the titles. I loved his curiosity and lack of embarrassment. He was my kid.
I saw Our Bodies Our Selves on the list and got excited. OBOS, as we abbreviated it in college, was a sacred text in the Women’s Studies department in the early eighties. It was a book about women’s health and sexuality written by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective first published in 1971. (The group later was renamed Our Bodies Ourselves.) The book came from a group of 12 women, ages 23-39, who met at a women’s liberation conference at Emanuel College in Boston in 1969. Two years later, their book was out. It was about women’s health, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and sexual pleasure for women. One year later in 1971 came the The Joy of Sex. The sexual revolution was underway.
When Daniel was young, unlike his younger brother who never has asked any questions, he loved to hear his birth story. I told him the story over-and-over-and-over again starting early on his birthday leading up to his scheduled c-section . We took Ajax to the vet and found out he had fleas. We bathed him. Then, we drove to the hospital for the surgery. The doctor made a cut in my belly and pulled you out. Friends and family came pouring into the room, and we had a welcome party before the nurses kicked everyone out…
As Daniel got older, he became more curious. Did I really come out of your stomach? How did I get in there? Does a man really put his penis into a woman’s vagina? Did you do that? How come I didn’t come out of your vagina like everyone else? I laughed at the thought of everyone else coming out of my vagina but didn’t bother to correct him. I knew what he meant.
I gave straight answers that were likely way too long and detailed.
When I was thirteen, at a Jewish youth-group retreat, I was smuggled into my fourteen-year-old boyfriend’s cabin on Friday night. We got inside his sleeping bag and were making out. It was the first time that I had ever touched a penis. I remember the strange warm rubbery feel. We heard heavy footsteps and then the door was thrown open. “Who’s in here?” A male voice yelled in our direction. I pulled down my shirt and tugged my pants up. I hid under the flap of the sleeping bag, inhaling the warm, musky scent of our bodies. The counselor aimed a flashlight at the bunk, blinding us. “Come on out.” We untangled and struggled to get out of the sleeping bag. I was sent back to my cabin with one of the girls’ counselors who had come in during the bust. We were scolded, but our counselors who were probably five years older than we were, would be doing similar things soon.
I still wonder what would have happened had the counselors not stormed the cabin. Would my boyfriend have stopped? Would I have asked him to? If we’d had sex, would he have used a condom? What if I had gotten pregnant? What would my life be like now if I had had a child then? What would my life be like if I had had an abortion? These questions are what impelled me to sign Daniel up for the class at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
When Daniel was thirteen, he went to a dance at school. Before the dance, a strict set of rules were sent out, and kids who were attending had to sign a contract–no drugs, no alcohol, no coming back in if you leave, no inappropriate dancing. I think Daniel wore a shirt with a tie and nice jeans. He was well put together when he left, and he was ecstatic when he came home.
When I tucked him in bed that night, he told me about dancing with a girl named Anna. He talked about how he felt himself change in the moment that he held her and moved on the dance floor. I was pleased that he was a romantic. Whatever he may have thought about girls before had shifted, tumblers to his emotions clicked into place. Was it the feel of her body against his, her hair on his arm, her hands on his back, or his hand on her waist?
At sixteen, I went to Planned Parenthood on my own before I had intercourse for the first time. It would be a stretch to say that I was a virgin at that point, but I held onto that fig leaf, I had not had intercourse but had done almost everything else.
I had a primer on sex by watching my three older sisters on the couch in our den. They are seven, nine, and ten years older than I am, and it was the mid-nineteen sixties. By the time I was six, I had seen and heard a lot. I had walked in on everything at least once. I loved my sisters’ paisley dresses, white-embroidered peasant blouses, short skirts, hot pants, flowing skirts, and halter tops. I took it all in.
I watched my sister Dee with her boyfriend on a celery color brocade couch watching Speed Racer after school. They would lean into each other, eyes closed with lips pressed together like pink slugs. I watched where they put their hands while kissing. I watched my sister’s boyfriend pull her into embraces that I’d now term foreplay.
At age 16, I messed around with a 26-year-old-man, who was a leader of the religious youth group that I was part of. My sister Esther, nine years older than I was, found out and came down on me for fooling around with an older man. “He’s taking advantage of you. He’s an adult. It’s illegal.” Now I realize how creepy this was. I see him on Facebook every once in awhile, and I wonder how many other young women he seduced.
One afternoon, three years after Daniel had the sex ed class at Seattle Children’s Hospital, I snagged him as he bounced through the kitchen like a kangaroo looking for something to eat. I sliced an apple and put it on a small plate with roasted almonds and a chunk of dark chocolate. As I prepared the snack, I made a mental list of the things I wanted to communicate.
I may have chosen that day because Daniel was now five-feet-ten inches, his voice had (seemingly) dropped an octave overnight, his feet were bigger than his father’s feet, and his legs were covered with fine-dark hair. Or maybe it was because he was always fighting me for the full-length mirror in our room.
“Sit down, Bubu. I want to tell you a few things.” I pointed to the stool across the counter. “There is no reason for accidental pregnancies in our house,” I began.
“What? Daniel shot off of his stool. “What are you talking about?”
“This is the talk!”
“Oh, no way! You’re kidding me.” He slammed his hand down on the counter.
“I’m not kidding.” I slammed my own hand down in response.
“Why? This is just awful. Dad!” He yelled in the direction of the den, then turned to me again, “You already made dad and me go to the class in fifth grade.”
“That was three years ago. Consider this a review. ”
I had his attention. I kept going. “Both participants are responsible for contraception. Unprotected intercourse–even once–can lead to pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections: herpes, AIDS, syphilis, scabies, crabs, tricho…whatever, gonorrhea, chlamydia, genital warts, and tricho… Got it?” I had stumbled on trichomoniasis. I had volunteered at Planned Parenthood as a contraception counselor in the mid 1980’s. We had to learn how to pronounce every sexually transmitted disease known at the time, squeeze a diaphragm into a taco shape, talk about the difference between a cervical cap and a diaphragm, and slip a condom over two straight fingers. I would go over the young woman’s income, and write down her choice of birth control before she went for an exam. I had this stuff down, but Daniel didn’t know my past.
He looked at me in dismay, “Are we really having this conversation?”
“Yes, we are,” I said, my heart beat quickening.
“I cannot believe this.” He grabbed his head in both hands and ducked down with a huge, ear-spreading grin of embarrassment and rested his head on the counter.
I kept going. “Condoms are your friends. When you start dating someone that you really like, I want you to have one with you at all times. Know how to use it. You can ask Dad for help or just practice. And, NO, this is not permission to have sex now.”
He looked up from his head-down position. “Are we done yet?”
“Not quite. I’ll let you know when we are done.”
“No means NO! No questions asked. No exception to this rule. Put yourself together and walk away. You’ll survive. No one dies because of a neglected erection. There’s no shame in getting dressed and leaving. There’s shame in forcing someone to do something that they don’t want to. You may misread signals in the beginning. Assume that if you do not hear yes, the answer is NO.”
I wanted to explain to him the loaded world of sexuality for girls, which is different than it is for boys, even today. I wanted to tell him about the contradictions for girls. Girls who have sex and are found out can be targets of slut shaming, a way of making girls pay for their sexual activity. There’s no equivalent for boys. I’d wait for this part for another day. I reluctantly let him go.
“If you want to be done, I need you to give me a summary of what I just said.”
“There are no accidental pregnancies, condoms are my friend, I can talk to you or Dad, no means no, and you are not giving me permission to have sex.”
“Good enough for now. We’ll revisit this later.”
Daniel ran to the den. “Dad do you know what mom just did?” I heard him say.
“I can only guess,” Steve answered, unaware that I had chosen this moment to deliver an impromptu sex talk. Steve, of course is free to do so too, but he is still waiting to have the talk with his dad, who is still waiting to have the talk with his dad.
I’m not sure why I did it at that exact moment. I only knew I wanted to give Daniel The Talk before he was too old to listen to me.
When Daniel was twelve, I was at a writing workshop with Ruth Ozeki at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island. There were six women, none of whom I knew before the workshop. I told them about Daniel’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Our event was a handmade labor of love. We screen printed the invitations, made Turkish pastries and baked strudel. A friend had painted a ten-foot banner to cover the cross in the church, and another friend had been Daniel’s teacher through two years of demanding study.
Joelle, one of the women on the retreat, told me of a tradition in Los Angeles. Supposedly–a custom of girls giving blowjobs to boys as a bar mitzvah gift. Was the boy blown by one girl or many? Was it before the service or during the party? Was it in a bathroom stall? Did the boys perform the same service for girls at their bat mitzvahs? I was not sure it was true, but I could not totally rule it out. In the eighties, New York and Los Angeles had turned the coming of age ritual into a full-on carnival.
I had unprotected sex once, at nineteen. Two weeks later I was throwing up my Cheerios, morning after morning. I went to Planned Parenthood, before there were home pregnancy kits. I had an abortion, also at Planned Parenthood. My boyfriend took me. It was 1980; the procedure was clean, safe, and quick. I was shaken, but I got through it. I want to teach my sons to share the responsibility for birth control and any unintended pregnancies. My second abortion was the outcome of an I.U.D. failure. I haven’t told Daniel (or William) about my abortions, but I will. I want them to know that I am not perfect. I want them to understand that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 historic Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to safe abortion saved me twice from having children that I would not have been able to properly care for. I want them to understand that Roe is constantly under attack and that all children should be wanted. There should be no such thing as a mistake child.
Daniel is now seventeen and measures in at six-two. He is driving. I took him out on his first drives before he was fifteen and had a permit. I believe in doing things before my kids start hocking me–when it is a surprise for good behavior–not the result of nagging. I had him drive up and down rows of empty parking lots. He was heavy on the breaks and had a big smile that covered half his face. I launch us forward, and Steve comes in to ease us through the transition. It’s the way we do business in our house.
I am having the talks with the kids that my parents didn’t have with me. When William was eleven, Steve took him to the ‘sex class’ as we call it, without protest. William had no interest in discussing anything with me after the class was over. Daniel asks all of the time, “Why hasn’t William gotten any of the talks yet?” William makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with any talk with me about sex.
My nephew had a baby with his girlfriend before considering marriage. Both he and his girlfriend have divorced parents. Their daughter was a planned baby. On the one hand I get it, there’s no reason that they should bet on marriage working. But, on the other hand, kids are hard on a relationship, so why not get married so that the door to leave is a little more difficult to open. They are now married. My nephew would like another child soon. His wife wisely is putting him off.
I suggest to both of our boys that they make serious commitments before children. Finish school. Find work you love. Find out who you are. Find a partner you love and want to have children with.
I want to make sure our sons know that they can talk to us about anything. Now, we all joke about the talk, and sex is a family word. William is in seventh grade. If I just say the words, the talk, he is gone. “I’m fine.” He says. “No your not, I’ll tell you when you are fine.” I respond.
Standing in line at the grocery store, I will turn to Daniel and say in a soft voice, “Would you like a pack of condoms.” He wryly answers, “I think a girlfriend should come first.” I look at him and can’t help but think how cute he is. His best friend has a girlfriend, and I know it is hard on him, but I’m proud of him for waiting for the right person and not making the wrong person into the right person. He’s smart in that way. William, I have learned, has had girlfriends since fourth grade. His friends’ mothers tell me that William is a ladies man. I can see it. But he too, has not done the girl-friend thing. He went to his first dance this year. He played it cool, and he is cool. Neither of the boys seem interested in proving anything to anyone.
I fear parties and groups of teens. I fear the social process of Thresholds that Mark Granovertter, a Stanford sociologist proposed four decades ago, which Malcom Gladwell has used to talk about school violence in a recent New Yorker article. Thresholds refer to the number of people who must do something first before a particular individual is willing to join in something that s/he would not normally engage in. A person with a threshold of zero needs no one to go first. A person with a threshold of five or six requires a fair number of people to step in before he will forego his own moral code. I believe that my kids have high thresholds, but I want to make sure that they are prepared. They have Uber and cameras on their phones for quick getaways, they are told not to hesitate to call the cops, Steve, me, or our oldest niece. They are told not to leave their friends in vulnerable situations.
Basically, I want them to know that when they have girlfriends, and they are ready to have sex, and they have received an audible Yes –to find an appropriate place. I don’t want them getting laid at a party after midnight where drunk kids are pairing-off, seeking places to squat for what can only be bad sex. Yet, I don’t want to walk in on them. I don’t want to hear anything. I don’t want to find them in our bed. I don’t want to wash their sheets. I want my boys to be clear that sex is not a game, girls are not toys, and that people can be hurt or broken beyond repair. If they are old enough to have sex, they are old enough to be responsible.
Zach Marson holds a MA from Virginia Commonwealth University where he engaged in workshopping his prose with some of his favorite writers in Virginia. Currently, Zach lives in Richmond where he works at his local Jewish Community Center as a counselor for children.
They Knew the Land Was Beautiful
Before Asher died, Zelig was I and Asher was Arthur. Names are important when they are not, so I would soon learn after Arthur’s funeral. Arthur was I’s grandfather. He was a dentist, but he was also an artist, and when he died I found a drawing titled The Great Blue Heron hanging in his room of the assisted living home. The heron was colored in sky blue, grey and white. It stood in water looking out at the horizon. Arthur loved to draw scenes that involved water: his boat on the ocean, the epic setting sun sinking into the Atlantic.
“When did he draw this?” I asked his father, whose name used to be Scott.
Scott said that someone else came into the home one day and drew the heron. Arthur was supposed to color it. Scott pointed to a grey smudge on one of the heron’s legs. “He made it that far and when he couldn’t color it he got really pissed,” he said. “I don’t know who colored the rest.”
Arthur and his wife, Vivien, once took I and his brother down to the docks in Savannah to see all the birds resting and bathing in the water. Out of all the birds, one was tall and skinny. It was the most regal of all the birds and had the biggest beak.
“That is called a heron,” Arthur said to I.
“Heron,” I repeated.
When Arthur became sick and his mind began to wander, he and Vivien moved to Richmond and lived with I’s family for three months. One afternoon Arthur was taking his regular nap outside on the deck with the family dog when the dog started to bark. Arthur woke with a start and saw the dog barking up a tree. At the top of the tree was a great blue heron staring down at the mad dog. Arthur looked for his camera but the summer heat tired him easily. The dog’s bark and the image of the heron became distant as he slipped back into dream.
I stood in the room in which Arthur died staring at The Great Blue Heron remembering, remembering. Could Arthur remember the name of the bird? Could he remember his own name as he colored in the leg? Arthur’s body and the invisible footprints of death were resting as I pondered.
“We have to go and make arrangements for the funeral now,” Scott said.
“Okay,” I said.
After I became Zelig and Scott became Schlomo, they would return to where Arthur passed away to collect The Great Blue Heron. But Arthur and the invisible footprints of death were in another place.
Next to The Great Blue Heron was Arthur’s rendition of “Study of the Hands of an Apostle” or “Praying Hands” by Albrecht Durer. Arthur spent hours penciling the hands, their shadows and their grace. He let the picture hang in his local temple at Port Jefferson until he and Vivien moved to Savannah years and years later. They did not hang the praying hands in the temple in Savanah. I could tell that they did not move to Savannah for newer Jewish pastors. Almost all of the synagogues there had once been churches. The buildings were big and old and beautiful. There was no place to hang the old rendition.
House guests would often ask Arthur what was the name of the painting. I asked Arthur why he would want to share such a piece of art when the people of Savannah didn’t even know the name of it. “You don’t have to know the name to appreciate it,” said Arthur.
Arthur’s funeral was strictly a Jewish one. Scott had to pry Arthur’s wedding ring off of his dead flesh because the body couldn’t be buried with jewelry. The funeral had to be within forty-eight hours after death. There was an exception made for this rule, though. The same hour Arthur took his last breath, a snow storm raged across the East Coast. The storm froze the ground. It was impossible to bury Arthur’s body.
Arthur’s coffin had to be kosher. It is disrespectful to see the dead in their final resting place. There was no wake, no open casket. In the limo at the graveyard, I’s cousin, Joshua, explained a prayer that would be recited at the funeral called the mourner’s Kaddish.
“There are several names for God in the prayer,” he said. “The point is to remind us that we will never know God’s real name.”
I watched a hawk fly from the sky and land on a grave.
“Look a hawk!” I said. Everyone looked out their windows.
The family watched the hawk. It pecked at the ground and then stood for moment, head against the wind and eyes to the sun and the clouds above.
“Are you sure that’s not an eagle?” asked Vivian.
“Whatever it is,” said Scott, “it’s pretty amazing.”
The bird flew away. I wondered what Arthur had called God during his final hours.
The rabbi poked his head into the limo. “Shalom,” he said. He sat down next to Joshua. He passed around black ribbons to each family member. “Who here has read about Judaism and is familiar with its customs?” asked the rabbi.
Before anyone had a chance to reply Joshua raised his hand. “Me!” he said.
“Which book?” said the rabbi.
“To Be A Jew!” said Joshua.
“By Donin,” said the rabbi. “Very good. Donin has a lot of great insight on Judaism.”
Joshua smiled at this praise.
The rabbi went on. “The prayer we are about to say basically says that while we don’t agree with God’s decision to take the life of a loved one, we respect His decision. That we love Him.”
Don’t put words in my mouth! I thought.
“Then after we recite the prayer, you will place the ribbons over your chest and rip the ribbons. This is called Kriah.”
Off in the distance, I saw a vulture circling over a road. In certain Chinese provinces like Tibet and Mongolia, Buddhists believe that a corpse is simply an empty vessel. Since the poor soil makes it difficult to bury the dead and cremations are traditionally reserved for high dignitaries, many villagers practice sky burials. The body is taken high above monasteries, up rocky mountain terrain where large Griffon Vulture’s wait. The body is stripped naked and abandoned on the mountain and the vultures feed upon it, taking life from death. Arthur found this ritual remarkable but he did not believe in it. “It is not kosher,” he would say.
“Do their dead go to Hell?” I would ask.
“No,” said Arthur. “God is forgiving and loves them, just like he loves you and me.”
It was time to say the prayer the rabbi was blabbering on about. Together Zelig and his family spoke. Boruch atoh adonoy, elohay-nu melech ho-olom, da-yan ho-emes. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, the True Judge.” Then they ripped the ribbons with their praying hands.
The funeral went on quietly and without event. There was a time in which the rabbi said, “This is when we will take a moment of silence and pray to Arthur. You can speak to him, tell him anything you wish you could have told him in life, ask for forgiveness or possibly forgive him for something.” The rabbi and the family bowed their heads in silence.
It wasn’t until several days later that Zelig would pray to his grandfather for forgiveness. “Please, Grandpa,” he prayed. “Please forgive me for not liking golf, for not being interested at all in sports. Forgive me for never calling and never writing. Forgive me for using you as an excuse to break up with my girlfriend when you got sick. Forgive me for being afraid to visit you at the home when you were at your worst. Forgive me for feeling numb when you died. Forgive me for being a terrible Jew, for forgetting your traditions and your beliefs and your God. Please, Grandpa, forgive me.” During the moment of silence on the day of the funeral, however, I could not think of what to say so I repeated over and over again the words I love you, Grandpa.
When Arthur moved to Richmond he couldn’t subtract numbers very well. He had a hard time with dates, with making plans, with names. He lost things easily and always slept. I often slept in Arthur’s room after he and Vivien moved out. His bed from childhood was old and hard on his back. I often thought about how his grandfather used to sleep for hours on the comfortable mattress and dream. I liked to think that in his dreams he wasn’t sick. He was the smart and witty dentist I loved as a child.
I dreamt about driving Arthur’s ’75 Corvette Stingray down a forgotten dirt road in Georgia. Arthur was sitting shotgun and was smiling so big. I made it to 85mph before running out of road and the car would become hot and loud. Alligators stirred in the wet swamps and birds flew from branches on trees. Arthur and I breathed in the summer air. Arthur let the wind brush his comb-over off his scalp. I was laughing in the dream and then woke up in the bed Arthur had once slept on. Words like Corvette and alligator weren’t in Arthur’s vocabulary anymore and the time of day was always mystery. Could Arthur still remember the time he and I took the car out one day and drove fast away from everything?
At Arthur’s funeral, the rabbi spoke for a long time, but I remembered one thing he said. “When I asked Arthur’s son what he would say to his father if he were here right now,” said the rabbi, “he said, ‘I would honestly want to talk to him about sports.’ Now isn’t that beautiful? A father and his son just talking about sports?”
I wanted to crawl under the covers of that bed and cry.
After the funeral, Arthur’s family lined up to touch his coffin. Vivien went first but did not rest at the coffin long. She kissed her hand and touched the wood and moved on. Arthur was always with her, I thought. She didn’t care much for saying goodbye to a coffin.
I recalled a story his grandmother always used to tell about the time she had to move to Brooklyn while Arthur was away serving in the air force. “When we moved to Brooklyn, Grandpa was still stationed in Illinois,” his grandmother would say, “so I had to do most of the moving myself. So there I was trying to find my way into Brooklyn with your father and Russell in the back of the car. They’re screaming their heads off, like they always used to do, and I’m lost. So I stop at a red light and see a man on the sidewalk, and I roll my window down. I say to the man, Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Brooklyn? And the guy looks at me and then to the crazy kids in the back and then to me. Then he starts cracking up. He looks at me and he says, Lady, you is here!”
The rabbi approached Vivian. “We will miss Asher,” he said.
“Who’s Asher?” I asked his father.
“Asher was grandfather’s Hebrew name,” Scott said.
“I never knew that,” I said.
“Everyone here has a Hebrew name,” Scott said. “Even you. Your Hebrew name is Zelig. Remember?”
I hadn’t been called Zelig since Sunday school, back when he was ten. Zelig had been a name forgotten by time, an identity never fully developed or realized. Since I flunked out of Sunday school, I was I, the speaker, the character in his stories—Zach to everyone else.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“My name is Schlomo,” Scott said.
“What about Uncle Russell and Joshua?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said. “I’ll have to ask Grandma.”
“You don’t know?” I said.
“We never go to synagogue,” Scott said. “You only use the names when you are in temple. Grandpa knew all of our names by heart.”
The hawks and the vultures flew over their heads. “Will we ever know the true name of God?” I said.
“No,” said Scott.
“Then when are you ever outside of temple?” Zelig said.
No one but Zelig looked back to Asher’s coffin as the family waited for the limos to pick them up and take them home. The casket was made of wood and included an engraving of the Star of David. Nothing else. No name. No dates. It was the same as all the rest buried bellow their feet. Kosher.
As Zelig and Schlomo drove back the Asher’s home they were interrupted by three men who were filling in a pothole in the road.
“The storm must have really done some work to these roads,” Schlomo said.
The hole was deep and wide. The men filled the whole with gravel and drove a pick-up truck over the gravel to flatten it out. When the men were done, they drove down the road in their pick-up and started filling in another hole.
“I’m surprised they covered the hole this fast,” Schlomo said. “It usually takes weeks.”
As they cleaned Asher’s room, Zelig tried on a sweater that belonged to Asher. It smelled like medicine, like cheap food. “This doesn’t smell anything like Grandpa,” Zelig said.
“It has been in the home for a long time now,” said Schlomo. “I wouldn’t be surprised if everything smelled that way now.”
Zelig took off the sweater and sighed.
“It is a good sweater,” Schlomo said. “You should keep it. After some time the smell will fade, but it will never smell like Grandpa again.”
The Great Blue Heron watched Zelig and Schlomo as they packed and cleaned. Zelig could feel its gaze on his back. “I could have sworn Grandpa had drawn that,” Zelig said.
“Your grandfather loved to draw nature,” Schlomo said.
“Why?” Zelig said.
Schlomo thought for a second. “I think it was because he felt free out there. He worked hard all his life. First he worked at a hospital and then he started his own practice which took a lot of work. When he painted and when he was outside he wasn’t so stiff. He had to go out in the open to feel at peace. At least that’s what I think. He didn’t talk much about it.”
When the two arrived home Schlomo retired to take a nap and Zelig went out into the backyard and sat in the chair that Asher used to sleep on. He didn’t have to talk about it, Zelig thought. Zelig knew. He knew Asher long before he realized. Only Asher didn’t have a name and neither did he. Not years ago on the open road in Savannah. Not in that T-top ’75 Corvette. Going 85 past the birds in the trees and the alligators in the water. Names didn’t matter. They didn’t know God’s name but they knew He was there just like they knew the land was beautiful. The trees were green, the birds were blue and white, the alligators were brown and muddy, the sky was blue, and the sun was yellow. The temple was kosher. You is here. You didn’t have to know it for it to be true.
Zelig drifted to sleep under the yellow sun. He felt warm and smelled the grass and the water from a nearby river. He heard the wind and the singing of birds.
Kelsey Lahr has worked summers as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park since 2008. She holds a BA in Communication Studies from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and is currently working toward a Master’s degree in Communication at the University of Utah, where she focuses her research on environmental and health communication. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, Dark Matter, and Gold Man Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appearance in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series.
Some say Coyote created the earth. Some say he brought us light. Coyote is known by a hundred different names, as the Trickster and the Creator and the Old Man and the Old Woman, Ah-h?-le and O’-ye and Chirich and Talapus and Napi, but always he is very clever, and in these parts, always kind and good.
When I first moved to the Sierra Nevada, I went a long time without seeing much wildlife, even though I hiked quietly and sat alone by the river and always kept my eyes open. I heard coyotes late at night, when their yip-yip-yipity-aa-ah-woo woke me up and raised the hair on the back of my neck, an expression I had until then thought to be figurative. For many nights that unearthly hollering panicked me, and I told myself aloud in the darkness that it was just coyotes, just earthly critters, finding one another in the night, maybe just letting it rip for pure joy as they ran the hills. I would fall back to sleep then, and after a while I never woke at all, and in the morning I would realize with regret I had missed the show again. So I knew they were out there, somewhere nearby, and I had heard there was a family with pups.
I went running one evening on a trail by the meadow. It had been a long time since I had awoken to coyote cries or heard mention of the nearby family. I was looking at the ground in front of me, a terrible running habit I have never been able to break, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked around and saw a coyote—yellow-gray, bigger than I had imagined—running on the ridge of the hill above me, keeping pace with me stride for stride. I stopped. The coyote stopped. I looked up at her, she down at me. No one blinked. I lost track of time. The coyote sat, still staring. Finally I broke, knowing that I probably needed to get home sooner than the coyote did. I began to jog, and the coyote stood and trotted above me. She ran with me until I hit the road that would take me home. The coyote headed up the hill as I crossed the street, looking at me over her shoulder until I disappeared around a bend in the road. I did not sleep at all that night.
If you have ever interacted with a coyote, or had one as a running partner, you probably feel that coyotes seem almost to like us, in a way most wild animals never will. This is why, I am certain, the tribes in this area have always conceived of Coyote as a great advocate for humans. After creating the earth and bringing fire to the people, say the Chukchansi, Coyote pushed for our immortality. Coyote was very upset by the death of the first human, and proposed to bring him back to life. Meadowlark argued with Coyote, saying that humans should not be brought back to life, for then the earth would get too crowded. When Coyote lost this argument he mourned for us all, for our mortality, and then put on the first funeral, instituting the practice of burial.
Last summer I thought of this story, this convivial relationship between coyotes and humans, every time I drove by the Glacier Point coyote. This coyote had been sitting at the Glacier Point Road turnoff all season, begging for food, quite successfully by the looks of him. Every few days we received calls at the ranger station, alerting us of an injured three-legged coyote near the road that needed to be either helped or put out of his misery. After the first several of these calls, law enforcement rangers would drive out to see what could be done for this poor animal, and each time the coyote ran off on four perfectly good legs. Bewildered, we wondered if we could be getting the wrong coyote. But the reports continued, same location, same three-legged coyote, and eventually we concluded that this entirely healthy coyote was faking a severe limp in order to get the pity—and food—of soft-hearted tourists. This coyote had furthermore learned to recognize law enforcement vehicles and ranger uniforms, and knew when to get moving on all of his feet in order not to get in trouble with the law.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider the following similar reports of cunning coyotes from all over the country: one researcher caught on video a coyote who rolled around in the dust each morning in order to affect a dirty, pathetic look. He then walked limping to the nearest roadside, where he got handouts all day long. When he felt full, he dropped the limp and groomed himself, walking away looking clean and healthy and round. Rangers in Yellowstone have reported that several coyotes have regularly been seen posing for photos in hopes of getting rewarded with food.
I am initially amused, and then saddened, by these stories. I am delighted by the cunning of the coyotes, and then dismayed that we humans are influencing these once-wild animals and encouraging them to drop their natural behavior. But then I think, we got domesticated dogs from somewhere, didn’t we? I imagine the ancient ancestor of the domesticated dog and cousin of the coyote, the gray wolf, begging beside an encampment of nomadic humans, perhaps faking a limp. Maybe all this canine-human friendliness is, if not inevitable, at least genetic.
Somewhere along the line, though, that relationship was severed. Wolves were hunted ruthlessly by westward-moving Americans and the ranchers who settled down all along the way, and had been extirpated from all of the lower forty-eight states except Minnesota by 1960. Wolves and ranchers became bitter enemies, as fences went up that blocked the wolves from roaming as they always had, and as wolves attacked the cattle that provided a meager living for the ranchers. The west was not to be big enough for both wolves and men. Today wolves have been reintroduced to parts of their historic range, but this represents only a tiny fraction of their former habitat.
As the animosity between people and wolves became increasingly entrenched, it seems that wolves’ bad reputation began to spread to its much smaller and less threatening cousin, the coyote. Coyotes could and did raid chicken coups, of course, but they are far too small to take down a cow alone, and are not usually inclined to hunt in packs in order to do so. And yet today people seem to see them as a menace to human life and property, and when I tell the story of my coyote running partner, people respond uniformly: “Weren’t you scared?” Scared? Coyotes stand about two feet tall at the shoulder and weigh usually thirty pounds. I fancy myself capable of taking a coyote. But somehow they seem to have merged with wolves in the popular imagination into a large, fierce aggressor, a reputation that wolves, and especially coyotes, do not deserve.
Unlike wolves, however, coyote populations have not been brutalized by humans. In fact, in this age of dizzying change and crumbling ecological systems, the coyote population is one of the very, very few that has expanded in the face of urban sprawl and deforestation. Coyotes are masters of adaptation, able to scratch a living from back ally dumpsters and oak woodlands and sweltering deserts and arctic tundra alike. A coyote was filmed several years back running the streets of New York City, expertly dodging taxi cabs. And as the suburbs of Los Angeles expand ever farther into coyote habitat, coyotes do not leave. They simply adapt. And this, perhaps, is one reason that coyotes are regarded with fear today: as we move into once-wild territory, coyotes are one of the few creatures that do not back away. And this close proximity leads not just to coyote begging antics, but also to coyote predation on our pets, and in a few cases, young children. In the wild, coyotes do not deserve our fear. In the suburbs, however, they might.
The only known fatal coyote attack in the United States occurred in August of 1981. Three-year-old Kelly Keen was dragged off her family’s Southern California property by a coyote and gravely wounded before her father found her and rushed her to the hospital, where she died of blood loss and a broken neck. At least thirty-five other coyote attacks, these nonfatal, have occurred in California, mostly in the greater Los Angeles area. And it is with this knowledge that I meet a wild coyote, in its own wild habitat, with friendliness and respect, and at a distance. Were I to meet a coyote in suburban human habitat though, I might well respond with fear, at a much greater distance.
And this is the difference: a coyote in the suburbs is cunning enough to adjust its predation habits, and will learn to go after garbage, small pets, and very rarely, small children. This coyote is an object of fear and disdain. But the wild coyote, this is the descendent of Coyote the creator, Coyote the friend of humans. This coyote has no use for our refuse or our children. This coyote will enthusiastically hunt mice and grasshoppers in a field, teaching its pups to do likewise, as did those I watched one summer in a field across the river from my house. This was the summer I had heard but not seen the coyote family with pups. I had kept an eye open for weeks, hoping to catch a glimpse of them in daylight instead of just hearing their ruckus at night. And then one evening, entirely unexpectedly, I spied them from my back porch, just across the river. The male and the female were out together with two pups, on a training expedition. The pups watched and imitated their parents, who stalked mice, rumps in the air, with total absorption, completely unaware of my presence on the other side of the water. It was simultaneously amusing and awe-inspiring and utterly delightful to behold.
It is this incredible versatility, adaptability, and cunning—their ability to scratch a living from the suburbs and the wild alike—that causes me to respect coyotes, and in some odd and melancholy way, to find hope in them. The earth is losing species at the rate of three an hour. When I survey the rich and varied landscape around me I wonder what kind of sparse desert my children will see. But I am convinced of this: my children and their children will know coyotes. They will hear their eerie nocturnes, find joy in seeing them hunt mice in a field. And if we humans bring about our own destruction, coyotes will inherit the earth. Or perhaps, create it anew.
Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in such journals as South Writ Large, Poetica, Eclectica Magazine, Red Savina Review, Steel Toe Review, and Hippocampus. His essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, is now available from Red Dirt Press. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.
When the Truth Is Found
I am only half Jewish, and I’m the only member of my family who chooses to make that claim. My younger brother, my only sibling, is not worried about such designations, and for whole years at a time, I forget that in his half-ethnicity, he is wholly like me. For decades into my adulthood, I continued to believe that amongst our family members, we were the unique ones: I, who wanted to share our secret, speak our truth, and he, who couldn’t care less. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones caught or bound by the oddities of genetic code and culturally mixed marriages.
Or by the disturbingly secret proclamations from larger governing bodies.
I am not a religious half-Jew (my father’s side), nor was I ever a religious half-Christian (my mother’s). I wholly do not feel the need to be religious, and so I certainly don’t feel the holy need anymore, as I did twenty years ago, to convert to Judaism. I was raised a Methodist, christened and confirmed in the church, yet I neither asked nor felt the need to be conformed to Methodoxy. Though I attended weekly Wednesday confirmation classes led by poor old sweet and boring Brother Frederick, I’d rather have been reading Batman comics than the Bible back in those days, the days when I was nine years old; the days when my mother actually did buy me a Batman comic before class to whet or soothe or compensate my palate for the Jesus to come.
Biologically, though I am now a formerly nominal Christian, I am still a half-Jew (and half-Gentile). What I think that means is that I have somewhat diluted ancient Jewish blood flowing through all my veins. I also have a clear and inspirational hankering for pastrami, lox and bagels, and smoked sturgeon and eggs (especially from Barney Greengrass). I often eat too much and am just as often more bloated than not. Yet, my dietary problems have nothing to do with keeping kosher. I unapologetically consume hickory-smoked Alabama-style baby back pork ribs whenever I can. I eat shellfish too, especially shrimp and crab, which I love most especially in gumbo.
And cheeseburgers. God I love cheeseburgers.
But food aside, my Jewish half-self does observe the rituals of Chanukah, lighting candles, singing “Baruch-Atai Adonai” for eight nights. I acknowledge Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey. But on Yom Kippur, while I reflect, I never atone, at least not to the one God my father believed in.
What I do, instead, is teach Holocaust Literature to college students. And Southern Jewish Literature (as well as Creative Nonfiction, and Modern Novel, and Southern Film). I discuss with my students pogroms and Kristallnacht and the works of Viktor Frankl and Art Spiegelman. As with my meals, I do so gladly and with gusto.
I do so because when I first took this job, I couldn’t have done so. At least I couldn’t have done so as an openly half-Jewish man. For there were other kinds of laws in place, very unkosher and very strict.
College by-laws that insisted, decreed, ordered that all faculty members be affiliated with a Christian church.
I heard of this decree only after my first, very positive interview with faculty from the college via a phone call, one late fall morning from a woman from the college I hadn’t met. A woman who taught American Literature and who asked me in a high musical voice:
“Terry, they forgot to ask you last week if you are a member of a Christian Church…”
“Well, I was raised a Methodist…”
She cut me off then, exuberant and very much relieved:
“Oh, that’s excellent. Now, I hope we’ll meet soon.”
We did, roughly two months later when I was hired.
That future colleague, I think now, did me a favor. Not only did she alert me to the policy, she also interrupted me before I could go on to say,
“…but I haven’t attended that church in fifteen years and don’t really consider myself a Christian anymore.”
Maybe I would have earned a better job somewhere else if she had let me finish my answer. Maybe I wouldn’t have just started my 29th year at this small, rural, liberal arts college in upstate South Carolina where I have been half ecstatic and half depressed over those years.
But maybe, if she had let me finish, I wouldn’t have become a writer of my own peculiar journey.
I know for a fact, however, that without this job in this place, I would not have wondered so deeply about my status as an unrecognized half-Jew. I would not have been motivated to seek conversion at a Reform congregation in my adopted town. And, I would not have had the opportunity after that initial conversion encounter to turn away from the whole process after the outreach person kept insisting that once I converted, I would then want to bring my “wife and daughter into the temple family.”
I looked at this aging woman who could have been my half-grandmother, and said,
“But my wife doesn’t want to convert. She doesn’t want to be involved in any organized religion, though she supports my choice.”
The recruiter’s face fell, but she didn’t give up.
“Maybe after a little while, she’ll change her mind!”
When she didn’t hear from me again after several weeks, this lady called my home and left a message:
“I hope I didn’t say anything to offend you, Terry. We still want you as part of our congregation, our temple family.”
Actually, I wasn’t offended, but I was put off, permanently. Perhaps owing to my father’s always quiet contemplation of his faith, I expected Jews to act not so much like Christians in this inducement to convert. People are people, though, and some wear stars and prefer rye while others wear crosses and prefer sourdough. And while it’s all manna, still, wherever I looked, the stars were hidden in their suburban alcoves, while the crosses neoned themselves across my peripheral night sky.
Especially at my job.
In my first years at the college, colleagues assured me that I could teach whatever I wanted, and they were right. No one said anything when I taught Joyce and Faulkner, Potok and Roth. Louise Erdrich or Malcolm X.
They also said I could live wherever I wanted, too, but hoped I’d choose the tiny, former mill town where the college is located. I always thought, and in fact dreamed, that I would reside in a college town: the town of Montevallo, home to the primarily liberal arts state university I attended as an undergraduate, was my model. Yet, given Clinton, South Carolina’s size, its increasing poverty and lack of job opportunities for my wife, she and I chose not to live in the depressed hamlet that had birthed the college back in 1880. I could sense my colleagues’ disappointment when I told them our decision, and I wondered if I was also sensing judgment: their judgment of my judgment that this place was insufficient, too provincial, too narrow and uncultured. I was never sure about their wonder, but the truth was that I did reject the town as a place to live, which meant on some level that I was rejecting my colleagues as friends, as people I wanted to spend down time with. As people I wanted to trust.
Because in one crucial area of my life, I didn’t trust them.
You see, by not living amongst them, when asked by these same colleagues if I had found a church to attend, I could say whatever I wanted. I could lie and name Downtown Methodist, Summit Drive Methodist, or even that quaint Anglican church in a crumbling historic district. Or I could say what I actually did say,
“No, I haven’t. I’m still getting to know the community.”
Which was funny, not only because I kept saying it for three years until my colleagues sort of took the hint, but also because my community, the neighborhood where my wife and I lived, was populated by many elderly couples who, when we met, asked secondly—after “Where do you work?”—“What church have you joined?” They assumed something Presbyterian since my college is associated with that denomination. And all I could say was, “No, I was born Methodist,” and then they’d finish my thought by naming the various Methodist churches they knew, or relate in great detail which church they belonged to, along with the reasons why they went there and not some other. Reasons that dealt most often with class and economics, such as “I couldn’t afford to go there. They’re too rich for me,” which is what our neighbor Miss Essie, who later became my daughters’ unofficial grandmother, said about a church across town. A very big church.
So I learned that membership has its privileges and its price, as well as its governing covenants. Covenants that strictly forbade religiously-addled people like me from inclusion.
Though I had flown under the by-lawed radar for several years already, could I really remain a member of a body that would prohibit me if they knew more than a half-truth?
So in year five I began telling some trusted colleagues (who were in departments other than mine) my fears and troubles and truth: that my Dad was a Jew and that I had some issues being a part of something that would exclude him; that I might want to become a fully Jewish man like him. And to my fears, I heard some of the funniest responses:
“We’ve had other colleagues who’ve tried to change that policy. One, who made a motion at every faculty meeting to abolish the policy!”
“Oh, it was voted down every time! But everyone came to expect his quirky monthly motions.”
Another told me that,
“That policy itself has been changed. We used to call ourselves ‘Evangelical’!”
“What does that mean?”
“We used to exclude Catholics!”
“But, we have several faculty members who are Unitarian, though they don’t tell anybody!”
“Unitarians aren’t Christian?”
“Not according to our By-laws! And, by the way, neither are Mormons!”
And then, after I grew so bold, there was the colleague in my own department who told me this:
“You see, when we hire someone who’s Christian, at least we know the kind of person he is.”
I’d add the exclamation point, but I really don’t think it’s necessary.
A few years later, after that colleague got to know me better and had a half-change of heart, he told me of a candidate for the Library Director’s job that his search committee had just turned down:
“He was Jewish, and when I told him our policy, he started crying and asking why? Why would we do that? I got one of our Jewish students [Now that was even funnier, as if we had many, instead of two] to call him back and explain.”
Explain what? That we’d take a Jewish family’s money, but refuse to pay a Jew any?
Does it matter, really, that your librarian is Jewish? Or Baptist? Or a heathen?
I don’t know what those two unsettled Jews said to each other that afternoon, but I do know that on the one occasion when an administrative position at the college opened up that vaguely suited my wife’s educational background, she applied, was interviewed, but didn’t get the job. I was told it was because no one knew whether or not she was a church member. Of course, they didn’t bother to ask.
Of course, she would have told them No anyway.
Once, as we were driving to Biltmore Village on an overnight family trip, my father said to me,
“After all, we all believe in the same God.”
My mother and wife and our daughters were in the car following us, so it was not only a funny thing for my father to say, but so unlike him. So intimate.
“Yes, Dad, we do,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. Or rather, I believed that he and I believed in the same God, as did my Christian mother: the God who hadn’t created a hell, the God who didn’t impregnate a virgin girl with his spirit. (My mother is half-apostate). Yes, we all agreed about that God.
But I had been teaching in a place that didn’t agree, and I had grown up in a small town in Alabama that would never agree with us even though for a century, that town’s Christian citizens lived side by side with its Jewish citizens, and one of these Alabama Israelites actually won the Christmas lights competition somewhere back in the 40’s or 50’s. There was even a synagogue in our town, though I didn’t learn that fact until long after I had moved away.
I heard my father’s voice that day of our drive, and I kept hearing it at every faculty meeting, which began with a Bible lesson and a prayer to “our one savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
In those moments, which came once a month on the last Thursday at 5:00 pm, it didn’t matter that I liked Jesus and thought he was a loving, wise, and charismatic man. What did matter were the years of pretending to believe what I didn’t believe.
So regarding Jesus, God, and the gulf between them and us, I rose at one faculty meeting, in my seventh year of service, and asked our President if we “couldn’t revisit the faculty membership rule?”
I had been cautioned against doing this. I had been told that it would enrage the President who himself was a minister and was also bound to the Board of Trustees, the chairman of that body being the senior minister of the largest Presbyterian congregation in the state of Georgia, and maybe the entire south, and who, not incidentally, was also an alumnus of the college.
“That policy isn’t going to change, Terry, as long as he is the Board Chair,” my department head told me.
But, as maybe you can see, I am a very stubborn half-Jewish man.
“You never know,“ I said, and strangely, instead of rage or even defensiveness, our President merely said,
“Yes, we can do that. Maybe we ought to examine the policy in one of our faculty forums.”
And then he assigned that very job to poor old Tim Gaines, chair of the forum committee.
Committees take their time and so it was a few months later that the forum date was announced, during the semester when I would be on sabbatical. I was sure that nothing intentional was meant, that the committee did what it could.
I was also sure that nothing would keep me from that forum, scheduled as it was on a late Tuesday afternoon in January.
Our second daughter was just an infant then and our older girl had just turned five. I was parent-in-charge on Tuesdays, as my psychotherapist wife saw late clients. So I took both girls with me to the college; I hired two of my best students, Karen and Meg, to babysit. Karen took Layla, the infant, in her arms, and Meg held Pari’s hand as they said goodbye to me and headed towards the Student Center for ice cream.
“Bye Daddy,” Pari said and waved. I waved back. I entered the building then, the school library, and I had never felt this alone since that time thirty years before when I had been dropped off for my first day of kindergarten.
“Like a lamb to slaughter,” I thought as I descended the stairs to the forum.
Someone, with either great foresight or the most harrowing sense of dramatic irony in the world, had arranged the tables in two facing rows. And true to the rules of armed conflict, the pro-Christian faculty members sat on one row, the renegades on the other. Of course it gratified me to see that I wasn’t alone on my row. Yet, it didn’t exactly shock me to see who my antagonists were.
What I knew, though, was that on this night and at this forum, I was the antagonist. So be it.
In an hour-long forum that now, 20 years past, seems like a tremor of a dream, I remember these moments:
My colleague Jim Peterson, an untenured instructor of Basic Grammar and Creative Writing, talking about his Jewish heritage and how much this policy hurt him. I hadn’t known Jim was half-Jewish, like me.
Our college chaplain, Greg Henley, remarking that keeping non-Christians out of the faculty ranks was the “Unchristian thing to do.”
A professor of “Bible” suggesting that maybe the college “isn’t the place” for me, and maybe I would be better off “moving on.” He said this in such a soft, compassionate voice, a voice that failed to take into account my family, the abysmal job market, and that I had been at the college much longer than he had.
A professor of Psychology who made this analogy: “You’re a member of Amnesty International, right? Well, Amnesty wouldn’t accept a known terrorist for membership, would it?”
The word “breathtaking” captured my feeling then, as it still does today. I had “broken bread” with this man. But I guess, in the relative degrees that often define our relationships, I was a terrorist, if what he meant was someone who was shocking the current of their world.
Finally, in the only thing I said that I truly remember from that night, I looked at my foes and said,
“To me, this policy is not only wrong and hurtful and unchristian. It is cruel and bigoted.”
“We’re not bigots,” a professor of Christian Education shouted.
“Well, I don’t know what else to call it. To me, you are.”
And at that point, Tim Gaines called the meeting to a close.
Before I knew it, I was walking through the cold night toward the Student Center where I found Karen still cradling Layla and kissing her brow, and Meg in great conversation with Pari about her Sesame Street book, “Elmo Goes to Day Camp.”
“You know she calls Betty Lou ‘Belly Lou,’ don’t you,” Meg said.
“How did the forum go,” Karen asked.
And I just looked at them and shook my head.
“That bad, eh?”
On the drive home where I was indeed heading to my monthly Amnesty meeting, I thought about my girls. Were they 1/4 or 1/8th Jewish? What world would they find when they became adults, and what would I have done to prepare them, to help them find their own place?
And what, if anything ethnic, would they choose to announce, or be?
Those questions plagued me in the following years as I taught Jewish literature courses, as I got mail addressed to the “Jewish Studies Department.” As some of my daughters’ schoolmates told them that they would pray for them to become “saved.”
Yet, as I discovered to my immense joy, whatever percentages my daughters claimed or were, we would all have to reassess ourselves when, at that year’s Rosh Hashanah meal, my wife’s sister revealed their deepest family secret: that their mother was the daughter of Jewish parents, back in old Iran.
This is a secret I’m not supposed to tell, so please pretend that you don’t know it. Please make it your own readerly by-law, imposing this stricture as you will on all those near you. For you don’t want to get me kicked out of my life, do you?
Isn’t it pointless, though? One-eighth/ One-quarter. Half and half? Do we really have to count and declare what we are? Who we are?
Yet we do so because we don’t want others to do the math for us? To define us?
And in this case do we add the fractions or multiply them? Would any sum or product be enough to satisfy those who decree or measure the substance of our lives?
Three years ago, the faculty elected a trinity of representatives to work with members of the Board on a by-law change to the membership rule. Elected that day were a lapsed Catholic, a Buddhist, and me. The rules had been increasingly relaxed over the years to allow members of “other faith communities” into our ranks. But after our committee met for a semester, we passed a new by-law, one that stated, simply, that to be a member of our faculty, one need only respect and be sympathetic with the college’s church-related mission.
Some found even this objectionable—either because it said anything at all about religion, or because no one else on the faculty got to weigh in on the final declaration (But what was the vote for representatives for? What did these critics think the nature of those who were elected meant?). I know, however, that the new policy allowed for more room than we’ve ever had at the college. Room to breathe. Room to be individuals.
To be ourselves.
Room to see that God, in whatever conception we might have, is larger than we are. And whether this God is the same one we all believe in, or doesn’t exist at all, or thinks that our many denominations, sects, and forms are ridiculous, or somehow really good and necessary, I believe we’re all better off sitting at our desks, leaning over long tables in libraries, or delis, or riding in the front seat of family cars, being who we are. Openly and truthfully.
Even if we’re only half sure what that “truth” truly is.
Lisbeth Davidow’s work has appeared in print and online in Alligator Juniper, All That Glitters, Helix Literary Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Mandala Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Pilgrimage, Prime Mincer, Revolution House, Sliver of Stone, and Spittoon. Essays of hers have been finalists in Alligator Juniper’s National Creative Non-fiction contest, The Southeast Review’s Narrative Nonfiction Contest, All Write Now’s Conference Contest, and nominated to be included in Best of Creative Nonfiction, Volume II.
You Have to Get over the Color Green
“I’m not impressed,” Camilla says, bending over my azaleas. Then she stands and tells me that she wants to replace them with drought tolerant plants that have names I’ve never heard of like she’s asking me to invite perfect strangers into my house. But since she’s our newly hired garden designer, and I want to appear open, I only nod. However, when she says we’ll have to kill the small patches of lawn in the front and side of the house, I put my hand over my heart. “Giving up grass won’t be easy,” I say.
“I understand,” she says while we walk back into my kitchen. “Lawns have been associated with well-being for centuries; but Los Angeles doesn’t have the rain to support them, especially now. We’ll put mulch down instead. You’ll see–you’ll love mulch.”
I don’t know how I’ll feel about mulch, but I get her point: The “catastrophic” drought has reached its fourth year. Evergreens are turning red and dying by the thousands. Farmlands lie fallow. Water suppliers are imposing water restrictions. Giving up grass will be an act of responsibility and of long-delayed acclimation. I acquiesce.
I’ve been living in Los Angeles for over thirty years, and I still haven’t adjusted to its lack of lilacs. Along with forsythias, they were the only flowers in my childhood backyard in Massachusetts. My mother spent too much time in our unfinished basement, scrubbing clothes against a washboard and then hanging them up to dry to care about growing things from the hard strip of soil along the fence separating our yard from our neighbor’s. For her, as it would have been for me, had I not coveted Mrs. Epstein’s roses across the street, it was enough that we had our own house. Whatever grew around it– the lilacs, forsythias, maple trees and grass–did so nurtured only by our benign neglect and by the suns and rains of New England. Perhaps that is why the lilacs, with their deep color and heavenly smell, even more than the yellow forsythias, were such a miracle every April. If my memory serves me right, and it will have to since my mother is no longer here to compare hers with mine, we had both purple and white lilacs. But it is only the purple ones that I remember cutting and bringing into the house to place in a vase on the kitchen table so that their perfume could fill the room.
“We’ll be bi-coastal,” Miles had said. We were still living in separate apartments in New York when he started taking trips to L.A. to search for financiers for an independent movie he hoped to make. “It’s sixty-five degrees here and sunny,” he said over the phone with a thrill in his voice one freezing New York February evening. Even though my fifth floor walk-up on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue had no heat because, as the landlord claimed on many Fridays, the oil company “forgot” to deliver the oil, I didn’t care about nice houses or sunny weather. I was a modern dancer, running between part-time jobs, classes and rehearsals, smitten by the art form and the no frills life style of the wiry men and women who looked good in schmatas, the only clothing they could afford.
“I found an apartment in Venice you’re going to love,” he said on his last trip. “It’s right near the boardwalk. It’s like St. Mark’s on the beach.” So we stuffed our belongings into a drive-away Volvo station wagon and drove from New York to Los Angeles the following summer. Nothing on the Venice Boardwalk compared to the Gem Spa, the newsstand/candy store directly below my apartment that was famous for its egg creams. Nor did the roller skaters and muscle shirted basketball players bare any resemblance to the green-haired punks that had just started to move into the East Village. This was an alien land with eternal sunshine, tall, scrawny palm trees, endless freeways and bodies made hard not to become instruments to a higher calling like dance, but to attract a mate or a part in a movie or some status that their toned arms could grant them.
After living in Venice for six months, we moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica. I got a job teaching dance at U.C. Riverside, 90 minutes away. A huge maple tree outside the dance studio’s windows offered consolation for the long commute, even though its leaves never turned brilliant red or yellow, only tepid rust. On my days off, I’d walk the few blocks to the dance studio in downtown Santa Monica where I rehearsed, grateful for the sun on my chest in February, but bereft at how few other pedestrians there were, just shrubs and “bottle brush” trees with red flowers that looked like something one could use to wash a glass or a toilet bowl.
When we decided to have a baby, we moved to a cube-shaped, two-story 1300 square foot house in Marina del Rey. The day we found it, I looked out the second story window at a blooming jacaranda tree in the front yard. Its flowers weren’t as curly as lilacs, but they were pretty enough to inspire the fantasy of sitting in a rocking chair with my new baby while I gazed out at them.
But shortly after I gave birth to my daughter, Hana, I felt lonely and isolated in the small boxy house. I had no family in L.A; and having stopped dancing, I was no longer part of the dance community. The house was only a mile from the beach, but it was also near Washington and Lincoln Boulevards with their strip malls, fast food joints, restaurants and car dealerships sprawled beneath the flat, Southern California light. What am I doing here? I’d think while I wheeled Hana around, pining for the leafy city of my childhood.
“I’ve found something,” Miles said a decade later when we decided to move to a somewhat bigger house. “I want you to see it.” The house was in a development of California Ranch style houses built in the 60’s. It had a Mexican Palm tree on the front lawn. Chunky brown and beige flagstone trim adorned the outside and surrounded the living room’s fireplace, about which, Hana, who was 11 by then, said, “That has got to go. It looks like the Brady Bunch lives here.” But the view of the Pacific Ocean from the back patio won me over so completely that I lay in fetal position for the rest of the weekend, praying that our offer would be accepted.
Once we bought it, I said to Miles, “Now I can live in L.A.” We’d been here 18 years.
And yet, after a while, even the ocean out back and the mountains out our kitchen window couldn’t find their way as deeply into my heart as buds of maple trees in the early spring or austere branches against a winter sky. Such is the pull of our first landscape, like the pull of a mother’s embrace. Wallace Stegner wrote in an essay about the beauty of the West, “You have to get over the color green. You have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns.” But even he had trouble adapting to a foreign landscape. He grew up in Montana, spent his adolescence in Salt Lake City and later taught at Harvard. He was so miserable in Cambridge that he left as soon as he could for a job at Stanford in Northern California. Maybe we can’t decide where we feel at home any more than we can decide whom to love.
The gardeners have torn out the grass, the juniper hedges and the jungle of bougainvillea in back. They’ve left the Mexican Palm in front which has five trunks and a few smaller ones that are sprouting from the middle. Miles wants to take out the smaller trunks to have a cleaner look, but I disagree. Those little trunks look like children to me. Together with the taller palms, they are a family. I put my foot down about this. Killing them seems like a crime.
“How is your daughter?” José, a master carpenter, is standing at the back of the house, looking up at the roof. He worked on the interior remodel 15 years earlier.
“You remember her? She’s fine. She’s living in New York.”
Hana fled Los Angeles as soon as she graduated from high school. She went to college in Berkeley and then moved to New York, which she now considers her home. Although she enjoys the warm weather and the beach when she visits us, she gets restless after a couple of days.
“Yes, I remember,” José says, his eyes still on our roof. “You haven’t done a thing to this house since then. Those eaves are rotting.”
“That’s why you’re here,” I say, and it is. We’re finally doing something about the rotten eaves, the filthy, peeling stucco and the cracked concrete. We considered covering the stucco with clapboard, like my childhood home, or Cape Cod shingles, like our neighbors’ house next door; but in the end, we decided that there was no use pretending that we live in anything but a California Ranch and chose smooth trowel stucco the color of desert sand. Travertine pavers from Turkey will replace the concrete. I like the idea of having stone from a civilization older than New England’s even though I don’t like thinking about the fuel it takes to bring it to Los Angeles.
The smell of manure wafts inside the house. They’re preparing the soil now, digging it up, getting rid of stones, twigs and the remaining plants, making the dirt browner and moister. Plants with Latin names arrive in pots of quarts and gallons and wait on the ground like immigrants at a port of entry. My favorite is the exotic Grevillea Superba with its long, coral, spidery flowers. It originated in Australia and usually does well in California. So I’m crushed when it doesn’t survive the transplant from the pot to soil and goes into shock, shriveling into a light brown collection of twigs and rigid leaves. The gardeners tell me that its root ball got “molested” during the transplant. That sounds terrible. I order another one to be planted between the lemon and orange trees I’ve insisted on having in the hopes that eating fruit from a tree in my yard will connect me to the land in which it grows.
Roses will climb the picket fence that separates us from the “Cape Cod” next door as will a San Diego Bougainvillea and a Boston Ivy, which I chose for its name alone, the same reason I wear a Red Sox hat on my morning walk. One of the gardeners warns me that the Bougainvillea and the ivy will compete for sunlight, that the Bougainvillea will spread much faster and throw the Boston Ivy into too much shade for it to grow. I tell him to do what he can. Camilla says that the ivy will turn red in the fall. Seeing that alongside the bright pink Bougainvillea would be the closest I’ve ever come to being bi-coastal.
I have one last request: Even though I know the answer, I ask Camilla if I can have a lilac tree.
“Sorry,” she says. “But it doesn’t get cold enough here.”
I recall a tree with purple flowers that I’ve spotted on my way home from Santa Monica. One day I wind my way down through the canyon past the trees with purple flowers, park on a side street, walk up to the trees and look. Camilla’s right. Whatever they are, they aren’t lilacs.
Would I be willing to endure frigid temperatures and endless snowfall just to see lilacs bloom for a couple of weeks? I remember snowstorms being exciting when I was a kid. The snowdrifts in the backyard looked like huge, sugar mounds. My brother, who lives in Boston, where they’re enduring the snowiest winter on record, quickly dispels my fantasy. “There’s nothing exciting about this,” he says, his voice grave. “It’s only anxiety producing. The snow in the backyard is taller than I am; and it’s so heavy, parts of our roof have caved in.”
Hana complains about the cold in New York, too. “I don’t know how many more winters I can take,” she says, her voice cracking, and not from static. “I’m not cut out for this.”
“Where would you go?”
“California, I guess.”
She would come home? I’ve been assuming that she would live her adult life in New York, as though it were a retribution for my living mine 3000 miles away from my mother. Do I dare fantasize about meeting her for dinner at a restaurant in Echo Park, or having her over for Sunday dinner, or maybe someday, feeding her child an orange from my tree?
“It wouldn’t be for a couple of years,” she says, as though she’s reading my mind. “And you’d have to do something about the water problem.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say. And we both laugh although there’s nothing funny about it.
Until things improve, maybe she’s better staying off in New York where she doesn’t have to feel anxious or guilty every time she takes a shower or flushes the toilet. It pains me that California may become so inhospitably dry that it could keep her from me. I picture the two of us leaning towards each other across a map of the United States, our arms extended in sorrow above the Great Plains.
Once spring finally arrives, Hana’s natural enthusiasm returns to her voice. She bought a new bike, she tells me; and she loves being outside now. A friend in New Jersey emails me a picture of the buds just forming on her maple trees. I notice a yellow shrub behind them and I write back, asking if it’s a forsythia tree. “Yes,” she writes. “It is.” And then she sends me a picture of lilacs that her husband cut, put in a vase and set on their dining table. “They smell delicious,” she writes, and I wish there were a way to convey smell digitally.
It’s getting warmer here, too. I’m savoring these last comfortable days before it gets too hot. I lie on the patio this morning, directly on the stone, letting my palms graze the pitted tiles, recalling when I was four, huddled near the stone foundation of our house where the sun hit the mica and made it gleaming and warm to the touch. I’d lean unseen on it, like a Harlow monkey, gathering its warmth into my body while my mother was inside, doing the chores that prevented her from planting flowers or from seeing what her little girl might be up to.
Miles is drinking coffee in the kitchen and reading the paper, as absorbed by the news as my mother was by her chores. Unlike his mother, who used to say when she’d visit us from New York, “Why would anyone want to live here?” he’s content here. Unlike me, he always has been. When we first moved here, I’d say to him, “I don’t know what I’d do here without you. But then again, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.” I yell to him now to come outside. He interrupts his reading to join me on this sunny patio in front of the bright orange African Honeysuckle, not far from where this western edge of land meets the ocean, and the ocean meets the sky. If I could, I’d take a bite out of what I see. And then I’d turn the blue above us to grey and thicken these delicate clouds with rain.
Steven Wineman is the author of The Politics of Human Services and Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change. His work has appeared or will appear in journals including Cincinnati Review, Wayne Literary Review, Written River, 34th Parallel, Conium Review, Blue Lake Review, Newfound, and Poetica. His play Jay, or The Seduction was produced at Columbia University. He is currently at work on a novel about childhood sexual abuse, The Therapy Journal. Steve retired in 2014 after working in community mental health for 35 years.
the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing
–Les Murray, “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”
I have cried every day for the last 20 months.
It started in 2014 when I woke up one morning before dawn and realized I was depressed. Somehow I understood this was a depression extending all the way back to my childhood that I had managed for much of my life to cover over with busy-ness and denial. But in that moment, at age 65, through a confluence of life circumstances, I was ready to try something I had never done: I welcomed these buried feelings into my heart.
Within minutes I decided on a daily regimen that includes meditation, a dedicated period of time to cry, and a depression journal.
Each morning after meditating I pick a passage from a book, a poem, a favorite song, or something on YouTube that in the past has moved me to tears. Charlie Chaplin’s stunned smile when he stumbles onto the blind girl who has recovered her sight at the end of City Lights; an Indigo Girls song, “Southland in the Springtime,” that makes me yearn for the rural Southeastern Michigan that I loved as a child; the heartbreaking epilogue to Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger in which the beautiful little boy, Kenka, has morphed into an old drunken ex-slave telling tales in the waterfront bars of New Orleans. Each day there is a small question hanging somewhere in the air: will this really work again? And each day it does. At times in trickles; usually in a strong steady flow. I cry from my stomach, the place where I was abused when I was little. Occasionally, I sob so hard I have to gasp for air.
Recently it struck me how much my crying ritual resembles a wonderful children’s story by Arnold Lobel called “Tear-Water Tea.”
It’s part of a collection of five stories in Owl at Home, a picture book for early readers published in 1975. Owl, a solitary fellow who lives in a cozy little house, usually appears in pajamas and robe. He has adventures such as taking pity on the winter by letting it inside to warm up, being scared by bumps in his bed that are actually his feet, and trying to be upstairs and downstairs at the same time. One day he decides to make tear-water tea.
Holding a kettle on his lap, Owl starts thinking of broken chairs and forgotten songs, and one large tear rolls down his face and into the kettle. He thinks of spoons that have fallen behind the stove, books with torn pages, clocks that no one has wound up, mashed potatoes left uneaten, pencil stubs too short to use. By now he is crying hard and fills the kettle with his tears. Satisfied, he boils his tear-water. “Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. ‘It tastes a little bit salty,’ he said, ‘but tear-water tea is always very good.’”
Owl and me. It has been comforting to make this connection, as if the two of us share a delightful and mildly forbidden secret. People cry over immediate events or during periods of grief, for deaths and the endings of relationships, men on the whole much less easily than women, but I know of no social context for making a daily practice of crying, regardless of gender. But now here is Owl, my compatriot. I imagine us together, exchanging a knowing glance and nod. Or maybe, if he were still alive, I might exchange the knowing glance with Owl’s creator.
At 16 I got into my first relationship, with a girl named Janet. I was in love, thrilled, overwhelmed. This taste of intimacy touched places in me which at the time I had no way of understanding.
We argued one evening as I was driving Janet home, not for the first time, but for some reason this argument particularly upset me. I was scared she was going to break up with me, but something deeper was getting triggered. Later, sitting on Janet’s living room couch, we were in the process of making up when I burst into tears.
It had probably been five or six years since the last time I’d cried. I was an adolescent male in 1965, and like all the boys I knew, I had taken for granted that when you reached a certain age, you didn’t cry anymore. The extraordinary thing was not that I cried, but that I could tell how right it was to be crying. I was reclaiming something I had lost—that was what I felt, not awkwardness, not embarrassment, not shame. Nothing in my upbringing or in the larger culture laid any groundwork for that moment. Also nothing in my conscious mind—no reading, no conversations, no analysis, no theory. I had no critique then of male conditioning or conventional gender roles. I had only this raw, irrefutable explosion of felt experience.
It was a defining moment in my life. A month later Janet did break up with me, confirming my fears, but my conviction of the rightness of crying has endured, serving me during my bad times, helping me to support my son to express his feelings as he was growing up, and creating a foundation for my own variation on tear-water tea.
I first ran into Arnold Lobel’s work in a dentist’s waiting room in 1974. I was a childcare worker at a group home for troubled boys. Sitting with a kid who was anxious about seeing the dentist (who isn’t?), I scanned the children’s books on a nearby table and picked one with a delightful cover illustration of a toad and frog on a bicycle-built-for-two, dressed like humans in pants and open jackets, the frog in front with a long rounded green throat and bulging eyes, the toad scrunched behind him and wearing a sporty little cap. I started reading to the boy, hoping to help him calm down.
It was called Frog and Toad Together, and I can’t remember any other book, for children or adults, I’ve fallen in love with so immediately. At the beginning of the first story, Toad makes a list of things to do for his day. Well—40 years ago I was already a veteran list-maker. Instant identification! Later he becomes immobilized when he loses his list, and I so related. But my attraction to this book went far beyond a quirky personality trait I happened to share with one of the characters. The soul of Frog and Toad is the sweetness of the friendship between its two protagonists, their mutual acceptance and deep affection across a multitude of differences: the anxious, moody, high strung, insecure Toad; and the relaxed, centered, steady Frog. They complement one another, rely on each other, fill their days with the joys of generosity and attachment. In the last story of this collection Toad dreams that Frog has shrunk to almost nothing and then, waking to find Frog his own right size, Toad says how glad he is that Frog has come over to his house. Frog replies, “I always do.” How could they not win your heart?
They did in fact win many more hearts than mine. Frog and Toad Together was named a Newbury Honor Book, one notch down from the Newbury Medal, the most prestigious prize for children’s literature. It was the first early reader ever to have won a Newbury. Its predecessor, Frog and Toad Are Friends, won the Caldecott Honor Award for its illustrations and was a finalist for the Children’s National Book Award. Lobel would write and illustrate two more Frog and Toad books, and the series of four is widely considered the crowning achievement of his prolific career.
Owl at Home is a good book, whimsical, amusing and beautifully illustrated, but on the whole it stands in the shadow of Frog and Toad. In four of the five stories, Owl displays the kind of magical thinking characteristic of very early childhood, leading him into ridiculous antics. It’s funny but limited, lacking richness and depth. “Tear-Water Tea” is the exception. If there is charm and humor to the lost spoons and stubby pencils that make Owl sad, there is also the integrity of emotional experience. We all feel what we feel, and sadness is always valid.
As is crying. All of us come into the world hard wired to cry out our displeasure and anguish. There is something about Owl’s early stage of development that makes his affinity with tears especially fitting—the tears of a small child. Along with sucking, breathing, gripping, to cry is an elemental human experience.
Ten weeks before my depression came into focus, I had retired at the beginning of 2014. My troubles began right away. I had a rapid succession of physical ailments—a locked sacrum, pains in a half dozen parts of my body, a dizzy spell, stomachaches, a rare cold. I was sleeping poorly. I had many moments of feeling blue, mostly during evenings, with drops in energy that went beyond simple fatigue. These dips in mood seemed linked to a sense of not having done much with my time, and with a feeling of weirdness about my future, which was taking shape as a succession of blank days.
During those first ten weeks I believed I was having trouble adjusting to not working, that my signs of distress were being caused by a difficult transition to a new phase of life. Then I suddenly understood that all this open space was allowing my depression, which had been there all along, to rise to the surface.
The roots of depression trace back to events in my childhood. I have a severely disturbed older brother who targeted me with physical and psychological torture for years and years, and my parents, aware of my brother’s behavior problems, failed to protect me. But my parents did scream at my brother, and at each other, often and in front of me, a terrifying event for a little boy. My mother also screamed at other times, wails of despair, sometimes saying she wished she were dead.
My brother’s pathology, my mother’s aching unmet needs, the ugliness and relentlessness of my parents’ unrestrained mutual rage—all this was in the air I breathed as a boy. I coped by finding the eye of the chaos, by being the good boy who stayed quiet and small while my parents and brother were at each other’s emotional throats. There was no space for me to express my feelings or even to let myself be aware of them; no space for me to make messes or get angry, to speak up for myself or display more than a fraction of who I really was. I emerged into adulthood as someone who yearned for intimacy and had little capacity to manage or maintain it. Much of me was still in hiding. I was in a string of relationships in my twenties and thirties that one way or another fell apart; then two failed marriages. There was the death of my father, whom I loved, at a point of intense unresolved conflict between us. I spent years in therapy trying to resolve my issues. Yet sometimes when I meditate or write in my journal I can feel my brother’s fingers clawing into my gut, six decades after the fact.
Given my history of abuse and the many losses I’ve experienced, I know that what I am calling depression also includes aspects of grief and trauma. In the past it would have been important to me to parse these different strands. I would have identified as a trauma survivor but not as a depressed person. I would have noted the difference between a healthy grieving process and the stuckness of depression. These distinctions no longer feel significant. The strands weave together into a braid, and I take them as they come. I choose to move toward these truths about myself, to hold them with as much love as I can muster.
So when I cry every morning, I’m not trying anymore to resolve something, or to complete a grieving process, or to overcome my past. I cry to nourish myself, just as I nourish myself by meditating, by eating breakfast, by exercising, by telling and receiving stories. Just as Owl nourished himself with a cup of salty tear-water tea.
Over a span of three decades, Arnold Lobel wrote and illustrated 28 books, wrote another four books illustrated by his wife Anita, and illustrated more than 70 books by other authors. He won the Caldecott Medal, two Caldecott Honor Awards, a Newbury Honor Award, and his books appeared six times on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books list.
Standing alongside these accomplishments, there is another, personal story. A child of the Great Depression, Lobel’s parents divorced when he was little, and he was raised by his grandparents, which according to George Shannon’s book Arnold Lobel, “made him feel different.” Added to that he grew up Jewish in Schenectady, New York (which lacked a large Jewish community), missed all of second grade convalescing from mastoid surgery, and experienced bullying at school. So a difficult childhood, with which he coped, says Shannon, by becoming a storyteller.
In 1955 he married a Holocaust survivor, Anita (Kempler) Lobel, who also went on to be an acclaimed illustrator and author. They settled in Brooklyn, raised two children, and worked side-by-side on their individual projects. But after decades of marriage, Arnold came out. He and Anita separated in 1984. A year later, Mathew Anden, Arnold’s “friend and companion” (the eighties euphemism for gay lover), died from stomach cancer and complications of AIDS. In the spring of 1986 Arnold himself was diagnosed with AIDS. He died of cardiac arrest in December 1987 at the age of 54.
Drawing on Lobel’s own statements about himself in interviews, Shannon describes him as someone who used his love of books and stories to pick himself up at difficult moments. After learning he had AIDS, “he initially tried to convince himself and others that perhaps it was the appropriate time to die.” But in his early fifties, at the height of his career, it was a rationalization that Arnold could not sustain. Instead he chose to “approach it as his new job, something he had to do as well as he could.”
Fair enough, and all of us should approach the end of life with such grace. But it was the same Arnold Lobel who wrote in his 1980 Fables, “It is always difficult to pose as something that one is not,” and who later said that “comedy…is created out of pain.” I don’t know the trajectory of his coming out, or for how many years he was in the process of recognizing the truth of his sexuality. But he must have experienced the pain, perhaps the anguish of having posed as something he was not, and then to emerge into his truth, only to face in rapid succession the devastation of his lover and of his own life. There must have been more to this story than a graceful acceptance of death; this was also about such an important part of himself, negated by society for most of his life, being annihilated at just the moment when he was claiming it.
Arnold Lobel’s death took place in the depths of the AIDS epidemic, and his personal story, like those of over two hundred thousand people who died of AIDS between 1981 and 1992, needs to be understood in this larger social context. A middle-aged man comes out and within a few years dies—it was a common story, one of many variations on the theme of lives cut short, the rapid and terrible deaths that AIDS victims experienced from wasting, from cancer, from pneumonia, the cascading failures of body systems. A friend of mine at the time, a gay man who was personally and professionally immersed in the epidemic, said it was like living in a war zone.
By the beginning of the nineties treatments had improved, by the mid-nineties they dramatically improved. From 1993—1995 another 159,000 died, and then the death rate from HIV/AIDS began a steep decline. Too late for Lobel and so many others in the first wave of the epidemic. Magic Johnson famously announced that he was HIV positive in 1991, only a few years after Arnold’s death, and Magic is still alive today. For Lobel it was a year and a half from diagnosis to death. For many the interval was shorter.
In October 1987, less than two months before Arnold died, the AIDS Quilt was assembled in one place for the first time, on the National Mall in Washington, in conjunction with a massive march for lesbian and gay rights. I was there, and after a long day of marching, I finally made it to the Mall. It was like being in a cemetery, or at a mass funeral conducted in silence. The ground was lined with panel after panel memorializing someone who had died of AIDS. There were stitched messages, embroidered designs, photos, clothing, stuffed animals. One panel held my attention. It displayed the picture of a very young man smiling with warmth and joy, his face radiating innocence and an embrace of life—a man who was dead. I was already in tears when I got there, and as I looked at the love and grief stitched onto that piece of cloth, I stood on the grass and sobbed.
“The world,” writes Jennifer Freyd, “is infinitely horrible and infinitely wonderful, and..one truth does not cancel out the other.” As I have been welcoming depressed feelings into my heart, I have also managed to reclaim my joyful self, a place in me that is amazed by the simple fact of being alive. I can’t entirely account for the emergence, or re-emergence, of this sense of wonder. I didn’t go looking for it, had never considered that making friends with depression would be a path toward something less gloomy—to the contrary, I give myself stern reminders all the time that my depressed self is here to stay. But one morning there it was, a love for life as present and deep as my depression.
Jumping into the water when I was four and finding that I could swim without having to be taught; my summers at camp as a boy; places in nature of special significance; moments of connection, for all the difficulty I have had sustaining them; the depth of my love for my son—it’s not that I had ever forgotten these things, but they have come back to me in a new way, perhaps made more vivid by all this depression work I’ve been doing. If the pain from my history still lives in me, so do my moments of joy.
Most of the time they seem to run on parallel tracks, my pain and joy. But when I cry, they twine together. The act of crying, connecting me to my anguish, makes me whole, something I feel in my body and in my spirit. Crying, for me, is a duet—a harmonizing of deep sorrow and the hard-wired pleasure of giving it full expression. It’s what I knew, sitting on Janet’s couch as a 16-year-old and bursting into tears, the rightness of it; I think we have all known this as infants, as young children.
Arnold Lobel, according to Shannon, would sometimes walk around his Brooklyn neighborhood in a gorilla suit. Lobel described this as an experience of “childlike wonderment.” But I’d like to believe there was another layer: that the gorilla capers might also have offered Lobel the occasion for a kind of harmonizing of pain and joy. These walks would have happened before he and his wife separated, during some of the long years when he appeared to the world as a heterosexual married man. What an image for him to have embodied at such a time, Arnold inside a gorilla! What was the guise, what was the truth? Was the real Arnold hiding within the funny costume? Or was the gorilla his true self, bursting out to be paraded before his neighbors? Or somehow both. The pain of the closet, the pleasure of announcing to his corner of the world, I’m not what you think I am—this playful gesture might have captured both sides of that equation. Of course I can’t know what Lobel was thinking and feeling inside the gorilla suit, what harmonies might have been contained within his childlike wonderment. But I hope, so many years after the fact, that this was so.
Lobel’s last book, The Turnaround Wind, was published posthumously in 1988. It portrays people out in the countryside on a sunny summer afternoon when dark clouds, drawn as a huge swirling face, suddenly fill the sky and “a strong and rushing wind…turn[s] the whole world…upside down.” The topsy-turvy world is depicted with illustrations which viewed right side up are one character and turned upside down are another. The organ grinder turned around becomes a parrot; the stout man becomes his slender wife; the mayor becomes a baby. If the book were taken as a fable, the moral might be that there is more to a picture than first meets the eye.
Lobel talked about drawing on his own experience to create his stories. Frog and Toad, he said, represented different parts of himself. He called Owl at Home a “personal book.” So it’s not farfetched to think that The Turnaround Wind reflects aspects of Lobel’s experience following the sudden onset of a terminal illness. In the midst of an idyllic scene, a huge black cloud comes out of nowhere and wreaks havoc on a world in which, for a time, nothing is what it had seemed. In the end the storm passes “as quickly as it began,” and the huge cloud disappears. “Everyone dusted themselves off / and walked serenely in the sunshine / of a lovely afternoon.” A great turbulence followed by the serenity of a cloudless late afternoon, the restoration of order. Not unlike Owl having a good cry and then enjoying his cup of tea. I imagine Arnold, in crisis, nearing the terrible end of a wonderful life, finding solace in art one last time.
Susan Bloch is a writer and management consultant. Susan has recently published in The Huffington Post, Seattle Business Magazine, Secret Histories, Tikkun, and www.234journal.com. She has also co-authored four books on leadership including The Global You and How to Manage in a Flat World and Complete Leadership.
A London based business consultant to many Fortune 500 companies, Susan spent three and a half years living and working in India, after her husband passed away. She was an insider and witness to the Mumbai Massacre. “The Mumbai Massacre” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress, tentatively titled, Monsoon Meshugas: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Daring. Susan now lives in Seattle. http://www.globallearnings.com
The Mumbai Massacre
Day 1: My Mumbai Apartment
November 26, 2008, began as a typical evening in Mumbai. Mothers kissed their children goodnight, set their alarm clocks and bid their servants a pleasant evening. Apartments turned dark. At Habad House, a Jewish learning center and home to the Holtzberg family, two-year-old Moshe dozed off sucking on his pacifier. A nightlight glowed in the electric socket near his crib so that he would not be scared of the dark.
That night no one had a clue that the benign hubbub of India’s cosmopolitan city was about to be shattered. Not the security men chatting at hotel entrances; not the families licking lollypops on the promenade; not the young lovers perched on large boulders and gazing at the rising moon. No one noticed the dinghy bearing ten terrorists from Pakistan, members of the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, sneaking through the maze of fishermen’s boats.
Armed with hand grenades, AK-47s, Colts, machine guns and satellite phones, the gunmen clambered onto the shore. They fanned out through the downtown tourist and commercial districts, and went on a rampage, targeting popular tourist hotels and restaurants.
A call from a colleague alerted me that there had been “sounds of shooting” downtown. From my Mumbai apartment, I could see an orange cloud rise above the smog. Explosions ripped through the city and a charred smell filled the air. Recently widowed I’d moved from London to live and work in India, hopeful that a change of scenery might help me deal with my grief. I’d defied all logic, resigned from a leadership position in a global consultancy and rented out the family home in Islington, London. Vibrant colors, spicy food, scenes of extreme opulence and heartbreaking poverty became my new way of life. I learned to smell the fragrance of ripe mangoes, taste green cardamom in curry gravies and enjoy sensual midriffs shyly peering out from under silk saris. There had been so much solitude after asbestos poisoning robbed my husband, John, of his life. And me of my cherished partner. Now, the energy all around was bringing me back to life. Importantly, I didn’t feel lonely anymore.
As the Chief Learning Officer of an international Indian conglomerate, I worked alongside teams all over the country. We reviewed operations and strategic plans in the retail business, financial services, iron ore mines, and the fertilizer factories. I was recovering some balance and living a normal, productive life when the terrorists attacked.
I stared at the newscast as I fumbled with the cap on a bottle of water and gulped it all down in one go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. These terrorists had struck right at the heart of the modern acropolis. Without realizing it, I crushed the water bottle in my hand.
One of the terrorist spokesmen called into the NDTV newsroom.
“We want you must release all the Pakistani mujahedeen, our Islamic brothers that your government is holding in jail in India,” he shouted over the background din. Screams and cries echoed through the microphone. “Until we have them we looking for Britishers, the Jewish, Israeelees and Americans. This is no joking.”
Before his location could be traced, he cut off the call from his satellite phone. Hotel guests sent texts and tweets to the outside world describing how they were hiding in closets and behind shower curtains; how they’d been smacked across their cheeks, kicked, and pushed onto the floor face down. How they’d been stripped of Rolex watches, wedding rings, credit cards and cash. The Indian police and army struggled to coordinate a response. In the midst of the pandemonium, newscasters bellowed above the explosions.
“You can see the Taj Mahal Hotel, it is burning,” shrieked a distraught reporter, crawling along on her belly like a soldier under fire. Her face was barely visible through the smoke. “My god,” she sputtered, “there are so many people in that inferno. In there dying. Someone just jumped out a window.”
It seemed surreal. Earlier that evening I’d dined at the Taj Mahal Hotel with Vijay, my company’s Director of Operations. The legendary hotel was a regular haunt of mine, with lush Persian carpets and Ionic columns gracing the lobby. Over a feast of potato samosas, lentil soup, curried vegetables, garlic naan, chili crab, saffron rice, and fresh coconut, we talked shop. After dinner, we drank spicy chai and made plans for the leadership team’s workshop. Only a few hours later it was hard to believe that those plans were futile. The hotel was now a war zone and the city in lockdown.
I knew what it was like to be under attack. Trapped, ambushed, unprepared, and terrified. I couldn’t help but remember my time in Israel at the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Egyptian tanks crossed the Suez Canal determined to destroy the Jewish state. Those wailing ambulance sirens that I could hear in Mumbai — rushing the wounded and dying to emergency hospital rooms — sounded all too familiar.
As a young wife and mother in Tel Aviv, I’d been through numerous unnerving terrorist incursions. When invaders from Lebanon had hijacked a bus towards the city and then escaped into nearby orange groves, I’d sat alone in the dark living room of our small house, a revolver in my lap, cringing at the slightest noise. My son and daughter, both under the age of nine were asleep in their bedroom.
Now, in my Mumbai living room watching the horror on television, I wasn’t quite sure why this attack felt different. Maybe it was because I felt so isolated and alone in a foreign country. My chest felt heavy. My head began to throb. This time round would I be able to cope?
I closed my eyes and wished my family weren’t so far away, on the other side of the world. I feared that I might not see my kids and grandchildren again. Distraught, I went out onto my verandah. I leaned over the rusty railings tormented by the nearby flames. Was I far enough away from the disaster zone? The only white person in my huge apartment complex, they’d find me easily by threatening the receptionist at the gate. I was an obvious target. What would I do or where would I go if I needed help? Would I have the guts to jump out a window like those other victims? Probably not. I wiped my clammy palms on my T-shirt.
Day 2: The Israeli Consul’s Apartment
Early that morning I learned that the terrorists had invaded Habad House, home to Rabbi Gabi, his wife Rivka, and baby Moshe. Overwrought by the news, I rushed to join a small group of Israelis in the Israeli Consul’s apartment. We were desperate to know if the Holtzbergs were okay. We had no clue as to whether they were still alive. Were they raping Rivka and torturing Gabi? How could their two-year-old possibly survive?
I’d become friendly with the Habad House’s young rabbinical couple who’d welcomed anyone who wanted to practice Judaism, take the mikvah — a ritual bath — eat kosher food, or simply meet other Jews and Israelis. My local Israeli and Jewish friends had insisted that the Holtzbergs welcomed ordinary as well as ultra-religious folk. An atheist Jewish woman, I had long given up on religion and did not wish to feel any pressure to attend synagogue services. I did, however, follow tradition and enjoyed celebrating Jewish holidays with the local community.
Although my grandfather had been a rabbi in Volksrust — a small town in South Africa — my parents had focused on the importance of strong family values rather than the orthodox traditions of what we were allowed to eat or wear. We had never kept a kosher home. Religious Jewish behavior and thinking hadn’t played any part of my life since high school. It had been decades since I had attended synagogue, and then only for my son’s bar mitzvah. I hadn’t seen the point in praying in ancient Hebrew — a language that I didn’t understand. I’d even developed a prejudice against ultra and orthodox Jewish elements — annoyed by their views and behavior towards women as second-class citizens.
So it had been quite a step for me to become friends with Gabi and Rivka and visit them at the center. Once a guest in their home, though, I understood that they were far more tolerant of others’ beliefs and opinions than I was. I felt disappointed with myself for holding such an anti-religious worldview. The couple was charming, hospitable, and friendly, even to infidels like me. I felt guilty that it had taken a while for me to accept them for who they were, as good people, rather than stereotype them as religious fundamentalists.
Recently, my Israeli friends and I had partied in the Habad Center’s courtyard, feasting on typical Israeli dishes — hummus, tahini, falafel, pita, and barbecued chicken — a meze seasoned with fennel, oregano, garlic, and cilantro. We’d linked arms in the courtyard and sung Israeli songs. Baby Moshe had clapped his hands and toddled around in circles. His giggles had risen above the singing. It had felt good to bond so closely with the Jewish and Israeli community — the Jewish jokes, the Hebrew slang, the love of Jerusalem’s old city, and the piquant cuisine. Moshe finally flopped asleep on his young mother’s lap.
We crowded into the Consul’s living room. Eyes fixed on the television, we waited for more news about the Holtzbergs. Intermittent blasts resounded across the city as the terrorists continued their carnage in South Mumbai. Hundreds of hostages were still stuck in the smoking hotels — including a number of delegates from the European Parliament. The terrorists had done their research to make maximum impact.
A member of the Israeli team ran into the Consul’s living room flushed with the latest news.
“Apparently. the terrorists knew that there is this high-profile international meeting here in Mumbai. These guys planned their timing,” he announced.
He stared at a computer printout in his hand. His voice cracked.
“I have a report,” he stammered, “in addition to the Holtzbergs , many well-known politicians are in danger. Sajjad Karim, the British Conservative Member of the European Parliament (MEP), was in the Taj lobby when the attackers began their shooting. Also the Spanish MEP, Ignasi Guardans, has barricaded himself in a hotel room, and the President of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, was shot while he was checking in at the Oberoi. They are saying that the Indian MP, N.N. Krishnadas, and the UK’s Lord Gulam Noon, were having dinner at a restaurant in the Taj hotel. No one seems to know if they’re okay.”
We sat stiffly on leather couches in the Consul’s living room, rattled, apprehensive, uneasy, and addicted to the news. One of the burly Israeli security officers, Amit, (not his real name) let out a deep sigh. Even in the air-conditioned room, dark stains appeared under the armpits of his blue denim shirt.
The television cameras spared no grisly details. First they focused on people charging out of the main train terminus. Then we saw porters, accustomed to hoisting heavy loads on their heads, slumped on the ground. Satchels, fingers, flip-flops, feet, magazines, mobiles, glasses, newspapers, ears, laptops, legs and Cadbury’s chocolate bars were scattered across the platforms.
The TV cameras also transported us to Leopold’s restaurant, where I’d often dined on juicy tandoori chicken and vegetable biryani. Diners had been shot as they mopped naan bread into masala gravies; beer fountained into the air as bottles splintered; curry sauces smothered with blood spilled onto the floor. I felt nauseated.
“You can’t believe how well equipped these bastards are,” the newscaster announced. He’d removed his tie and opened the top button of his crumpled shirt. He wiped his brow. “They have so much hand grenades and automatic weapons. They are attacking the luxury hotels — the Taj Mahal and Oberoi, and also Leopold’s. They’re looking especially for foreigners and tourists.” He took a sip of water. “We’re not knowing what’s happening at the Jewish house. Now the police are there, but they are also not knowing what to do. This is so much terrible.”
Outside our window, smoke hovered in the blue sky. I picked at the cuticle of my thumb until it bled and then wrapped it in a tissue. Was it really possible that no one had any idea about what was happening? When it would it all end? Even the army spokesman admitted that he didn’t know how many terrorists had landed via the Indian Ocean, or if all the terrorists’ dinghies had been found.
Amit’s cell phone rang. He dropped it and swore as he picked it up. “I’ve been told that 200 hostages from Australia, Canada, the USA, Israel, France, and Germany, escaped through hotel windows, using ladders, very late last night,” Amit announced.
We stared at him hoping for news of the Holtzbergs. The furrows in his brow deepened. We were all thinking the same thing. Maybe Gabi and Rivka and baby Moshe had escaped too.
“No, nothing about Habad House,” Amit murmured as if reading our thoughts. He lowered his eyes to the floor and leaned against the doorframe. “The Indian police won’t let us near the place. I feel so helpless, so powerless.” He was twice the size of the rest of us.
The television went blank as he spoke. A siren wailed. The television burst back into life. A pale baby with a blank look on his face filled the screen.
“My god, that’s Moshe, the Holtzberg’s son, and his Indian nanny, Sandra.” The Consul flew out of her chair knocking over a cup of coffee. No one moved. On the street near the “Jewish House,” a bewildered Sandra stared at the cameras. Perspiration dripped down her face onto her beige shirt. Her hands shook and her lips quivered as she clung to the boy.
“I’m not knowing how I got him out of there,” Sandra panted. “There is so much shouting and shooting.”
Somehow, she had managed to pick him up off his mother’s chest, run down the stairs, hide in a stairwell, dash out of the front door, out the gate, and into an alley.
In the Consul’s living room there was huge relief. For a moment the atmosphere was defiant. Even some “high fives.” Maybe there was also hope for his parents. But my eyes filled with tears. I stared at the TV screen and wondered if I could ever find the courage to be so fearless.
“How on earth did Sandra manage to do that?” murmured the Israeli Consul.
Day 3: Israeli Consul’s Apartment
Habad House remained under siege. We couldn’t think of or talk about anything else. In the Consul’s living room the flat-screen television babbled on continuously amidst the endless comings and goings — Indian officials, security guards, and the Israeli Ambassador from Delhi. We were all riveted on the same scenes again and again. Especially those of the terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, caught on CCTV with his AK-47 at the Chhatraptati Shivaji train station.
Then images focused on Habad House. A helicopter flew above the building. Three Indian soldiers clung onto the rope that swung back and forth under the chopper and rappelled onto the flat roof. Was there any hope at all of finding the Holtzbergs alive?
As we’d suspected, the soldiers found it was far too late to rescue Gabi and Rivka. The young couple had been dead for hours, maybe even days. The Hevra Kadisha — a Jewish burial team — had already flown in from Israel to prepare the bullet-ridden bodies for burial. According to Jewish custom, every shred of flesh and bone would have to be carefully collected and buried together, ensuring the ritual cleansing of the body and respect for the dead.
Later that day I met a young local rabbi, Yitzhak, (not his real name) who’d assisted in the gruesome task. He was suffering from panic attacks after seeing Gabi and Rivka’s mutilated bodies in the Habad building.
The Consul knew that I’d trained as a psychologist and later a trauma therapist during the Yom Kippur War. She asked me if I would counsel him. Fluent in Hebrew, I was seen as the perfect candidate. I wasn’t sure I had the qualifications for the task, but here was at least one way I could help.
When I met Rabbi Yitzhak in the Israeli Consul’s apartment he was lying on his back on a bed in one of the kids’ bedrooms. He couldn’t stop trembling. Ultra- orthodox Jewish protocol forbids any physical contact between men and women so I sat down cross-legged on the floor next to him.
Rabbi Yitzhak rolled over on his left side to face me. His face was pale, and he did not make eye contact. Instead, unexpectedly, he thrust out his arm from under the traditional tasseled prayer shawl and grabbed my hand. His fingernails were gnawed to the quick.
“Please don’t leave me,” Yitzhak pleaded in Hebrew.
His clammy palm felt glued onto the back of my hand. Unaccustomed to any physical intimacy in a professional setting, I struggled to throw my awkwardness aside. I stared at the black yarmulke clipped to his hair and wondered how it must have been for him to have me — a woman — as a therapist. Perhaps he was too exhausted to care?
“Please, please stay with me,” he begged again. “Don’t leave me on my own. Every time I close my eyes all I can see are dry brown pools of blood on the floor and bits of skins splattered on the walls.”
Yitzhak gripped my hand as he pulled me towards him. Trickles of perspiration ran down my back. My whole world seemed upside down. Normally, it would be the rabbi’s job to counsel the members of his congregation and not the other way round. After all, how could I, a non-believer, be of any real support to a man of God?
I hoped he couldn’t sense my unease. All the professional trauma counseling skills I’d learned decades earlier seemed to evaporate. I felt he wanted more than I was capable of giving. But I knew that if I listened to what he’d seen, that would be a step in the right direction.
He described one gruesome detail after the other: chunks of hair chopped from Gabi’s beard lying on the stairs, a discarded Pepsi can dribbling on a
Siddur — a Jewish prayer book, bullet shells, smashed glasses, flies settling on a sneaker soaked in urine, ants crawling on half-eaten sandwiches on the kitchen floor, and wrappers from chocolate wafers covered with blood. I swallowed to stop myself from retching.
After all this, how could he possibly believe in the existence of a God who’d allowed this to happen? I struggled to comprehend how I might, through my atheist lens, counsel the traumatized young religious leader. Perhaps it was the sense of crisis in a world gone mad, but I realized I had to push my own beliefs aside, and see his shattered world. Immersed in his trauma, I struggled to keep my professional distance.
As he spoke, I put my free hand on top of Yitzhak’s. I wanted him to know I was there with him as he tried to come to terms with the savage murders. He didn’t blink or pull away from this improper conduct between men and women. I realized that solacing his pain was more important than all the religious laws we make.
“I can still smell the stench of their putrid flesh,” Yitzhak continued shakily. “You are the only person I can tell how scared I feel. No one else will understand that my lungs are still burning from that taste of hell.” He raised himself on one elbow and continued. “We also found the mangled bodies of four other Israeli visitors on the stairs. Blood everywhere.”
Whatever remaining religious boundaries there might have been between us finally dissolved as he talked. Yitzhak’s rigid body began to relax. He rolled onto his back, still holding my hand. When he recounted how the terrorists had defecated on the putrefying bodies, I cried and trembled along with him. Nothing had prepared me for this. Not my experiences in the emergency room in Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur War, not my work with families who had lost loved ones. Not even my own grief as a recent widow. All I could do was be there for Yitzhak, and this seemed to calm him, but my hand wouldn’t stop shaking. Finally, when Yitzhak started to doze off, I uncrossed my legs. He flinched. Half asleep he rolled over to check I was still there with him.
Yitzhak helped me realize that compassion knows no boundaries. His religious convictions no longer mattered to me. I was living with him all the way through his nightmare. I simply gave some comfort to a man whose friends had been dismembered, battered, and butchered. Yitzhak’s sweat mingled with mine, and his stale breath clung to my hair.
When regular and gentle snores filled the room, I stood up and walked down the stairs into the living room. Amit had an arm over another security officer’s shoulders. They looked scruffy and unshaven. I bummed a cigarette off the policeman guarding the front door and went out onto the balcony. I hadn’t smoked for decades and it tasted foul, but I inhaled a couple of deep breaths before I went back in — a futile attempt to calm down, and convince myself that we were safe.
Every so often someone pulled me into a corner to talk to me, but I had no advice to give. All I could do was listen and recognize how violated and fragile we were feeling. I wiped away tears, made endless cups of tea and coffee, smeared canned tuna on white bread, topped it with mayonnaise, and then sliced piles of sandwiches in half.
The Consul’s 3-year-old daughter sensed that she was in the middle of a crisis. To calm her, and probably myself, I helped her take a bath. The fragrant scent of soap replaced sweat and the suffocating air. It was a relief to be distracted. I wrapped her in a soft towel and also felt comforted. Wasn’t it always children who kept the world going round? Or so I thought until I was also asked to meet and counsel the little boy, Moshe, and his nanny, Sandra, who were staying at the apartment of the Consul’s Secretary.
Day 4: Home of the Israeli Consul’s Secretary
Moshe stood in the corner of a stuffy study. Fists clenched, hair matted, diaper heavy, T-shirt stained with blood. Walnut eyes dull, lifeless. He couldn’t and wouldn’t move. There was no laughter, no crying, no talking. Sandra, his rescuer, sat on her haunches beside him gazing at the baby boy. The baby who’d heard screams, wails, yells, cries; the baby who’d smelled blood, gunpowder; who’d seen terrorists fire guns and hurl hand grenades; who’d seen his parents collapse and go still. Baby Moshe who’d known horror, pain, anguish, shock, and trauma, and he was only two years old.
I crouched on the floor next to Sandra and rubbed her back.
“I don’t know, myself, how I did it,” Sandra said grabbing my forearm. “I just did it without thinking. Thanks to God, I got the boy. I only remember running and running and running. But just look at him. He is so scared from what he saw. Many bad thoughts also wandering constantly through my mind.” Sandra continued squatting. “This poor boy and his loving Mama.” She kept trying to rock Moshe in her lap.
Sandra was grateful that someone had taken the time to listen to her. She seemed to have been forgotten in the chaos. But Moshe didn’t forget her. He finally fell asleep in her arms. I wanted to wrap my arms around them both.
Moshe’s grandparents, Gabi’s mother and father, had arrived from Israel to collect their children for burial in the Holy Land. They were also Moshe’s official guardians but he refused to go near them. They sat on the leather sofa staring into space. They distanced themselves from me when I suggested they try to play with him. I ached to fill their hearts with some warmth. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t one of their ultra-orthodox clan. They probably sensed that I couldn’t identify with their claim that “it was all God’s will.” I wanted them to be there, with and for their grandson. I wanted them to sit on the floor with Moshe, talk to him, read him a story and coax him to eat and drink. A sandwich, a cookie, yogurt, some ice cream.
Perhaps I’d been too harsh on them. They had ended up unexpectedly with a grandson they hardly knew and had to come to terms with the brutal murder of their son and daughter-in-law. Perhaps they had no energy to try to play with Moshe, feed him, change him, or even to comfort him. I was relieved when Moshe’s grandparents finally agreed to take Sandra with them to Israel for an extended period. She was all Moshe had left.
The air-conditioner droned on. Eyelids drooped. Chatter ceased. I felt drained from hours of non-stop listening and counseling. I’m not sure where I found the emotional strength to deal with all the surrounding pain and tragedy. It was as if I’d detected a renewed sense of purpose and identity. A quest to find out why. Why me? Why us?
Even though I’d been nowhere near the attack at the time, I too felt extremely vulnerable, even shopping for food. And not surprising — the facts were grim. More than 168 innocent people had been killed, and hundreds more injured and unaccounted for. Among the dead were 138 Indians, including 17 policemen and National Security Guard, (NSG) army commandos, and 28 foreigners — Americans, Germans, Canadians, French, Italians, Dutch, Japanese, a Jordanian, Malaysian, Mauritian, Mexican, Singaporean and a Thai. An additional 27 other foreigners of different nationalities — Australia, USA, UK, Germany, Canada, Spain, Norway, Finland, Oman, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Jordan were injured during the horror of those November days.
“Mumbaikers” became one big family. Everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who’d been affected. We learned that nine of the terrorists associated with the Pakistani terror group had been killed by the Indian forces. Security cameras had captured a photograph of the lone survivor, Kasab, walking through Mumbai’s main railway station with his AK-47 assault rifle and a rucksack crammed with ammunition. Thankfully, he’d been captured. He became an enduring image of the attack.
Day 5: Mumbai Synagogue
A memorial service for Gabi and Rivka was held at the Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai. It was then I learned that Rivka was pregnant. I squeezed into a row packed with dignitaries and ordinary local people — Muslims and Christians as well as Jews. Rabbis, imams, priests, businessmen, schoolchildren, cleaners, shop owners, teachers, ambassadors, waiters, soldiers, nurses, doctors, photographers, and journalists. Towards the end of the service Moshe started calling for his mother. He wriggled and screamed, “Ima, Ima, Ima,” — the Hebrew for Mother — in the arms of the late couple’s cook. His cries lacerated my heart. Sandra wasn’t there to soothe him. She was completing the formalities for her Israeli tourist visa application. Moshe could not be consoled. His anguish rose to the top of the high domed ceiling, clinging to the blue and red stained glass windows. I couldn’t stop sobbing. Even the men had tears in their eyes. It was impossible to conceive that our God was listening.
The following day I met the family for the last time as they were leaving for the airport. Sandra’s dedication was remarkable. She left her adult sons behind to go and live in a strange land with a strange language, strange food, strange dress and a strange culture. Her only luggage was a small plastic bag containing a change of clothes.
Rivka and Gabi were buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, along with their six-month unborn child. Yitzhak stayed on in Mumbai, and we had several therapy sessions. I was the only outlet he had for his anguish. Newlywed, he was also deeply concerned for his wife who was four months pregnant. He couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder, waiting for another attack.
Life seemed to return to normal, but my colleagues and friends stared at strangers suspiciously. Hotels put up barricades, searched vehicles and guests bags. There were security checks at airports, cinemas, concerts, supermarkets, and restaurants. It took two weeks to get a new cell phone, and foreigners could not get a sim card for their cell phones without a police check. At work, all we could talk about was India’s 9/11. Even though the attack was over, we sat for hours every day glued to the television, watching the same scenes over and over and over again. There was little financial or emotional government support for locals who had lost breadwinners or limbs. The psychological scars were raw.
As the weeks went by I was haunted by Moshe’s empty eyes. When I closed my eyes at night I tried to see my own grandchildren’s radiant chocolate and saucer blue eyes. It was a struggle to find them. I hadn’t realized what a strain the past few weeks had been. I lay awake staring at the ceiling fan turning around and around and around, hoping it would hypnotize me to sleep. I tossed and turned, drenched with perspiration. A vibrant culture of energy, color, beauty, and warmth had been transformed into a land of sorrow and bewilderment. All that seemed to matter was hugging my own family.
Now I know that Moshe’s vacant eyes, wails of despair, and rigid body had shaken my belief that India might become my home for at least a few more years. Shortly after the attack I began planning to move once again, and this time, to become an integral part of my own family’s daily lives. In the midst of the horror, my company’s share price, profit margins, and the overall strategic direction seemed less relevant. Yet a silent bond of a shared traumatic experience bound my colleagues and me together. I couldn’t leave them in the lurch. But I knew I also needed to prepare myself for yet another move to another completely different city, Seattle, where my daughter and her family were living.
Sandra remained on in Israel where she was named an honorary citizen in recognition of her extraordinary courage. She works at an institution for physically and emotionally challenged children and visits Moshe on weekends. I often think of her and wonder what she’ll do when Moshe is older. Sandra has continued to remain an inspiration and a role model for me. I hardly knew her, but I believed she was selfless. She gave up so much to stand for what she believed: loyalty and love.
Five days before the fourth anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the lone captured terrorist, Kasab, was hanged for his role in the carnage. The long drawn-out trial was finally over. I hoped this might bring some sort of closure for families and friends of the victims. When I close my eyes, I can still visualize the blue wall in baby Moshe’s bedroom. His parents had marked several little pencil lines watching him grow. Thankfully, as a young boy, he is now living with Rivka’s parents, the Rosenbergs, in the north of Israel.
The Habad community from around the world took it upon themselves to finance the rebuilding of the destroyed center in Mumbai. Six years after the attack Habad House enjoyed a grand opening supporting the unshakeable belief that it would serve as a beacon of light to overcome evil.
Terrorism — whether in Israel, London, New York, or Mumbai yet again had affected the way I saw the world. It shook some of my beliefs and assumptions. The massacre in Mumbai and my conversation with Yitzhak had yet again destroyed the idea that there might be a safe home — anywhere. I’d finally come to grips with the concept of universal trauma. That what happened in Mumbai could happen anywhere to anyone. And that there was a life afterward — even if it was veering off at a completely different angle.
It was to be another year before I would be able to leave Mumbai, but Mumbai has never really left me.
Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches at Western Wyoming College. Rick is editor of the anthology ON FOOT: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, published in 2014 by Vishnu Temple Press in Flagstaff, and co-editor, with Peter Anderson, of Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon, published in 2015 by Lithic Press in Fruita, Colorado. His latest poetry collection is Ten Thousand Voices (Oakland: Littoral Press, 2014). “On Static Peak,” a short essay about a misadventure in Grand Teton National Park, can be found in the Watershed Review. For more info, see www.rickkempa.com.
Honing the Edge
I have fractured the ice where trail meets creek and plunged in shin-, knee-, and even thigh-deep. I have known the squish of water in the bottom of the boot, the sodden sock, the tortured toe.
I have bashed my head, bruised my elbow, scoured the skin from every limb, punctured my palm a hundred times.
Let us speak of the perils of the hearth: the singed eyebrows and charred flesh and scorched wool and broiled leather and even the jacket (on my back) in flames.
I have muddied the water I meant to drink. I have spilled the bottle I left uncorked. I have woefully misjudged the amount I need. I’ve drunk red water, yellow water, radioactive water, water suspiciously devoid of life, water thick with too much life. I have, through my drinking, shortened my life.
I have walked away from my walking stick. I have dropped my pack to find the trail and in so doing lost my pack. And oh how I have abused the map! I have taken the small and writ it large. I have seen the universe in a square-inch grid. I have been powerfully lost.
Yet never in a lifetime of putting one foot in front of the other have I been in danger not of my own making. Never was my distress not self-induced. In this world that bears no malice—if I am alert to it, if I am my own best self—I have never been anything less than safe.
When I share this anthem of self-sufficiency with my daughter Claire, who has come home from college for a visit, she says, “Well, that’s rather presumptuous of you.”
I protest. To me it seems an obvious truth that the world is friendly ground, or at least a neutral one, a place of no harm, if I am what I should be.
“What about lightning?” she counters.
“Stay off the ridge.”
“What about blizzards?”
“Sure, the world tests you. But be prepared. Seal the seams of the tent. Wait it out and walk on out.”
“Injury? You’re going to take it upon yourself that injuries don’t happen, that they have to be your fault? What about your back?” She stares down at me scornfully, triumphantly.
Ah yes. I have been lying on this living room floor for the past two days, periodically easing to my left where the pills and water bottle are perched, ever since “doing something to my back” while hiking on Comb Ridge in Southern Utah with my old high school buddy Jim. Nothing happened in the usual sense. I just took off up a steep slope at full speed, wanting to prove something to myself, I guess, or maybe to Jim, who was bragging that his usual pace is five or six miles an hour no problem, which is bullshit, even though he has the longest legs of anyone I know. It must’ve been the impact of boot on rock that did me in—we were climbing an immense, amazing sandstone slab. When I came back down the other side and sat on a boulder by a creek, there it was, uh oh, a sharp pain in the lower right, and it’s been naproxen and ibuprofen ever since, a nice little rotation to keep the machine in motion during the second half of that day’s hike, on the 500-mile drive home to Rock Springs, and in my delicate little movements around the house ever since.
“Okay, so I should have stretched,” I say to Claire. “I shouldn’t have headed up that dome like a maniac. I should have…acted my age. I will put this on myself.”
“You are not in control. Face it. How about that time you drove off the road and nearly killed us?”
“Well, I wasn’t in control then, but I should’ve been.”
“You had a fever of 104. You weren’t yourself.”
“That’s no excuse…”
She is genuinely angry. Suddenly I realize this is not just an exercise in rhetoric for her. There’s something at stake here. If she lets my thesis stand—that one must always “be oneself,” and “in control,” then she too is culpable for those worst days of her life, when her world went wrong for her, and I, her dad, am saying so.
I backpedal. “You know, I don’t mean to generalize about this. I’m just trying out a thought…”
But I am talking to her back. And of course I do mean to generalize. Otherwise, what’s the point? Hardly any of us are sufficiently in control and attentive, and who can say otherwise?
Another hike, a year later, in Grand Gulch Primitive Area, solo this time. I begin my walk with a mantra: Be deliberate. The words steady me as the trail steepens, and I adjust my center of balance to the weight on my back. My mantra focuses my awareness on the prickly pear that shimmers beside me when I rest in the shade of a juniper. “Aha, you little sucker. You won’t get a piece of me!” A low branch tangles with the top of my pack and yanks me backward awkwardly. “Enough of that,” I chide myself. “Be deliberate.”
Late in the day, I take my filter and empty bottles to a waterhole on the canyon bottom. Clad only in shorts and boots, I move in a crouch through the brambles along the water’s foamy edge, angling for the best access to the deepest part of the pool. There it is, a spit of sand about three feet beyond a mudflat. Still looking down, I plant my feet, summon strength to my legs, launch myself forward—and am stopped mid-flight by the jagged edge of a time-hardened cottonwood snag driven against my chest. It is as if I have thrown myself upon a sword. The deadwood strikes my ribcage on the right side and does not give. I am flung back into the mud and sit there, stunned. Weirdly, I shout out, “Wounded!”—a baleful cry that countermands my precious mantra. The sound is quickly muffled by the cliffs.
This may qualify as an emergency. Abandoning my pump and bottles in the sand, I wobble back to camp and assess the damage. The surface wound is not so bad, an abrasion an inch or so in width. More frightening is the quick swelling and purpling of the surrounding skin. I lie on my back and concentrate on breathing. Pain flares with the smallest intake. I struggle to a sitting position and think I hear a frothing sound within. This of course does wonders for my imagination, and I fast-forward a week or so to when my bloated, buzzard-torn body will finally be found. Turning away from that drama, I breathe and listen and breathe and conclude finally that the frothing has subsided, if indeed it was ever there. After a while, I set about the time-honored task of masking symptoms, burrowing in my pack for my vial of pills. At night, seeking comfort, I apply a sticky hot patch to the wound, but that burns like hell and I tear it off. Finally I take a muscle relaxant—one of those little gold pills I hoard—not because it will help the healing, just so I can sleep.
Morning brings an evil mix of stiffness and pain, but nothing worse. That’s good news. So I will be slowed, but not stopped. I add a couple of pills to the breakfast fare. I find new ways to don and shed my pack. After each stop, I walk with my hand pressed to my swollen side, which provides a measure of comfort until the pain is subsumed by motion’s full-tilt.
The what ifs?—that swarm of biting flies—assail me as I walk. What if the snag had caught me in my left side, right above the heart? Or in the unprotected gut? Or in the eye, for that matter? I shudder, live the thought so thoroughly that I cry out. I hold to my mantra ever more zealously, as if it were some kind of shield.
A little less hubris is always in order. I begin to work out the truth of what my daughter tried to make me see: no matter how cautiously we proceed, we are not ultimately in control. Shit happens, and will continue to happen. Through due diligence, I can minimize it, but I can never eliminate the chance of it. A storm might set in, requiring from the machine of the body an extreme endurance. Or, like a rubber band gone brittle in a desk drawer, the old body might just give out, as happened to my best hiking buddy Bruce, who discovered in the last waking moment of his life that he had a bum heart.
As youths, there are no limits to the risks we take. And there are no limits, we believe, to the exertions we are capable of—or at least we have never found them. Walk twelve parched miles of the Tonto Trail in blazing heat, and then climb out of the Grand Canyon? No prob. Hike all night if daylight fails? Sure thing. At the end of the day—or the night—we are still standing.
The problem for youth is the invincibility complex—no risk is too great to warrant turning around. Yes, I will step off the cliff. The finger- and toe-holds will appear as needed, and the rock will not give way. Or: Yes, I will step into this river in flood; I am stronger than any old current. Years ago I knew a guy whose thirst for thrills was legendary. Gordon was the one who, if we took the kids to the park on Sundays, could not stand around with the rest of us, pushing the swings and shooting the breeze. No, he would shimmy up the metal framework of the swing set and walk back and forth along the top like a tightrope artist, while we rolled our eyes and while the children, peering up from within their moving boxes, shrieked. Not much extreme risk here; if he fell, Gordon would at least land on his feet like a cat. His passion for kayaking was another matter. He liked to haul his boat on his back up mountainsides in search of the steepest and wildest chute of all. He found it all right, or rather it found him and kept him. I, and others, have never forgiven him.
The problem for older voyagers, on the other hand—as I am becoming progressively more aware as I navigate the decade of my fifties—is resistance to the fact of waning vitality. Many a middle-aged man’s brave bones have been picked clean in places where, in retrospect, they ought not have been.
And so the catalog of dangers is complete: extreme weather and system failure and foolhardiness of youth and frailty of age and dumb old human error. The fact remains that in any worthwhile enterprise, there must always be risk: trails unforgiving of missteps, the chance of a snake coiled on the ledge or of a cloudburst that will wash out the return route. Risk is wholesome, and it is freeing; to be fully alive requires it.
We try too hard to keep each other safe, and in so doing scare each other away from the front lines of life. The standard response if I divulge a plan for a solo hike is, What? You’re going alone? But aren’t you afraid? It gets so that I don’t even tell most people I am going. Sometimes even the Park Service traffics in fear. My permit for a canyon hike on the Tonto Trail from the South Kaibab to the Grandview one recent spring contained the note, “EXCESSIVELY DANGEROUS HIKE! Hiker insisted on itinerary!”—the official government stamp of disapproval. When I saw this, I looked again at the map, thought back to my last hike there years before. To be sure, the region would be relatively unpeopled and perhaps a bit on the dry side, although in early March that wouldn’t be a problem the way it was in high summer. Nor would there be any danger of getting lost; like all canyon trails, the Tonto has only grown more distinct over the decades.
The danger, I could only conclude that the rangers concluded, was that I was not sharing the risk, dividing it by two the way one carves a loaf of pumpkin bread and puts half in each pack. Say there are two of us. It is true that one can keep the other in check if a burst of foolhardiness overcomes him. But this is what inner voices are for. Besides, one headstrong fool can just as easily lead another into trouble. If injury occurs, one can indeed leave the other in a shady spot with half the loaf and embark on a super-charged rescue mission. But is this any less risky? The rescuer will move too fast and too long in the high heat; fatigue will cloud perspective, and the danger will be multiplied.
If mountain man Hugh Glass could drag his grizzly-mauled carcass two hundred miles to a settlement, if Aron Ralston could grit his teeth and remove the trapped hand from his torso, I could outwait an ankle sprain and in the meantime, more than ever, get what I came for—time for perception, time for reflection, time to step out of time and simply be. And if—worst case—it were my time to embark on a journey to that other place, would it really be better to have someone hovering above me, squeezing my hand, putting his ear up to my mouth? What he would interpret to be my death throes would likely be a final agitation: Get out of my way! I can’t see the sky!
On the Nankoweap Trail in the easternmost part of the Grand Canyon, there is a fifteen-foot stretch known as “The Scary Spot.” Bloggers cite it as the most exposed bit of trail in the canyon, “trouble waiting to happen.” Some hikers have been said to turn back rather than risk it. You Tube videos depict others gingerly crossing it; heavy breathing is in the air. Even Harvey Butchart, the dean of canyoneers whose fearlessness was the stuff of lore, wrote, “a man feels like creeping on all fours” across it. In the several years that I dreamed of and then planned for a Nankoweap hike, this massive mythology weighed upon me mightily. Twice, I cancelled scheduled hikes because I “did not feel up to it,” “it” being the image seared in my mind of a slanted, six-inch-wide gash of pebbles and loose earth, with cliffs above and cliffs below.
The entire Nankoweap Trail, I finally found out, was loose, steep, narrow and cliffy—in short, something that required one’s attention. I moved slowly, taking care to firmly plant my boots and hiking stick with each step. I didn’t look up unless I stopped. And all the while, as I threaded my way across the cliff-face, in and out the big bays, I was expecting something of a different magnitude to open out underfoot, something infamously treacherous. Eventually, I dropped my pack at a promontory to check the map. To my astonishment, I found that I had traversed “The Scary Spot” without even knowing! Here is another, truer way to put it: I had indeed passed a particular place on the trail upon which a great deal of energy has been lavished, but the “The Scary Spot,” in all its shimmering intensity, resided mainly in my head. Other hikers of the Nankoweap have been startled by the same discovery, and by the conclusion that results: Fear is something one can choose to own or disown.
The matter of risk is something different. It seems to exist both as a subjective event—something one weighs, accepts a measure of, aims to manage—and as an attribute of the real world. Who will deny that certain places at certain times hold inherent risk? To do so is to disown one’s life. On the Nankoweap hike, swayed perhaps by the warning on my permit—“Hiker advised of aggressiveness of itinerary & associated risks”—I took with me for the first time a satellite Spot device. Its logistics are simple: at any given moment you point it at the sky, press a button, and your designated watchperson—for me it was my wife, at whose request I rented it—receives an email that says, “I’m okay,” and that gives your exact location on a map. If you run into trouble, you simply press the SOS button, kick back, and await the rescuers. The arrangement was a comfort for her, and for that I liked it. But on the whole I valued it a good deal less than she. When I go into the backcountry, I like the thought that no one knows where I am except me. I like knowing that I am, and must be, self-sufficient. It hones the edge. I doubt that having this device made me any less deliberate in my actions, but I do know it made me feel less free. Each time I pointed it skyward and told the world that “I’m okay,” my cocoon of presentness was disrupted, my solitude compromised.
I am fairly sure I know what my daughter, direct as ever, would say about this stance: “Get over your stupid head trip. It smacks of foolhardiness.” And I am fairly sure that, with just a little more grumbling, this is the least I can do.
At what point does caution become constriction? Where does hardiness end and foolhardiness begin? It is our duty to ourselves to discover what our limits are and work to expand them—or at least push gently against them. It is our moral duty to encourage the same in others. This is the antidote to being hemmed in by the narrow limits others will set for us by default, if we allow them to. When wide-wandering Odysseus was threading the straits between Scylla and Charybdis—the one a monster poised to ambush those who strayed too close, the other a whirlpool that might swallow the would-be wayfarer—he steered his craft closer to the former, judging that action, whatever its risk, was better than the threat of being held in one place forever. So too must we steer our crafts.
Melissa Grunow‘s memoir, Realizing River City, is forthcoming from Tumbleweed Books. An award-winning author, her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Limestone, Temenos, and Yemassee, among many others. She is also a live storyteller and regularly competes in NPR’s Moth StorySLAM in Detroit. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from National University and an MA in English from New Mexico State University. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter at @melgrunow.
Woch nan dlo pa konnen doule woch nan soley.
Translation: A rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun.
I was in a lounge chair next to the pool while my brothers took turns jumping flips off the diving board when my grandma walked out the back door, shuffling her legs forward at the hips. She wore a black-one piece black bathing suit even though Grandma never went in the pool, and she served my dad and my then-boyfriend each a Manhattan. We asked her repeatedly to sit down, insisting that we could get our own refills. But everyone was always a guest in my grandma’s house, so she waited on us in her bathing suit as though it were perfectly normal for her to do so.
In a few minutes, I would go inside to help her prepare lunch: cold-cut sandwiches, deviled eggs, chips with French onion dip, tuna salad, and grapes. We would eat on the patio and stay out all afternoon until the mosquitos chased us inside. I hadn’t broken the news to my family yet that I had become a vegetarian, so when it came time to eat, I picked at the food, blamed my fullness on all the snacks served earlier, and waited for Grandma to bring out the watermelon.
It was July, and we were celebrating her eightieth birthday.
In the fall, as my grandpa’s physical limitations and Alzheimer’s progressed, they would decide—or perhaps Grandma would decide—that they wouldn’t drive to Florida for the winter anymore, the first Christmas in as long as I could remember that they stayed in Michigan.
Grandpa wasn’t the only one who was changing, however. Grandma’s curves straightened out as she thinned down, and we blamed the stress of being the sole caregiver for my grandfather, who was struggling more and more each day with communication and physical mobility.
What she didn’t know, what none of us knew, is that she had leukemia.
The drill head squeals against the misguided screw. There is a collective groan from the men around me who crouch on the ground and hold the metal frame together.
Miguelson pokes his finger into the air and rotates it counter-clockwise.
“Take it out?” I guess as I drag my arm across my forehead to catch the sweat building on my face.
“Oui,” he says. “Take it out.”
I push the reverse mechanism on the drill. The screw pops out of the hole and falls to the ground.
Miguelson offers it to me.
I reposition the screw and try again, and this time secure the two panels together.
“Good.” Miguelson smiles and nods toward the next hole further down the partition as crewmen scramble to line up the holes. I’m among a small group of Americans who are assembling frames for homes that will be relocated to various villages outside of Les Cayes, Haiti, as part of a grant for Port-au-Prince refugees who fled the country’s capital after the 2010 earthquake. I’m a white American woman volunteering on a crew of black Haitian men. Somehow I’m holding the drill and leading the project while the other members of my volunteer group have each gone to work on a separate project with a separate crew. I’m sweating through a layer of bug spray, sunscreen, and every piece of fabric I’m wearing while working in a field under Caribbean sun. The men are clad in t-shirts and jeans, and accustomed to working outdoors in the heat. They’re sweating, too, but barely.
We’re spread out on the grass next to a row of shipping containers on the grounds of Pwoje Espwa, or Project Hope, a village of sorts that grew from an orphanage of 650 abandoned children. Local children attend their elementary and secondary school, and villagers benefit from the giant outdoor kitchen that serves three thousand meals a day. There is also a medical building staffed by Doctors without Borders programs, wood and metal shops where young men learn skills to earn money for themselves and their families, a small farm, and a guest house called The Quad where volunteers pay a modest fee to eat and sleep for the duration of their stay.
The men on the crew work for Virginia-based Shelter2Home, an organization that is under contract to build more than thirty houses throughout southern Haiti for those families most in need. The crew are local men trained and paid by Shelter2Home to build these houses, whose frames lock together like giant erector sets, and are then covered with mesh and stucco. The homes are designed to be resistant to severe wind and rain, rot, and infestation, all shelter threats in Haiti.
A bell rings and children dressed in pink and white gingham shirts and green shorts or skirts gather around our work site and watch us. Children in Haiti are required to wear uniforms to school, and the Americans call this particular elementary school the Watermelon Patch because of their attire. The children call us over to them, “Please! Please! Photo! Photo!” they say, those who aren’t too shy, at least. I pose for pictures with them, and one girl gets trampled as they scramble around me like puppies, tugging on my clothes and hugging my limbs. They are desperate for affection, and I can’t keep up with their desire. When the bell rings again, I pry them from me, point to their school, and shout firmly, “Au revoir!” to direct them back inside.
I spent a week with my grandparents when I first moved back to Michigan after graduate school. I didn’t have a job yet, so I drove two hours to their house, where I had my own room and I could lounge in the sun by the pool reading books, dipping my feet in the water to keep cool. I dangled my feet over the edge of the pool, and watched the blue water shimmer around my painted toes. My legs were thinner than usual—as was the rest of me—but they were stark white, always refusing to tan even a little in the summer.
I looked beyond my toes and saw the drain in the center of the deep end of the pool. When I was younger, I would try to swim all the way to the bottom, the pressure increasing on my skull the lower I sank. I would slowly exhale to get closer and closer to the bottom, and by the time I reached the grate, I would be completely out of air reserve. My cousins and I would play a game to see who could sit cross-legged on the floor of the deep end. Kristin could always do it. I was too afraid. Sitting on the edge of the pool, I wondered what it would be like to get to the bottom and to open my eyes, nose, and mouth, and take in water instead of air. I wondered what it really meant to drown.
When I stopped moving my legs, I could see my reflection in the water. The older I got, the more I looked like my grandmother when she was young.
We fly from Detroit to Miami and from Miami to Port-au-Prince, where a hired driver takes us to the Tortug Airport. From there, we are given hand-written boarding passes for a flight to Les Cayes. Our plane sits no more than 18 people and flies so close to the ground that I get to watch the Haitian countryside roll out in front of me. Beyond the mountains, I see more mountains, greenery, and clear water. No evidence of the country’s poverty or corruption or great suffering. Just paradise.
A driver meets the six of us volunteer builders—Christine, Margaret, Darryl, Michael, Dominic, and me—at the airport with a car meant to seat four. The ride is scenic, yet cramped and bumpy. Men, women, and children stare as we drive by. The children wave and shout. There are tin shacks that say “bank” on them along the way, but I’m told they are really casino stands for the lottery that is impossible to win. “It’s the government’s way of ripping off the poor,” Christine says. This is her second time in Les Cayes to work with the local construction crew, and she frequently offers quips about the living conditions and corruption.
Judex is a former Espwa orphan who finds out The Quad has visitors. When I speak with him, I don’t need to slow down or choose simpler words. His English is self-taught and flawless. He speaks just as I do with a nasally Midwestern American accent and an adult’s vocabulary. “It’s how I will live,” he says.
He offers himself as a translator for twenty dollars a day. We decline, hoping to make do for a week of volunteering with one of us speaking broken high school French and the Haitians knowing enough English that we can assemble panels and install doors without compromising the building’s integrity. We communicate on grunts and motions and smiles. Everyone is unnaturally polite and patient with us. Haiti is a happy country, and if the crewmen don’t want us there, they sure don’t let on.
My grandparents came to visit me my first semester in college. After dinner, they took me to the casino where they weren’t sure if I needed to be 18 or 21 years old to get in, but we walked right past the security without alerting them enough to check my ID.
Scenes from movies came to life in front of me. The bright colors; the shiny chrome; the unremitting dinging and ringing of slot machines. My grandparents were seasoned gamblers and showed me around the floor. They gave me five dollars and showed me how to play roulette and the slots. I watched as men and women of all ages and health conditions plunk down stacks of bills or piles of chips or feed coin after coin into the machines. I wanted the feeling of success, of gathering my winnings and running out the door, and into the evening light.
I lost the money within minutes and shrugged as my grandpa laughed and reminded me that gambling was just that—a gamble.
“Now, don’t tell your parents that we brought you here,” Grandma said. She set her lips in a tight line on her face as the flashing lights from a nearby game danced in her eyes. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
On our first day of work, the six of us walk through what can only resemble a jungle from my city-minded perspective, to a two-room house that’s already been framed and covered in stucco. We’re met by Pierre Claude, a Haitian crew leader, and some of his men, to install entryway doors that are contractor-grade and shipped from the U.S. The house has two entrances and there are more than ten people trying to help install the doors. They don’t need me. I stand in the front room and watch, wondering why I’m here and how I’m going to contribute, when a woman hands me her baby through the frameless window.
Pierre Claude turns to me and smiles. “This is her house,” he says, nodding to the baby.
“Wellbene,” the mother says through gold fillings, pointing to the baby. “Wellbene.” The child is quiet in my arms, nearly expressionless unless I make cooing noises, and then she giggles and smiles, the mother smiling, too. I try to ask the men how old she is, but they don’t understand my question. That, or they don’t know how to answer. The language barrier divides us.
As my grandmother’s life approached its end, I reached out to Edwin, a man who would never be my boyfriend because he was a bit of a mystic, an overgrown lost boy, a misguided hippie, and a broken-hearted. He teetered on the line between alone and lonely. He was a genius and clueless, a connector who struggled to communicate. He was emotionless and full of emotion, fascinated and disinterested.
Edwin lived in a realm of universal energy, a space of love, truth, and healing, and he tried to get me to live there, too.
“My grandma is dying,” I said. I called him from my bedroom in my apartment, face down on the mattress, unsuccessfully trying to cry. We hadn’t seen each other or spoken in months, yet he was the only person who could crack me open so that I could mourn.
“Completely surrender yourself to this moment.” Edwin’s argument was that when you surrender, you’re allowing the release of all things you want to control. “Love,” he said. “Don’t grieve. Just love.”
Edwin said he had been in a dark place. That he missed me. That he hadn’t met anyone like me since our brief affair had come to an end a few months prior. He said our connection couldn’t be matched.
“And plan to stay the night,” he said after calling me up and inviting me over for dinner.
I accepted his invitation. I couldn’t save my grandma, but I could try to save Edwin.
In the end, I failed them both.
“Melissa, there’s one next to your head.”
I open my eyes, and my ears slowly adjust to the whirring of a large industrial fan propped up in the corner of the room. I’m lying under a screened window and a thin sheet. The fan had cooled the night just enough for me to fall into a sound sleep, despite the heavy humidity in the air.
I fold forward, crawl to the foot of the cot and stand up. It isn’t until that moment that I am actually awake enough to realize that Margaret, my roommate and fellow volunteer, is standing next to me with a flashlight in one hand and a flip-flop in another. It’s our first night in Haiti.
“There’s a what next to my head?”
Margaret hands me the flashlight. “Here,” she says. “Look. It’s on your bag.”
My duffle bag is on the floor next to the cot, and sprawled on the side is a spider.
“My god,” I say. “It’s the size of a Frisbee.”
Grandma couldn’t drive anymore; not for long periods of time, anyway. So I called in sick to spend the day driving my grandpa to doctor’s appointments, run errands, and buy their groceries. I put gas in their van knowing the tank would likely be just as full on my next visit. I was working two jobs, and for that reason, didn’t have time to go up and help, aside from that one day when I hoisted my grandpa in and out of the car, my grandma nagging him the whole time to adjust his shirt, pull up his pants, stand up, sit down, step closer, and don’t go too far.
My grandpa died first. A heart attack, Dad told me. Alone in his room, he was found by an orderly at the nursing home where we moved him after my grandma became too weak to care for him. At the funeral, I sat in the fifth row and cried quietly but hard, cousins and siblings piling into the rows around me. I wouldn’t look at any of them, just at the floor and at my niece who was too young to know not to laugh, who didn’t understand loss. My grandma had told me not to cry, not be sad. She spoke through a white mask while seated in a wheelchair, barely healthy enough to not be lying in a hospital bed. Months later I would wonder why I cried so much at my grandpa’s funeral, and not a single tear at my grandma’s. No, at her funeral, I half-carried, half-dragged my thin sister to her seat, holding her tightly, knowing her grief had overcome her, wishing I had someone when I was the one who needed to be carried.
Today is my ten-year wedding anniversary. Or at least it would be if I were still married. Instead, I am five years divorced and in another country while my ex-husband is in Utah doing whatever it is that ex-husbands do.
The volunteers and a few crewmen ride in the back of a pickup truck with two doors propped up between us and speed down a dirt road into a neighboring village. We are headed to a house that will belong to a young woman who lost her leg in the earthquake.
When we arrive, the woman shouts greetings to us in Kreyol—Haitian Creole—the crewmen shouting back at her. She hobbles over to us and kisses my face, leaning in on her crutches, as one of the children wraps his arms around my thigh and giggles. Some of the men unload the doors from the pickup truck. A quick measurement tells us that we need to clear the frames of screw heads and additional mesh. We use whatever tools we can find: rocks for hammers and our keys as pliers since there are not enough tools to go around. At one point, I use the bottom of my metal water bottle as a chisel and hit it with a rock. Pierre Claude laughs at me, but the technique works, so he nods and moves on to the other door frame. It’s another hot day and one of the crewmen offers to take over for me when I pause to fan my T-shirt out. I’m grateful to have a break.
Children from the village are crowding the crew, so I take them a few yards from the house and teach them hand-clapping games and Ring Around the Rosie. One of them is wearing tights for pants, another just a cloth diaper, and another a matching tank top and shorts set that should belong to a young boy, but is worn by a little girl. None of them are wearing shoes except the girl with the tights. When they get bored with clapping and skipping in a circle, they take turns clutching my hands and climbing up the front of my body then flipping backwards, landing on the ground, a game I used to play with my dad in my grandma’s pool when I was young.
When Grandma was initially diagnosed with leukemia, she was given six months to live. She made it almost two years because it took that long for her body to take over her spirit.
“I’m not afraid to die,” she told me once on the telephone as I drove the hour from my day job to my evening job, negotiating traffic and accepting her acceptance. “I just don’t want my mind to go first. Don’t let that happen, Okay? I want to know who I am and where I am at all times.”
In the end, her mind stayed sharp, just like she wanted. She contracted pneumonia, fluid built around her heart, and she couldn’t get enough oxygen on her own. Her body deflated and drowned itself in a hospital bed, my dad and his brother by her side.
I’m blan, or white. A foreigner. There is a Haitian proverb, Milat pov se neg, eg rich se milat, which translates to, “A poor mulatto is black, a wealthy black is mulatto.” Race and wealth are positively correlated in Haiti. A white woman, an American woman with a fleshy physique like me, is a prize in a crane machine, and the men all seem to line up with a pocket full of quarters.
Judex tells me, “I’ve always wanted to try white.” He’s nineteen. I’m approaching thirty. I turn away, embarrassed that he is so brazen.
Michele is a crewman who wants to bed me. “Maleesa,” he says to me, my name a magical word in his mouth, “I need you. I need you tonight.”
Kevins is a vakabon, a former street kid. He often works by himself as the others see him as a hoodlum or a freeloader. He doesn’t care. He hugs me tightly and flashes a peace sign when we pose for a picture together.
Fritznel tells Miguelson that he loves me, and Miguelson translates.
I shake my head.
“What?” Miguelson asks. “You don’t like black?”
I immediately think of my grandmother who would answer for me in a situation such as this. “I like black just fine,” I say. “But I’m going back to America in two days.”
Legoute introduces himself to me as Son Son, a common nickname. We talk, smile, even flirt for three days while assembling wall panels together. On the last day I give him a bracelet I had made for him with “Son Son” stitched on it. I show him the one I had made for myself with my own name on it and say, “See? So you will remember me.”
He hands me his bracelet back and tugs on the one on my wrist.
“You want to trade?”
He nods. “Your name. On my heart.” He gives me his phone number and requests that I call him. “I want to have your words,” he says.
They call me a lespri blan, or White Spirit. “They have never seen a woman work the way you do. They’re basically calling you a freak of nature. It’s a compliment,” their foreman tells me.
No matter their English skill level, they all ask me the same question, “When will you return to Haiti?” Always when, when, when, because once you have Haiti in your heart, you will find a way, and a reason, to go back.
My cousin Heather picked through my grandma’s closet after she died and stacked a huge pile of clothes on the bed to take home with her, while her mother—my aunt Carol—sorted through piles of my grandma’s jewelry, all of us still dressed in our funeral clothes. I sat in my grandma’s bedroom and watched them, wondering how it was so easy for them to collect her belongings for themselves so soon.
My uncle told me to take the Asian-inspired table with the peacock and bamboo stalks painted on it that my grandma promised to me during a conversation while she was sick in the hospital.
“It’s that one you said you liked,” she had reminded me. “The one we used to have at the house in Florida.” It had been twelve years since I said I mentioned liking the table. Twelve years, and she made absolute sure that everyone knew I was to have it when she died. Heather could have the clothes, the TV in the den, and anything else she picked off that day. The table was my grandma’s legacy to me.
We arrive at Dan’s Creek, a resort in Port-Salut, on our last day in Haiti after a week of installing entryway doors and assembling frames for new houses that the local crew will finish on their own. While waiting for our lunch to be served on the outdoor patio we drink Prestige and go swimming in the warm ocean, and the sun reflects light in all directions for miles. The resort is positioned at the top of a rocky hill, and the only way to get to the water is to climb down stairs and ladders or to jump from a cliff that overhangs the ocean.
Christine and Margaret run and jump into the water without hesitation, not at all intimidated by the twenty-foot drop. I am worried about rocks and heights, and scared for absolutely no reason. When I finally get the courage to jump, the water hits me hard, and I sink to the bottom, my feet brushing against the gravelly sand, the bandana once covering my hair now floating out to sea. I expel the air from my lungs, air bubbles floating up from my lips, and try to sit at the bottom. The water is too buoyant, and it doesn’t let me do more than kneel. I can feel the sun, even on the ocean floor, and the water pressure compresses into my body. I linger, I let my lungs plead for a moment, and then I kick my feet, spread the water with my arms above my head, and take in air when I surface. I make my way to the beach to climb the stairs, walk the plank, and jump again.
Sandell Morse’s work has appeared in numerous publications including, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, the New England Review, Fourth Genre and Ascent. Her essay, “Brown Leather Satchel,” won second place in the 2015 Tiferet nonfiction contest, while “Hiding” was a notable essay listed in Best American Essays 2013, and “Houses” was nominated for Best of the Net 2014 and a Pushcart Prize. Other awards come from Press 53, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, among others. She has been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Morse holds an MA in English with a concentration in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire and an MALS with a concentration in the humanities from Dartmouth College. Morse serves on the boards of The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. She is an avid skier, hiker and dog lover, and she lives and writes on the coast of Maine. Her website is: sandellmorse.com
I’d been hiking Mount Willard, a small outcropping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Clouds hung low; rain threatened. I hiked often and always alone, but not in rain if I could help it. The few hikers I’d seen were all heading down as I headed up. Still, I lingered at the top, standing inside white mist. I loved the stillness of these peaks, the timeless quality of the air. Solid rock under my feet. A couple emerged from the trail. No longer alone, I headed down.
Near the end of the trail, I stopped at a narrow, shallow stream. A crowd had gathered. I saw immediately they were ultra-Orthodox Jews, men with peyot, side locks, wearing yarmulkes, black trousers, long sleeved white shirts and slippery leather-soled shoes, women in long skirts and long sleeved blouses, buttoned high at their necks. The children’s clothing mimicked the adults’ dress, all on a hot damp August day. Groups of Orthodox Jews were a common sight in these mountains. In Bethlehem, a nearby town, an inn on the main street uses Hebrew letters and advertises kosher food, and certain motels provide rooms for prayer. Truly, Bethlehem with its concentration of ultra-Orthodox is an anomaly in northern New Hampshire, and this has been the case for generations.
I surmised two young families in this group, along with a patriarch. Perhaps a grown brother and sister, now with children of their own, their father, and their spouses. I counted eight children. A little girl with pigtails gave me a big smile. Then, she stared. At what? My wrinkled face? My bare arms? The open neck of my shirt? I was an older woman hiking alone, and suddenly, I was aware of how she must see me, immodest and out of place. I looked away.
In the middle of the stream, his feet planted on rocks, a young father held his young son’s hand. The father had flung a towel around his shoulders, and the way he wore it, well, it looked like a tallit, prayer shawl. The boy, a child about four, tottered. Watching intently, the grandfather called encouragement. “Good. Very good.”
As the child’s foot reached for a wet log, I gasped. The grandfather looked my way. Then, I blurted. “Oh, that will be slippery.”
But the older man had already stepped forward to reach for the child’s hand. Then, turning to me, he said, “I’m sorry we are keeping you.”
His tone was warm, his face soft and kind. I wanted to declare my kinship, to say to him, “I’m Jewish like you.”
But I wasn’t Jewish like him or like the women in his group. That week, the ultra-Orthodox had been in the news, a show on “This American Life” about an Orthodox takeover of a school board in East Ramapo, New York. True, the board was elected, democratically, but those elected and running a public school district were Hassidim who sent their children to private Jewish schools, and they had bankrupted the public schools, dramatically. Another article in the New York Times cited an Orthodox population boom in all of New York, city and state, particularly among Hassidim whose stands on abortion, on the role of women, and on Middle East politics were generally conservative and offensive to my ardent liberal principals. I try to be fair-minded, but I have trouble mustering understanding for any closed community.
If I offered my hand in friendship to this kind man, he would recoil. I’d had just such an experience in Jerusalem years ago, and, now, at the stream, memory rose from a hidden fold of my brain. I was once again a Jewish woman in my mid fifties, ignorant of the Orthodox prohibition against touch, and offering my hand to a young Orthodox man. He held his arms tightly to his sides and stepped back. My fingers hung in the soft air. I lowered my hand, lowered my gaze, and I felt ashamed. I didn’t know why.
I am the kind of Jew who chooses her rituals as if selecting from a smorgasbord. I light candles on Friday night—but not always. I fast on Yom Kippur—usually. I don’t belong to a synagogue. Yet, in the past I have belonged, depending on whether or not I liked the rabbi. I may belong again. Who knows? I prepare a Passover Seder for family and friends—religiously.
The Torah does not forbid a handshake, a rabbi friend of mine said. The prohibition comes from rabbinic tradition, which is commentary. This rule of a man not touching a woman who is not his wife was meant to protect him from his Yetzer HaRa, evil inclination or base animal instinct. The interdiction is against men, but I was the one who felt shame that day in Jerusalem—as if something in my essence had been tainted. This shifting of blame from perpetrator to victim was an old story. My father used to tell me to come home before dark. I must not be late. If I found myself alone in the dark—well, whatever happened to me would be, he said, “Your own damn fault.” Those words, “whatever happened,” were code for rape. My fault. Bad. Evil.
At the stream, the grandfather let go of the child’s hand. He and I were of a certain age, both grandparents, both concerned about that child. Was it the grandmother in me who wanted kinship with this group? The Jew in me? The grandfather nodded as if to thank me, a second time. He really was a nice man. This time, I was the one holding my arms closely at my sides. I didn’t want to. I wanted to extend my hand in amity, but sometimes, life does not give us a choice.
The children bounded off, the adults following. I lifted my eyes from their backs and watched the stream, clear shallow water skimming the rocks where the child had stepped. I looked at the sky, still promising rain. In two deft steps, I hopped across.
Ruth Z. Deming, a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, writes fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her prose has appeared in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Mused Bella Donna. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.
We Look Out Windows
We all look out windows. It is something we do. And then we wait for something to happen. Out my second-story window this morning in late August are my large maple trees pressing close to the house. It is folly to call them “my maple trees” for who, of course, can own a tree. But because we live on many different levels, one of those levels is ownership, and we shudder to think that if we own nothing, we will end up like Bartleby the Scrivener, a man put out on the street because he didn’t own a place to sleep.
If I were an Indian long ago I would certainly have stood on the plains in my beaded moccasins. They would have called me The Woman who Loved Trees, for so I do, or perhaps The Woman Who Loved Squirrels, for so I do. And I would have, first thing in the morning, slipped on my moccasins, while my family was still asleep, I would have been 10 years old, and peeked out the teepee to smell the fresh air and see if The Boy Who Knew Where to Find Deer was awake. I would have had two long braids. And he may have had two long braids falling on his naked chest.
What has happened outside my upstairs window is that the trees pressing against my window are losing their chlorophyll. An entire patch over on the right have turned red. There is such depth in the foliage from my window. You can sit with your warm coffee in your hand and gaze from your office chair where you sit Indian style at the layers and layers of leaves, waiting, waiting, for something to appear.
Have they deserted me, the birds and the squirrels? I only saw a robin yesterday and thought, Hurry on, with you, proud fellow, fly south with your brethren before the cupboard goes dry. We have a marvelous relationship, the birds and I. When you prepare gardens for them, and a fine flowing- to-the- brim birdbath, they will always be there. Bringing their friends with them. It is not unthinkable that they communicate to one another where the best watering places are, and they follow one another, clusters of them, tagging along in tandem, just like people do, bringing the ones we love with us, and others we don’t love but let them tag along anyway.
One day I was making myself breakfast and the phone rang. That is an example of something happening.
“Roooth!” said the voice on the other end.
“Larry, you’re back! How was your vacation?”
“Good, good,” said my psychiatrist, Larry Schwartz.
“Larry, I’m still sane!” I said.
“Knock on wood,” he said.
“Larry, I leave nothing to chance. I take my meds and knock on wood at the same time.”
By now, I had moved with my portable phone and was sitting on my front porch steps, knocking on concrete.
“Larry, what do you suppose the neighbors think of me?” I’m outside on the phone all day long whispering into the phone about manic depression and then cackling with hysterical laughter that rings all down the street. Do you think that’s normal?”
“For you, Ruth, it’s normal,” he said.
He likes me. And you better believe I like him. It’s a match made in heaven.
Last night was Poetry Night at Barnes and Noble. Remember: You can either wait for something to happen, or you can make it happen yourself.
I spent the entire day in my nightgown on the telephone or writing on the computer. Can you imagine, reader, if this were the days when I was a therapist for 8 years and went to my office in Bensalem in my flowing white nightgown and black socks to keep my feet warm?
“Oh,” Linda would mumble, when she’d see me come through the door. “Ruth, you’re wearing your nightgown under your jacket.”
“Oh, dear,” Linda. “You’ve got to help me. What shall we do?”
Linda was immensely practical. She was the kind of woman – and this is who you hire as a receptionist – that if you need an aspirin during the day you go to Linda. Or if you don’t know what to make for dinner, you go to Linda. Or if you need to complain about your boyfriend you’re living with, you complain to Linda.
And Linda would probably say something, like, “Look, Ruth, you know how to answer the phones. Sit here in your jacket and take the calls. I only live a few minutes away. I’ll bring you some of Holly’s clothes.”
“No skirts, please,” I said. “Or loud colors.”
“I know, I know.” she’d say. “Be back in five. You’ll be a whole new woman. Your clients will love you.”
Five years later I was in the neighborhood and drove over to see her at her new job.
“How’s Holly?” I asked.
“She’s graduating college and they’ve offered her a job at a television studio!”
“Oh my God, Linda. You raised one child – and you did it right!”
When I had manic-depression or as they now call it, bipolar disorder, I had it bad. Very bad. Up and down, up and down. Suicidal ideation where I wrote a suicide note to Sarah and Dan, but saved myself by accompanying my former boyfriend to horrible flea markets, which I detested, but it was certainly better than killing myself.
That was – what? – ten years ago.
And then a funny thing happened.
People do not believe me, but it’s the God’s honest truth.
My manic-depression arrived like a box car on the way to Dachau, and then it left.
I was saved.
Every day of my life I thank God or no-God. It’s one less thing to worry about.
Laura Rankin is a retired mother of four and grandma, a native of Oregon who now lives in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. She writes with a group of six friends who met in a memoir certificate course at the University of Washington. She enjoys walking, gardening, reading, writing and introducing her ten grandchildren to the beauties of nature. Several of her life-based essays have appeared in The Eugene Register Guard, and excerpts of her writing are included in the book Memoirs of the Soul by Nan Merrick Phifer. She writes true life stories.
From my kitchen window I can see our neighbor’s un-mowed spring grass and the brown scar of dirt that a soil sampling team left three months ago. The wild grass shimmers with diamonds of dew—a royal carpet leading to the untamed kingdom north of our property line.
Now, in spring, the wild area presents blooming forsythia, reaching as tall as our house. Spiky blackberry vines hold the wispy branches to the sky in golden homage. I wonder if hummingbirds who visit love the blossoms as much as I do. Behind the forsythia, gnarly vines weave sturdy freeways for ants, spiders and even fat rodents. My granddaughters and I ran from a rat as we picked blackberries last summer. The girls were brave enough to continue our harvest once we all stopped screaming. Later, as we rolled out our pie crust, I made sure not to mention that a family of rats found their way into our attic the winter before. I want the girls to enjoy nature without being creeped out.
My neighbor has lived on her land all her life, over seventy years so far. Her family cultivated a cherry orchard that used to be where I now live. I see remnants of that vigorous orchard every time I work in my garden and find woody roots that must be chopped.
Next month when I open my kitchen window, the fragrance of white lilacs might greet me, but today the twenty foot tall bushes only bear tightly bound buds, promises of what’s to come.
What’s to come has been on my mind a lot lately, because the wild area has been sold. Zoning signs went up a few months ago and the time of permitting is at hand. Yesterday I heard the crack of limbs as men with boots trampled a pathway to where they put up an orange plastic fence. After they left I climbed up on my garden bench in our back yard to peer over our wood fence. In the seven years we’ve lived here, I’ve spent countless hours looking down pulling weeds, digging holes for new plants, but I’ve never looked over the fence.
I saw the caved-in roof of a ramshackle house nestled under the brambles. Luxurious ferns flourish in the dead wood of the branch that broke through the roof. The wood siding of the house was once painted white, but now is weathered down to the raw planks. Who might have lived there? Was it a shed for the cherry orchard? What people might have sweated and toiled here, long before I grew my garden?
I’ve been cultivating my dahlias and daisies during an in-between time on this piece of land. Whatever came before is as foreign as what will be.
When will the buzzing of bees change to the whir of that first chainsaw that will take down the first tree? How soon after that will they bulldoze a new foundation for the first of four houses they plan to build? Once it begins, nothing will ever be the same. Everything untamed will succumb to the mastery of machines. Where will the refugee animals go? The spiders whose webs twinkle, the rabbits whose noses twitch?
I’ve never thought of myself as a tree hugger and wouldn’t dream of stopping progress by scaling a tree with my osteoporotic bones, but I’m mourning this change. It’s still the time “in between.” The pine siskin still sings stubbornly for a mate. The stalwart robins insist on starting a family with their delightful monotonous songs. They are looking to the future, planning to weave their nests and hatch their eggs. They won’t know what hit them until something comes crashing down.
Meanwhile, across the street at the house built last year, the young dad walks his little girls to the mailbox like he does every night after work. In his arms, I’m surprised to see a bundle of blankets the size of a newborn human baby. It’s a delight to watch the young father tenderly cradle the baby while shepherding the other two girls away from the curb.
Another human family will replace my natural neighbors, and very soon. Who is drawing house plans today for their new home? Whose manufactured carpet will be rolled out on top of the earth that now grows spring grass? I wish them well as I cherish this time in-between.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His writing appears in Aldus Journal of Translation, Atticus Review, Bangalore Review, Conclave, Construction, Digital Americana, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, IthacaLit, JMWW, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, Montreal Review, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Outside In Literary & Travel, Poydras Review, The Rusty Nail, Short Fiction, and Slippage.
After the gray skies of winter, dim days of snow sifting down, long nights of freezing rain that hardens to a glassy carapace, after this dreary waste of time, a day arrives when the sun blazes, the air warms, and the world stirs to life. It is the hour of deliverance, the first day of spring, the season of snowmelt.
I pull on rubber boots, clomp out the door, and splash through the neighborhood streets. Snowbanks like mountain ranges subside to soft hills, with jagged gorges on the southern slope, eroded under a filigree of ice. The fragile lace crumbles at a touch. Asphalt pavement lies wet and black, as though freshly rolled by an invisible road crew. It steams in the sun. Bare patches appear in the blanket of snow. They reveal the grass that lay underneath, tousled and matted, hidden so long that I almost forgot it was there. A flock of robins swoops in from nowhere to feed, or simply to touch ground.
Birds sing to the gurgle of running water. Rills and rivulets gush from a hundred springs. The water is cold and perfectly clear, a pure element unlocked from crystal. It gleams in the sun. It pools here and there, blocked by masses of snow. It races in channels in the old snowpack. It vanishes abruptly under a snowbank, to reappear down the street from a hidden streambed, one carved in secret minutes ago.
The scene is geological, but on the scale of a toy and speeded-up. It repeats in miniature the story of the Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge that forms my western horizon. On the farther side, the Shenandoah Valley has a limestone floor that teems with springs, sinkholes, caves, and underground rivers. The porous limestone is like snow, both materials laid in layers and compressed over time. Limestone, mainly calcium carbonate, dissolves in water. Where the mineral-laden water drips and evaporates, it deposits the stone in weird formations, the stalactites and stalagmites of caverns: Luray, Endless, Grand and Massanutten. Whitish, glossy, catching the light of torches, the stone resembles ice. In any case, the caverns remain at a constant temperature that chills bare skin and creeps into the bones.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been thinking of cold limestone caverns when he wrote his poem “Kubla Khan.”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. . . .
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
Xanadu, or Shangdu, was a real place, the capital city of the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan founded the city, and the Chinese architect Liu Bingzhong designed it in 1256. It lies about 220 miles north of Beijing. Later the summer capital of the Yuan dynasty, Xanadu was abandoned in 1430. Its ruins became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
Marco Polo described Xanadu, apparently from a visit in1275, especially the two imperial palaces, their parks and menageries. In the marble palace, “the rooms are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” The other palace, built of cane and lashed together with cords of silk, was “so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity.” Samuel Purchas rewrote the description, published in 1625 in Purchas his Pilgrimes. By his own account, Coleridge was reading the Purchas version in the summer of 1797 when he fell asleep in a chair. He then had an opium-inspired dream, during which:
he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
Marco Polo makes no mention of “caves of ice,” and neither do descriptions of the site today. Where did Coleridge get them? The geological region called karst, of which the Shenandoah Valley is an example, occurs all over the world: southern France, the Burren of western Ireland, Andalusia in Spain, Gloucesterchire in England, the Nullarbor Plain of Australia, the Chocolate Hills of the Philippines, and the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. The word karst derives from German, for the limestone plateau that surrounds Trieste, and from the Slovenian grast.
Karst features bear a colorful array of names: cenote for a sinkhole in Yucatan, turlough for a disappearing lake in Ireland, scowle for a shallow pit or labyrinth in the Forest of Dean, and doline for a sinkhole in the Massif Central of France. Eroded limestone assumes fantastic shapes on the surface. Water mysteriously wells up or plunges back into the earth. In “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge makes much of these strange waters:
And from this chasm with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced.
In Augusta County about ten years ago, for the local housing authority, I inspected a poor, rural house that lacked indoor plumbing. The residents asked if I wanted to see the spring where they fetched water. I demurred, but they insisted. I followed them along a narrow footpath behind the house, through a grove of trees. We emerged at a river that burst from the ground, a torrent from a limestone grotto. This domestic water supply precisely fit the description in Coleridge’s poem.
On Montrose Avenue, as I view the rush of water in front of my house, I think it must be more than snowmelt. The volume is too much, and it carries mud and pebbles. I follow the stream up to the corner of Rialto, where water bubbles up through cracks in the pavement. Can it be a spring like those in the Shenandoah Valley? I return home and phone the city public works department. Within the hour, an official-looking truck arrives at the scene, and an official-looking man says that a water main is broken. A crew arrives to dig up the street, and they stay into the evening.
By next morning, a rectangle of gravel marks the spot, and the street is dry. An overnight freeze has halted the meltwaters. But the sky is clear, and the sun will have its way.
Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Travelers’ Tales, The Boston Globe, and USA Today, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her novel, The Virgin Mary Hotline, is available via Kindle and Nook. She is currently at work on her second novel.
Here’s what it feels like when you drown. At first, you flail. The body will try anything to get to the surface. It’s harder, of course, when you are inverted, when you’re not sure how to right yourself so your nostrils can be taking in air and not filling with water; it’s harder when inner tubes are locked around your hips, restricting your legs from breaking free; and it’s hardest, most of all, when strong adult arms are holding you beneath the surface, arms that have you entwined in such a full-body choke hold that you know, as you futilely try to thrash and free yourself from the grips of hands and tubes, that your seven years were too brief, and that it’s not your fault you perished so young, done in by the genes that kept you short, unable to stand in the deep end of the pool; done in by the genes that made you related to this man, your uncle, making his annual visit from California, who now keeps you submerged; done in by the genes that coursed through all of the maternal sides’ blood and bones, the genes that couldn’t resist just another drink, then another, and another, so when your seven-year-old voice says to your inebriated elder, “You can’t catch me, I’m in the pool and you’re in the yard”, you understand too late that you have thrown down a challenge, perhaps even a dare, and that these in fact have, become your last words, an unwitting invitation for the man to throw his beer bottle to the ground, scale the wall of the above-ground pool, fully clothed and shod, to prove you wrong.
You don’t die, of course.
Your uncle wasn’t that drunk, but you still find yourself surprised at how long being dunked felt, how your small body was convinced—convinced!—of its imminent demise. Growing up as the eldest of three sisters, you’ve led a bookish existence, free of roughhousing, wrestling, or really any physical altercation or athletic exertion that you assume would be part and parcel of growing up with boys. Your uncle had seven brothers in addition to his four sisters and perhaps knew nothing but physicality—and even without the addition of booze, you might have been treated this way, even if you had both been casually and calmly swimming together, side by side, with no apparent provocation.
You remember the “drowning”, for lack of a better word, and the chatter leading up to the moments under the water, clearly and distinctly, more than 25 years later. What came after: Wet sneakers left out to dry on the back porch, captured in a photograph. Industrial-sized trash bags full of cans and bottles clinking as your parents hauled them out to the curb. A refusal to speak to your uncle for the rest of his visit, even going so far as to leave the room if he entered. Your parents not asking him to leave, per se, but not forcing you to interact with him, either. Until it was time for him to leave, to go back to California.
“You’re really not going to say goodbye?” your mother says. “You need to part on good terms.”
So at seven you realize that you can have an adversary, and that the adversary can be your elder, and your flesh and blood. You understand that, despite what transpired, you must show respect to one you think no longer deserves it. You acknowledge—to yourself—that you have to play the waiting game, a long game, before you alone dictate the company you keep.
You realize this as you cross the room to kiss your uncle goodbye. The steps are surreally slow, like moving underwater. A smirk tugs at his lips and tightens his eyes, the same expression he wore when he taunted you, outside the pool. This time, though, you don’t flail. You hold your breath. You kiss his cheek, scratchy with day-old stubble. And then, as though kicking off the wall after a lap, you burst away, all your limbs working fine now and fast, and as you move out to the yard, down the street, down the block, and keep going, you fill your lungs over and again with great gulps of delicious air.
Sharon Goldberg lives in the Seattle area and previously worked as an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Under The Sun, The Avalon Literary Review, The Chaffey Review, Temenos, The Binnacle, Little Fiction: Listerature, The Feathered Flounder, Penduline, three fiction anthologies, and elsewhere. Her short stories “Caving In” (2012) and “Ghost” (2011) were finalists in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. Sharon was also the second place winner of the 2012 On The Premises Humor Contest and Fiction Attic Press’s 2013 Flash in the Attic Contest. Three of her stories were nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. Sharon is working on a short story collection.
Let Us (Not) Pray
I don’t remember when I first prayed, but I’m certain I prayed out of fear. Probably when I was three or four and scared to go to sleep at night. Scared of the dark. Scared to close my eyes. Scared I’d be attacked by burglars. I remember my Mom singing “Lullaby and Good Night,” her voice sweet and soothing. She said there was no such thing as burglars. I was skeptical.
At Agudath B’nai Israel Synagogue, I learned the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism: Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. I believed it. At home, I learned prayers of thanks for bread and wine and the blessing over the Sabbath candles. I stood next to Mom, my hands above the flickering flames, and recited the barucha like a good little Jewish girl.
I’m a hypocrite. I no longer believe God exists, but I pray to him sometimes anyway. Prayer is my insurance policy, my back-up plan, a hedge against my bet. Still, I don’t want even a hypothetical God to think I’m dishonest. Or trying to put one over on him. Or invoking him falsely. So I qualify my prayer: “Dear Lord, if you’re there, please. . . .”
How long have humans prayed? Tunnel back in time 5,000 years to Mesopotamia. There the Sumerians inscribed prayers on stone votive statues. Even earlier, 10,000 years ago during the Paleolithic Period, artists in Southwest Europe and the Altay Mountains of Asia drew pictures on cave walls of animals, sometimes attacked by darts or spears. Was this a form of prehistoric prayer, an appeal to unknown gods for a successful hunt?
At Email2God.com, anyone may submit a prayer for himself or a loved one, or pray for those who post prayers. Some of the prayers on the site:
Father, I am not one to complain, I am a very lucky person. However, I am a big blockhead sometimes . . . . Help me to figure out who I am. . .
Please dear Lord, help my husband to find the perfect job for him; sooner than later please. . . . I am so tired and scared.
God, I love a girl namely Vanika but she not loves me. She is very happy with other guy namely Vishal. God plz help so get my true love back. . .
Dear God . . . I’m really messed up w whats going on w my Dad. Please show me a miracle and allow him to remain here on earth w us longer.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
According to the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, fifty-eight percent of Americans pray daily. Older people and poorer people pray more. Jehovah’s Witnesses pray the most. Jews and the religiously unaffiliated pray the least.
When his team came from behind to win against the Miami Dolphins, then-Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, an Evangelical Christian, dropped to one knee and bowed his head in prayer while his teammates celebrated wildly around him—Rodin’s “Thinker” in the middle of a football field. “Tebowing,” as this practice was named, went viral when a fan created a website and invited viewers to post photos of themselves engaged in the act. At www.tebowing.com, you’ll see underwater divers, firefighters, tail hookers; travelers in the Sahara Desert, on an Afghan mountaintop, at the Taj Mahal; students on a high school campus, people in line for tacos, even a baby and a cat. Has prayer become just another occasion for a “selfie?”
“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father, who is unseen.” (The Gospel of Matthew).
As a child, I thought inanimate objects had feelings. I believed lamps, tables, chairs, and dressers could feel pain. I don’t know where I got this idea. I don’t know why I didn’t question it. But since it was gospel for me, I prayed to God to say I was sorry and ask forgiveness when I accidentally bumped, scratched, knocked, or toppled “things” in our apartment.
If we weren’t taught to pray, would we invent prayer?
Do our brains have a spiritual architecture? Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and author of Why We Believe What We Believe, investigated this question. Using imaging techniques, he and his team scanned the brains of Franciscan nuns as they prayed, Tibetan Buddhists as they meditated, and Pentecostal Christians as they spoke in tongues. What did Newberg learn? “When we think of religious and spiritual beliefs. . . ,” he said, “we see a tremendous similarity across practices and across traditions.” The brain’s frontal lobe, the part that helps us focus, showed increased activity. The limbic system, which regulates emotion and is responsible for feelings of awe and joy, also showed increased activity. But the parietal lobe, the brain part that orients us in space, showed decreased activity, perhaps explaining the feeling of being part of something greater than oneself.
Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, sees it in a different way. Religion, Atran says, is just a byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation. “Just like we’re not hardwired for boats, but humans in all cultures make boats pretty much the same way. Now, that’s a result both of the way the brain works and of the needs of the world. . .”
Between the ages of eight and thirteen, I attended Junior Congregation services at the synagogue. I learned all the tunes to all the Sabbath morning prayers, signed up weekly to lead the chanting of one of my favorites, and sometimes led the entire service. I was proud of my prayer prowess.
What does prayer look like? Catholics bow their heads and make the sign of the cross. Orthodox Jews sway and rock. Muslims kneel and prostrate five times a day facing Mecca. Sufis play music and whirl, whirl, whirl. Hindus chant. Quakers sit in communal silence. Worshippers clasp hands, clap hands, fold hands, lay on hands, and lift their hands toward heaven. Some people pray with their eyes open, some with their eyes closed. They use knotted ropes, beads, goblets, and prayer rugs. They wear veils, shawls, bonnets, and kipot. Sometimes prayer is accompanied by candle lighting, bell ringing, incense burning, or anointing with oil. Does ritual intensify the prayer experience?
My father davened twice a day, reciting the traditional Jewish morning and afternoon/evening prayers. He prayed with a well-worn siddur on his lap, even though he knew every word by heart. He prayed wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, and on weekday mornings, wearing tefillen, a set of small, black, leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with Torah verses. He prayed every single day, except when he was in the hospital sedated.
In the 1960s, when I was a student at Admiral King, a public high school, we recited The Lord’s Prayer every morning in our home room. No one complained. No one questioned. But I felt uncomfortable mouthing a prayer that was not mine. I complied anyway. I didn’t want to be disobedient or different. My dilemma was whether to include “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” at the end with the Protestants. Or leave it out, like the Catholics. To play it safe, I alternated.
In 2012, sixteen-year-old Jessica Alquist, an atheist and student at Cranston West High School in Rhode Island, won a lawsuit ordering the removal of a prayer banner hung in the school gym for decades. City officials claimed the banner was a historical artifact and served no religious purpose; the prayer merely encouraged students to grow mentally and morally, as well as physically. Jessica contended that the prayer which began “Our Heavenly Father” and ended with “Amen” was offensive to non-Christians and violated both the constitutional separation of church and state and the school district’s policy which stated that the proper settings for religious observance were the home and place of worship. Jessica was far braver than I.
A partial list of what I’ve prayed for: to win speech competitions, to win roles in plays, to win the hearts of boys; for a clean bill of health, for world peace, for the end of all disease; for my parents to come home because it’s 10:00 p.m. and I don’t know where they are and I’m afraid they were in an accident; for my husband to come home because it’s 10:00 p.m. and there’s no answer at his office and I’m afraid he was in an accident; that the driver I rear-ended won’t have a chronic injury; that totalitarian leaders will be deposed; that 9/11 won’t be the end of the world; that the plane I’m on will arrive safely—no pilot error, no weather fluke, no terrorist act.
It is May 1, 1967 and I am sixteen years old, but I feel like a big baby. I am freaking out. I have worked myself into a terror tizzy. Actually, I am edging toward a panic attack but I don’t know what a panic attack is. I am sitting on my twin bed in my mint green and apricot bedroom and I am crying and praying, crying and praying. Why? Jeane Dixon, who is a famous psychic, who is said to have the gift of prophecy, who predicted President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, supposedly predicted that half the world’s teens will die by May 9th of an unknown throat disease. And my throat hurts. Who am I to say Jeane is full of crap? Who am I to say she’s not God’s messenger? Who am I to say she’s not a true prophet? In biblical times, the people often disbelieved true prophets and look what happened—woe to them! I am afraid to close my eyes. I am afraid to fall asleep. Just like when I was a little girl. I am afraid I won’t wake up in the morning because I will die from the unknown throat disease. And I am furious at Jeane Dixon because she doesn’t say “repent” or “change” or “take precautions” and you won’t die. No. Jeane just says, “Bye-bye half the world’s teenagers!” So what do I do? I cry because I can’t help it. I pray because I don’t know what else to do.
For centuries, in the Old City of Jerusalem, people have stuffed prayers written on paper scraps into cracks in the two-thousand-year-old Wailing Wall, believed by devout Jews to be the Western Wall of the Second Temple. My brother Howard was in Jerusalem while my Uncle Sanford Brown lay in a Cleveland hospital hooked to a ventilator, his heart and kidneys failing. Howard posted prayers for Sanford in the Wall. Our uncle died anyway.
Now Wailing Wall prayers can be tweeted. Israeli Alon Nil founded TweetYourPrayers, an automated Twitter bot that accepts requests, in 140 characters or less, which he prints and takes to the Wall. Does God need a Twitter account?
Are there things that it’s not okay to pray for because they’re selfish or greedy or frivolous? Here are my rules: It’s not okay to pray for beauty, but it is okay to pray your lover will find you beautiful. It’s not okay to pray for wealth, but it is okay to pray for enough money to cover basic needs along with some discretionary income. It’s not okay to pray for a Nobel Prize, but it is okay to pray your work will have a positive impact on the world. It’s not okay to pray you’ll live forever, but it is okay to pray you’ll survive an illness or accident or disaster and live to see your children grow into happy, healthy adults.
During the last two months of my father’s life, I prayed for him. I didn’t pray Dad would live to be 120 like Moses, as he wished on his eightieth birthday. I knew it was impossible. I didn’t pray he’d be cured of Multiple Myeloma; no one who’s eighty-nine ever is. I didn’t pray he’d walk out of the hospital vibrant and vital; I don’t believe in miracles. I prayed he’d rally enough to transfer to a Long Term Acute Care Facility. I prayed he’d recover from pneumonia. I prayed he’d be weaned off the ventilator. I prayed he’d no longer need dialysis. I prayed he could be nourished without a feeding tube. I prayed he’d be able to speak and express his wishes. I prayed we were making the decisions about his care that he would make if he were in a position to make them. What answers did I get? Yes. No. No. No. No. No. I don’t know and never will.
Does prayer heal? Can its power be proven? For decades, scientists have searched for the answer, but their methodology has been flawed and their results mixed. In 2006, the outcome of a long-awaited study—the most rigorous to date—was published. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, tested the effects of intercessory prayer—prayer by strangers at a distance—on patients recovering from coronary bypass surgery. The results? Prayer had no effect. And patients who were told in advance about the prayer had a higher rate of post-operative complications, perhaps because they had higher expectations. While the study was designed to avoid earlier problems, Benson couldn’t control for a significant variable: the unknown prayer each person received from friends, families, and others.
I asked my cardiologist, Dr. Sarah Speck, about the relationship between prayer and medicine. “There are forces of nature we don’t completely understand in healing,” she said. “A positive environment is more healing than a negative, stressful one. I think there’s a spirituality that improves the healing process.”
Essential prayers: Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name (Christian); And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Jewish); In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world (Muslim); May the merit of my practice adorn Buddha’s Pure Lands (Buddhist); Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Orthodox Christian); On the absolute reality and its planes, On that finest spiritual light, We meditate (Hindu). Amen.
Does prayer move energy in the universe causing change on some cosmic or atomic level? According to the laws of physics, no. There’s no scientific proof that a spiritual chain reaction occurs that can impact outcomes. But knowing we’re not alone, that people care and root for us does. It helps us persevere, marshal resources, boosts adrenaline, and fuels our immune systems. We are chemical beings and our chemistry is influenced by hope.
William James, the American philosopher, said “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”
When I was married, I used to watch my husband sleep and well up with joy at my good fortune. How lucky I was to be in a loving relationship with such an amazing man. I prayed just to express gratitude and say I was content. Thank you God! My husband is so bright, so dynamic, so charismatic. Thank you God! After eighteen years I still adore his blue eyes, his golden skin, his curly hair. Thank you God! My husband is happy and so am I.
Then, one morning, my husband announced he didn’t love me anymore and our marriage was over. I was devastated. And I was pissed at God. My gratitude wasn’t worth shit. God was mocking me. I made the mistake of telling him what I valued most, so he took it away.
I am grateful for my current loving relationship. Arnie is a wonderful man: devoted, affectionate, cuddly, caring. I believe he’ll stick with me for the rest of my life. But I never tell God “thanks.”
When both sides in a war pray for victory, does God deem one set of prayers more ardent? One cause more worthy? If you win, does that prove God was on your side? If you lose, does that mean God has forsaken you? Or do the prayers cancel each other out?
People pray together in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, chapels, meeting halls and other havens of the like-minded. Perhaps prayer en masse is more transcendent—a spiritual amphetamine.
Every year, about three million Muslims flock to Mecca from all over the globe for the Hajj. Despite crowd control techniques, hundreds of deaths occur annually as ramps collapse under the weight of visitors and the devout are trampled in stampedes.
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism, observant Jews fast all day and pray aloud together to confess a myriad of sins and ask forgiveness: For the sin that we have committed under stress or through choice; For the sin that we have committed in the evil meditations of the heart; For the sin that we have committed by word of mouth; For the sin that we have committed through abuse of power; For the sin that we have committed by exploitation of neighbors;…. For all these sins, O God of forgiveness, bear with us, pardon us, forgive us! Sins are mentioned in plural form because tradition teaches that every Jew bears a measure of responsibility for the actions of other Jews. Even during the years I did observe Yom Kippur, I never appreciated the group guilt and absolution.
If there is a God, is he so egotistical or despotic or needy that he must constantly be invoked, constantly thanked, constantly told how great he is?
Prayer helps me focus, prepare, analyze, question, find strength, calm myself, get a grip—a session with my inner psychotherapist. It’s a means to shut out the noise of the world and hear myself think. Talking to an imaginary being or universal force helps lessen the weight of the challenging, the horrible, and the unbearable. Prayer is my valium.
“The Serenity Prayer” is the common name for an originally untitled prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. The most popular form is:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
If we were granted serenity, it seems to me, we wouldn’t need to pray for anything else.
I’ve never experienced an epiphany, a transformation, a conversion, a mystical presence, a rippling or tingling, a connection to the divine, or oneness with the universe while I prayed. Perhaps I’m unwilling to “let go,” to give myself over to some hypothetical omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent force. Perhaps I cling to the rational, like a mountain climber to a rope. The most I’ve felt is a sense of relief; maybe things will turn out okay. My loss? Could be. But here’s what I know. Despite my doubt and disbelief, despite feeling my words and thoughts are tumbling into a black hole, despite my certainty that answered and unanswered prayers are both pure coincidence; when I’m in danger or desperate or debilitated or dying or incredibly grateful, I will pray. And if anyone out there wishes to pray for me as well, I guess it can’t hurt. Just don’t do it in front of me.
Not Quite Meet-Cute
People often ask how my husband and I met, confusing meeting with meaning.
I tell them the meet-cute version; it happened at a New York Giants football game, two teenagers who forgot umbrellas and shared an improvised over-sized black trash-bag poncho. It is true, this story, and you can get by with this story, entertain and please people who want to know it is still possible to be sleeping beside the love of your life some thirty-eight years after he first made you swoon.
But it’s not that simple.
I first saw and heard my future husband when I was twelve and he sixteen, filling multiple roles in a high school production of My Fair Lady: dreamy looks, a swath of dark curly hair, and that last name – Frank Romeo. When we finally met at that football game three years later, I was with my best friend Anne, and he with his best friend Jeff. About five weeks of double dates followed, but I failed to notice Frank’s distracted twitch. I had forgotten that I first encountered him as an actor. Soon, he fled the stage.
I was an early bloomer. I sprouted serious breasts in the seventh grade and figured out quickly that the right bra and two open buttons at the top of my white school uniform blouse got me the attention of the right boys, the ones with slanted, mischievous smiles, unruly hair, and the ability to talk to girls without stammering, not the ones with neat Ken hair and the job of clapping Sister’s erasers at recess.
I snuck off with Danny Cooper into the woods behind his house – when I was supposed to be playing next door with Rebecca Edwards. We French kissed three times before my mother’s Cadillac horn blasted terror through our bodies. After two weeks, Danny turned in his desk chair to say, “I don’t like you no more.”
A month later, Robbie Restuccio and I snuck out the side door of the town movie theater during The Hot Rock, into the woods where Robbie had earlier that day laid out a scratchy old blanket. Robbie was Danny’s best friend and he and I lasted a lot longer, five weeks at least, before I moved on to high school boys, whom I would not see each morning at Mass, and then on to boys I’d meet on frequent family vacations. My father’s 1970s fortune from a polyester finishing factory provided a trove of airline tickets, hotel suites, and towel boys. I figured I could have all the fun I wanted, as long as (at 13) I didn’t have actual sex, and (at 16) didn’t go all the way, which I didn’t until (at 18) I officially fell into something I mistakenly called love.
My parents often invited Anne along for company, I suspect because she was a mature two years older and seemed much less interested in boys. At the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach’s Bal Harbour, she and I tilted giddily through our own personal playground of 24-hour coffee shops (where we had only to sign our names to score milkshakes and gargantuan cinnamon buns), and moonlit shuffleboard decks (where we’d play with abandon the game my mother implored us to try in daylight only to meet with rolling eyes).
Sometimes, we met boys — two at a time if I was lucky — so that while Anne talked quietly with one of them, I grabbed the hand of the other, waiting to yank me toward the beach, an empty poolside lanai, or the soft ground beneath the palm trees along the edge of the garden walkway.
Back home, I was on the lookout for bad boys to have a good time with; there seemed nothing else to do in our lethargic suburb where my mother still pointed out the Meadowbrook, site of 1950s Frank Sinatra concerts, every time we drove to the mall. I was a straight-A student, took drama classes, read three books a week, knew how to sew, and volunteered at the library. Boys, as far as I could determine, were my only secret garden.
When I was fourteen, I met a seventeen year-old named John, and we dated, completely in the open; my parents by then recognized it was better to know with whom I would otherwise be sneaking off. John was the first nice guy I dated, and that, combined with my parents’ liking him, and his not trying to feel me up until the fourth date, spelled the end of the affair.
Then friends’ older sisters and brothers got their drivers’ licenses and the suburbs seemed to crack right open. We left Cedar Grove behind, where the only action took place on the windy dark road behind the reservoir, to find fun and boys, of any color, age and type, everywhere — a party at a cousin’s house in gritty Paterson, a high school basketball game in downtown Newark, an ice-skating arena in farm-rich Sparta where we found that farm boys could be bad, too.
The summer I was fifteen, Anne and I took the bus to Manhattan on Saturdays, and walked to the passenger ship terminal to keep furtive appointments with the two Italian waiters who had served us on my family’s April cruise to Bermuda. I’d head off to some remote corner of the ship with twenty six-year old Adriano, while Anne walked around midtown with sappy Mario, eating hot dogs and pretzels and listening to his homesick yearning for Naples.
Later that fall Anne and I met Frank and Jeff. Jeff practically moved into Anne’s family room while Frank drifted off, as it turned out, with Jeff’s girlfriend of six years.
Despite my having sliced Frank’s photo from the yearbook in the school library, slipping it into my wallet and calling him my boyfriend, I convinced myself that it was better that way. Two best friends dating two best friends was just a little too weird. I put the yearbook photo away in an old briefcase of my father’s where I kept my secret stuff and told my girlfriends we had broken up. I decided I had been wrong about Frank all along, that he wasn’t so special, just another guy, maybe even a jerky one.
Then, I moved on in the relationship department: My father bought me a horse.
It is true what books and clichéd television movies have to say about a young girl and her horse. For the next couple of years – no, for a decade – I was intensely interested in an on- going relationship with only one dark, tall, and handsome creature. Horses were complicated enough to engage my curiosity, and riding was physically challenging enough to slake my restlessness. Handling horses put me in control, at least that’s how one feels atop a galloping, snorting sweating half-ton of heaving muscle.
Guys still mattered, throughout the rest of high school and all through college, but in a more peripheral way, and only if they felt like trailing along while I spent entire weekends and every school vacation at horse shows, and all summer at the stable, 24/7.
When they didn’t, the equestrian world was full of lovely, pouty boys who would one day realize that they were really and truly and only gay, but for the time being, were available for satisfying make-out sessions and awkward thrashing in empty horse trailers.
Channeling all of my free time, lots of my father’s money, and most of the passion that needed expression in my life, I learned the nuance of partnering a twelve-hundred pound animal over four-foot fences without breaking stride or landing in the dirt. It was electrifying, and at times, erotic even, holding the reins and all the cards, a horse between my legs. On a good day, we could read each other’s minds. On a bad day, I was the one, always, who could walk away – and withhold the carrot too, if I felt like it, though I rarely did. My parents joked that I lived in the barn, but to me it felt like the horses lived in me. I was beginning to think that was the way it was meant to be, that unless I found a fellow rider, I’d be alone, but that was okay: Saddles are built for one.
The next time I saw Frank was the summer following my college graduation, both conscripted into the bridal party for Anne and Jeff’s wedding. It had been six years since the double dates; Frank and Jeff were friends again, and two years before, Frank had married Jeff’s old girlfriend. Our aborted dating six years before just didn’t seem important, at least that’s what I told myself. Anyway, I was just passing through, headed to California with a new, more accomplished show horse to ride with a top trainer and to start a reporting job.
The bridal party gathered in the back of the small church where I feigned intense interest in what Anne’s cousin Carol was saying, to stop myself looking in Frank’s direction. How could I still want to gaze at those deep dimples, those brushed suede eyes? Why was I straining for the lilt of his voice? He said hello; I smiled, silent. Then a curvaceous, pretty older woman in a low-cut grey gown stepped through the heavy wood door and caught the eye of all. In his earthy rich voice I heard Frank remark, “Did you see the chest on her?”
All eyes swiveled to me.
“That’s my mother,” I said, turning away.
When we awkwardly walked back down the aisle together an hour later, Frank mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and I momentarily wondered if he meant for shattering the romantic hopes of a fifteen year-old girl six years before, but he continued, “for saying that about your mother.”
“No problem,” I said. “She does have a great chest.” I thought we might laugh, but we didn’t.
We danced at the reception as we had to, dutifully and stiffly, me staring at the blue ruffles on Frank’s tuxedo shirt. He tried to make small talk, but the sound of his voice so close to my ear, a mixture of gravel and anchorman silk, was too much and as soon as I could, I pulled away. I did not want to discover if his dance moves were as good as I once thought from my seat in the high school auditorium. I was afraid if I answered his innocuous questions I might keep that voice in my head, that it might flare up unbidden when I was supposed to be counting down strides to a fence, or writing brief and breezy headlines, or finding a suitable young man to introduce to my parents.
I tried hard not to, but could not help watching him that evening with his wife, who had a great chest too, but in my opinion was neither beautiful, interesting, nor mysterious enough to move most men to deceive their best friend. I had to remind myself that just as Anne and I were only silly teenage girls back then, Jeff and Frank were not men either, only nineteen year-old sacks of testosterone.
I could have, I should have, forgiven Frank then and there, let it go, and maybe in a small sense, I did. But there was still a disquieting quickening in my own chest when I listened to him give the toast, and it sent me fleeing mentally in the opposite direction, unnerved.
Three years later I moved back to New Jersey and within days encountered Frank at Anne’s kitchen table.
I dragged her down the hall. “What’s he doing here, why isn’t he wearing a wedding ring and what the heck happened to his skin?”
“She decided she didn’t want kids after all, and there was other stuff,” Anne said, then killed any possibility of the tiniest schadenfreude moment, adding, “Then he got a bad burn and it triggered this weird skin condition called vitiligo.”
So there was my Romeo now: Cheated on, looking like a splotched abstract painting in tones of pale pink and olive brown, his mass of Frampton curls now shorn, thinning, already receding at twenty-seven. I was no longer interested, I told myself.
Then he spoke.
My husband once sang a solo of the Hallelujah Chorus in Carnegie Hall. He has near perfect pitch. Back then, his tenor slid easily to falsetto, equal parts Hall and Oates, Lennon and McCartney. His voice hit me that day square in the chest like a velvet truck. The dark olive skin was disappearing, the once shoulder-length locks were clipped, but the timber of Frank’s voice reached me viscerally like the rippled surge of my horse’s neck muscle under my chest when he rose to hurl himself over a four-foot fence. Silk and sinew, James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, Neil Diamond and Davy Jones, comforting yet seductive, smooth but sex-edged; clear, safe but intoxicating, teasing and daring.
I was, against my will, charmed.
While I had been chasing jobs and better horse trainers across five states, the interesting men I met all had consistently disappointed me with mediocre voices. None of them stirred in me what I felt at fifteen when Frank had once, while waiting in line at a diner after another movie double-date, sung in my ear along with the radio about silver spoons and missed opportunities. Ever since, when Cat’s in the Cradle came on the radio, I would jab the button, angry for some indefinable reason, switching stations. During those years, especially when riding wasn’t going so well and men who mattered were scarce, I sometimes pictured Frank with some imaginary small curly-haired boy, tossing baseballs and talking about how to properly condition a mitt, before I caught myself and wondered what the hell I was doing thinking so much about a jerk who once dubiously dated me just so he could distract his best friend and steal his girl?
Yet I had dragged that old briefcase of my father’s to every new apartment, stuffed with mementos from sweet and bitter boyfriend moments, including that yearbook photo of Frank, the boyfriend who wasn’t. Now, at Anne and Jeff’s kitchen table, we met again, maybe not so cute, but also not so careless, aware by then of the lies we conceal and the truths we tell in the sloppy human experiment called dating. For me, there had been the dreamy bisexual grand prix jumper rider who did not want his wealthy gay sponsor to know he dated girls. The quiet junior insurance executive whose heart I may have broken. The firefighter who wouldn’t leave his alcoholic mother alone on a Saturday night. All the time, in some part of me where I hear only clear sounds, I sensed some voice, calling me ahead—or, back.
Dates ensued. I thought we were heading somewhere until Frank drifted off, again. Months went by, a year. My mother told me what to do with a vacillating beau, what she said had worked with my father in the 1940s: Next time he bites, reel him in but this time, you toss him back. Then wait, he’ll bite again.
So, I waited.
Meanwhile, I did what I always did when people let me down — got back in the saddle in a serious way: Weeknights at the stables, every weekend a horse show hundreds of miles away – and sporadic evenings in the company of a man twenty-one years older than I, a senior executive at work, rich and as different from Frank as possible. He talked about flying to London for a play opening, weekends at his Berkshires house, hinting at what a spontaneous life we might have together. Then he forgot my twenty-fifth birthday and I picked up the phone and punched in Frank’s number.
“Listen,” I said, “I feel like dancing and you are the best dancer I know. How about it? Dancing. No strings attached.”
We fell into a routine, Frank and I — dates and talking, dancing and hiking; we skied, played racquetball, learned each other’s secrets. There were strings, of course. Could we determine how to knot them together? I was no longer a fifteen year-old who, despite her experience with boys, would not have known what to do with a man; he was no longer a selfish nineteen year-old with swarthy good looks and a case of girlfriend envy. Neither of us were even who we were a year earlier.
A few months later, I prepared Frank the first of what would become five thousand- plus dinners, and after I layered chicken marsala on his plate, I looked him in the eye:
“Keep something in mind. Three strikes and you’re out.” I was never any good at fishing.
When our friends have affairs, when they divorce, we shiver, and talk about it. Frank’s tone is rougher now, a little raspy. We’re in our fiftiess, after all. Or maybe it’s just how I hear it after twenty-seven years of daily negotiation, conversation, and the occasional, awful arguments that scrape me raw. When we don’t talk for days, when our teenage sons want to know what’s wrong, I sink deep in the saddle and hold on, hands on both reins, fingers ready to ease out a little, or close imperceptibly tighter. Frank always speaks first, or he sings in my ear, always an old Beatles song, often “Michelle,” the one that declares he’ll get to you somehow. But never Yesterday.
In his voice, I still hear something charmed. Because, aren’t we?
Grace Mattern’s poetry and short fiction have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Calyx, Prairie Schooner, The Sun, Poet Lore, Cider Press Review and Yankee. She has received fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and Vermont Studio Center and has published two books of poetry, Fever of Unknown Origin (Oyster River Press, 2002) and The Truth About Death (Turning Point Books, 2012), which received a Readers’ Choice NH Literary Award for poetry.
Ahead of Eric on the trail, I stop to wait. I look back for him and notice the stone wall that travels up and down the rippled slopes of Mt. Israel. The stacked line of granite has a stately beauty, still holding its shape after more than a century, marking the boundaries of what was once open fields. I imagine the view that would have spread out below me, toward the lakes and lower hills to the south, a bit of which is visible today through the spines of trees still bare on this early March weekend in New Hampshire.
While the trail was sunlit and warm at the bottom, by the time we reached the peak it was still winter. We had to put on our snowshoes to manage the deep snow pack and brushed through stunted spruce trees encased in rime ice, bowed over the trail by the frozen weight of winter. We put on all the outerwear we’d brought, pulled up the hoods of our jackets and tightened them over our wool hats.
Hiking down has been a return to the softening of spring, buds on the trees showing their first hints of color and water running fast in small streams. I’ve shed the extra layers I needed at the top.
Eric catches up with me. “I couldn’t run down like I usually do,” he says and I realize I’ve been wondering why I had to wait for him. We’ve been hiking together through all the decades of our marriage. I know what to expect. He hikes uphill slowly, always behind me as I motor up, pushing the limits of my heartbeat and leg muscles. But coming down Eric usually stays in front. Today he is slow. “My back hurts,” he says.
Two months later Eric is dead. Mt. Israel was our last hike together.
It was a beautiful day when Eric died, his body succumbing in only weeks from when we finally understood the increasing pain in his back was metastatic cancer. Day after day had been bright and breezy, sunlight rippling over his shrinking body as the shades in the open windows of the room where he slept and woke and slept again blew with the warm wind.
Three years later I stop along the trail up Mt. Israel on another clear spring day, sunlight warm up around my shoulders, the chill off the snow at my feet losing patience before it reaches my body core. The stone wall still rises and falls over the ridged hillside, the granite weathered to a rough silver, straight and fluid. Water falling off the mountainside in the stream we cross fans up in a spray over rocks. My feet are wet. I’ve forgotten again to waterproof my boots. Today I am hiking with David, my new companion, a surprise Eric predicted.
“What’s going to happen to me when you’re gone?” I’d asked a few days after we’d learned the extent of disease in Eric’s liver and bones and how little time we had left together.
“You’ll heal for a year or two and then some man will scoop you up.”
David and I stop to grocery shop on the way home, a routine chore we’re getting used to doing together. We’re tired and muddy and want to get home to an evening to ourselves, but it makes sense to get the shopping done now. That way we can stay home all day tomorrow.
I ease into a parking space in the grocery store lot and David pulls a large granite stone from his pocket. “This is for Eric’s grave.” In the year we’ve been together, David has learned from me the Jewish custom of putting a rock on a loved one’s gravestone, a way to mark the visit with a solid reminder.
“I’ve been wanting to go there for weeks,” I say.
“We’ll go after we shop.”
I drive the winding narrow lanes between stone monuments, the trees here also bare. In weeks, the buds will start to break open, making good on the cemetery name, Blossom Hill.
There are piles of rocks on Eric’s tall, narrow headstone of rose granite, though many have fallen off over the winter. I look for rocks in the still yellow grass and make more piles. The gold-foiled pieces of Hanukkah gelt our children, mine and Eric’s, brought to the grave in December are still on the top ledge of the gravestone. The small gourds our daughter painted are a few feet away, half-hidden in matted grass. I pick them up and make a space for their round bottoms to sit among the stones. David puts his piece of granite from Mt. Israel on Eric’s headstone, rearranging rocks to make room.
Caroline Allen’s first novel, Earth, was published by Seattle’s Booktrope Publishers in February 2015. Earth is one of the four book Elemental Journey Series – Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Each follows a protagonist on a hero’s journey in a world rocked by climate change. Caroline is a novelist, visual artist and the founder of Art of Storytelling, a coaching service for writers. Prior to a life in the literary and visual arts, she worked as an international journalist in Tokyo, London and throughout Asia. Earth is available at online booksellers. For more information, visit www.carolineallen.com and www.artofstorytellingonline.
The greatest gift I ever received was a book I never read.
The winter I turned eleven, I sat at the desk in the dormer window, waiting. We got the desk at a yard sale, and it was supposed to be for all seven of us kids, but somehow I’d taken it over. In the basement, I found a lime green bucket of paint and painted it and colored the knobs a canary yellow. I lived at that desk, studying my school books, writing in notebooks. I spent hours at that desk, pretending I was some kind of professor or a famous writer, or some other thing that wasn’t real for someone like me in that cold, hard place.
It was an important day. I’d already been waiting for hours, for years, for centuries.
From that dormer window, I could see so far, up and down Cochise, over the roofs of brick houses, across crabby cow fields, beyond beat-up dog pens. Kids were everywhere, whooping and hollering like packs of wild beasts, boot skating on road ice, building crooked snow people, getting bruised and bloodied by the physicality of the earth. This rural part of mid-Missouri was a vast place — the people fisted it up, but the earth itself was infinite.
Winter in mid-Missouri was a thin layer of ice, a cold crunch. A quiet and vast dusting, a white out of the soul. This place was rough, wild, dirty. Mean. Bitter and filthy. I never felt separate from this land. When I was little, my flesh was sassafras bark. Every crunch of ice, every frozen creek, every burr caught in my coat was me. I was the liquefied ice at the edge of the earth. I was the scratched and crooked roots that bore deep into that hardened Midwestern flesh.
Out the window, a Coup de Ville edged up to the curb. I didn’t move. It was important not to be eager, not to be excited, not to show how deeply you desired.
I watched as Jackie got out of the passenger side. She wore a coat that was too big, and a cheap red scarf that was too small. Her mittens were flowered. She didn’t match. In this part of Missouri, it wasn’t important to match.
Mac and the kid got out. I could never remember the kid’s name. He was beige, his skin beige, his coat beige and his hair was beige too. We had a whole mess of cousins whose names I couldn’t remember. All three ambled across the snowy front yard in awkward silence. This was a slow place. People walked and talked like the crops grew, sluggish, with not much showing on the surface. But below the soil, the roots were inflamed, vibrating with a pain that would smack you hard and fast, that would stab or shoot you when you turned your back.
I heard them enter the back door, heard mumblings downstairs.
Still, I waited.
“Carrie, get on down here now,” Mom finally called from the living room.
I jumped and rushed toward the door, before I remembered and forced myself to stop. Desiring too much got you smacked down. Desire was something a woman in that barbed wire place was not allowed. I paced myself going down the threadbare stairs. We had orange shag carpet, and for years all seven of us had been sliding down the stairs on our butts. Most of the stairs now were bald, with orange shag like old man hair at the edges. There were holes in the shag in the living room too. Dad worked in floor covering, but we never got new carpet.
On the sofa, Jackie sat folded into herself, like all her body parts were put together every morning in a different way. Mac had a handle-bar mustache. He had the tip of his ‘stache greased up with Vaseline to keep it in a perfect curl against his cheeks. He was fat, and he squished his face backwards as if he found everything distasteful. I’m sure there were kids running in and out, but I don’t remember them. This was my day.
Hanging behind Mac and Jackie was a bloodied picture of Jesus. It was one of those holographic photos that changed when you moved your head. His eyes were open in one view, and closed in another. I see you. I don’t see you. I see you. I don’t see you.
In the corner stood the tree. Lights glittered in peripheral vision like something close to hope. Every year, we’d take the truck a few miles to some forested field, trudge through snow to a copse of evergreens and use a hand saw. We couldn’t afford boots for all seven kids so Mom put Wonder Bread bags over our socks, and affixed them with a rubber band around our ankles. The snow was so deep it was higher than the Wonder bags. We dragged the huge evergreen behind us in the snow, carving a brushy path, leaving frazzled angels in our wake, ankles on fire with the ice that’d seeped in.
I stood in front of the adults. I was still healthy at eleven. The troubles hadn’t started yet. At eleven, I was still a force to be reckoned with. I was a runner, a vigor of muscle and will.
Nobody said much. In this part of Missouri, it wasn’t done. The silence went back generations. Nobody told stories. The hush wove its way into sinew and bone. When I left that bloody stump place, when I became an adult, I had to teach myself how to speak in social situations. As a kid, I only learned how to keep the words locked up tight in my shoulders, pushed down in my gut.
Jackie looked at me hard and forceful, her eyes blue and cracked, like she was trying to see into my soul. I tried not to look back at her. I was worried about what I might find there. When you saw too much, it could be a terrifying burden. In my hometown, seeing too much was a weight that could bend you in half.
I looked at my mother. All my life in that gritty place, I never found a woman I wanted to be. Married at eighteen, hauling packs of kids around like sacks of potatoes, following the men, always following the men. The only person who was even close to my way of thinking was my older sister. She was an artist. She could make magic out of trash. When she walked into a room you could cut her energy with a knife. She was also a drunk, even back then, even as a girl. My life involved hauling her off the bathroom floor, blood running from her ear where she hit the toilet on the way down. My life involved punching and kicking men as they tried to pull her into their trucks, where she was willing to go, always willing to go. She was my only reflection, my warped and cracked mirror.
Jackie had a gift next to her on the sofa. She handed it to me. Every Christmas, she and Mac drove around Missouri seeing kinfolk. I was their god-daughter. The gift was wrapped in cheap red Christmas paper, the kind you buy in bulk from Walmart with tiny Santas on it. It felt damp in my hands, like someone had dropped it in the snow.
Something hard and raw like sauerkraut wafted in from the kitchen. Food was no small thing in our house. The creatures in the forest were our food. The roots from the sassafras were our food. The gooseberries in the thicket by the garden were our food. Pheasant, duck, squirrel, cabbage, russet potatoes, corn.
With Jesus’ eyes closed, I tore the paper in front of the four adults. Last year it was a Lite Brite box. Another year, it was a big box of colored pencils – art supplies in mid-Missouri! You cain’t live on no art supplies. You cain’t eat no art supplies.
The damp wrapping paper didn’t tear with a whistle but disintegrated with a mush. I let the paper drop in a torn heap on the torn shag. I went ice cold when I saw what it was. If you didn’t know me, you would’ve thought I was unhappy. But I wasn’t. I went cold when something was too big to react to, when any reaction couldn’t possibly cover the situation. In that family, I went cold a lot.
It was a book. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I had never owned a book before. Ever. The only books in the house were a King James Bible and the farmer’s almanac. When I was nine, I locked myself in the upstairs bathroom every night and read the Bible page for page, just for something to read. One of my older brothers caught me coming out with the good book under my arm. He lifted his fist. “You think you’re real smart, don’t you.” He punched a bruise into my upper arm. “You think you’re something special.”
Mostly, though, I was ignored. It was good to fall between the cracks. It was better when no one took notice of you. These people could hurt you with their attention. These people were known to destroy your life with their repeated attention.
I stood there and stared at Little Women as if it were far away, as if I were sitting in the dormer window looking out, and the book was far far below. I think I left my body. I moved. Jesus’ eyes opened. I fell back into my body. I stared at Aunt Jackie — those laser eyes. When I met her gaze, we flew into each other’s souls. I swear we both left our bodies and flew off the planet. We became two stars dancing in the black universe, just the two of us in some far off place where anything, just anything, was possible.
I’m sure I said thank you. I don’t remember. I found myself slipping upward on the carpet, up and up. I could feel Aunt Jackie’s eyes on my back, begging. For what? Pleading. To whom? She wanted something from me, but I didn’t know what. Some spark of hope or possibility in our threadbare world; was that it? I had to keep moving, to get away from the eyes, up and up the stairs, until I was safely behind my bedroom door, until I was back in the dormer window. Until I was alone again, and hidden.
The book was a blue, glossy, hardback. I put the binding up to my nose and breathed it into my flesh. It smelled like glue. I worried the texture of a single page between my fingertips. I turned it over in my hands and put my palm flat on the glossy cover. I rubbed my hand over and over that book – for minutes, for years, for centuries, reading it through my palm.
I better not think I was too smart with all that book larnin. Real larnin’ happened when you used your hands for labor. You cain’t eat no books. You cain’t live on no books. Real larnin meant knowing how to shoot a beast through the eyes, tear off their fur, and yank out their guts.
Sometimes my older sister would bring home tattered searing saga bodice rippers. I’d tear at the paperbacks as if with my teeth, voracious like an animal. I’d salivate as I bore through the story, devouring three hundred pages in one sitting. I was starving for story.
I never read Little Women. To this day, I have not read the book. I couldn’t. How could I? Every time I opened the cover, I could barely breathe. If I tried to read all of its pages, I would surely suffocate. The book was like a mirror, and if I opened it, I’d see my own face. I wasn’t ready to see my own face. My first book. My only book. A book. For me.
I slept with Little Women. I ate with Little Women. I took Little Women to school, to track practice. I threw it in the back seat of my Ford Pinto when I turned sixteen. I ended up taking Little Women to college. I broke the binding sleeping with it so much. Finally, the pages started falling out like the hair of an old woman, and I had to let her go.
When I turned forty, decades after I left Missouri never to return, when I was estranged from all things Missouri, after a career all over the world as a journalist and then as a fiction writer, I wrote Aunt Jackie a letter. She was still a nurse in Missouri. I told her that I was a writer now, and a visual artist. I sent her paintings. Not stories. I didn’t want to open the door to the stories. There were reasons for the silence. I’d spent a decade opening my own door to my own stories, and all hell had broken loose. I didn’t want to evoke the caged beast that rattled behind that mid-Missouri reticence. I was learning that some people needed the silence. To survive.
I realized I still hadn’t read Little Women. I found a copy in a two dollar bin at Barnes and Noble. I sat on the bed, opened the cover and started sobbing. I couldn’t see a word. I couldn’t stop sobbing.
For weeks, every time I opened the book I’d break down in tears. It was hopeless. The book stayed on my bed. I didn’t move it. As I slept, it lay there at the foot of the bed. How long would the binding last this time, as I tossed and turned and had my Little Woman dreams?
I decided enough was enough. I had to get the DVD and just watch the damned thing. This was ridiculous. I was forty years old!
And so, I watched Little Women, one night by myself on a tiny TV. I sat there in shock. Jo’s story was my story. Both the story of me as an 11-year-old, and the story of how my life would evolve, as a tomboy, somebody hot-tempered who would travel, someone who was a writer.
I wailed watching that movie, bent over at the waist. My whole world cracked open, as if I were a beast of the forest, and I were being butchered, fur torn off, guts rifled and studied like some beastly oracle. Raw. Exposed.
Jackie had seen me in that unseen world.
Those eyes. I thought back to those eyes. Jesus eyes. Jackie’s. My own seeing. As a child, before I traveled the world, when the travel happened in my soul, I would look out that dormer window, and fly on blistery winds above our property. I’d soar over the scrappy vegetable garden and cow fields, beyond the twisted barbed wire, over the iced-over dog house where Buck was chained all day, his life never more than a circle of dirt. I would ascend over Missouri, above fields parceled out like a rag quilt. I’d soar beyond the state, along black bulbous skies, over rocky and wild mountains, across oceans, to foreign lands. Even when I was a kid I could see so far.
What could Jackie see? My mother? These hidden women.
This battered. This divine. This feminine.
What were their veiled dreams? How far can each of us see, deep into the soul of the world? In that house where women fell between the cracks.
I see you. I don’t see you.
I see you.
I see you.
I see you.
Therése Halscheid’s poetry collection Frozen Latitudes has just been released by Press 53. Previous collections are Uncommon Geography, Without Home and Powertalk. She received a Greatest Hits chapbook award by Pudding House Publications. Her poetry and essays have appeared in such magazines as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Sou’wester, Natural Bridge. She is an itinerant writer by way of house-sitting. Her photography has appeared in juried shows and chronicles her nomadic lifestyle. She visits schools, and has taught in unusual locales such as an Eskimo village in northern Alaska, and the Ural Mountains of Russia.
Into the Iceberg
Hemingway said writers could leave things out of their tales. He felt the part omitted goes under the surface, yet buoys what gets on the page. And that which is submerged is massive compared to what is actually written. Like an iceberg, he said, seven-eighths remains below the water. Hemingway gave his idea over to this particular image – that of a berg – and so it is by that word his theory is known.
What Hemingway said of the nature of stories is also true of a poem: its small body can hold an undisclosed tale and that this tale underneath can be much larger than the poem itself. I would even venture to say while readers navigate a poem’s message – as their eyes are working across, wrapping to the next line, continuing – they are also reading down into it sensing hidden material through their own invisible minds. More so with a poem than in stories, I would have said to Hemingway if I could have met him. Because, and this is my understanding, a poem relies upon its few words to mean much more than the words themselves.
And this talk of the poems made me question the under-stories in my own work. It had me hunt for one that held within its spare construct, something concealed. Say, an awful secret that I did not want to make obvious. And the search led to an early collection with a poem important to me, but also seemingly insignificant in that it looked so small on the page, stark there, against all the whiteness.
Still I revisited the piece, first reading the words that were buoyant like the tip of an iceberg, then the whole poem again just to delve. To call forth the larger story I did not dare write:
i was too thin
to ride my bicycle
i repeated sounds
in my name
as one moving wheel
Going then, down under its first few lines, I find that very girl who is too thin to ride. She is hiding there looking the same as she seems on the page. Even beneath the poem she is struggling with her bike. I know her as the tragic part of my past. Know too, the short poem is a long story – that grows always down never out in the open, like an ice mountain that must only exist under the cold swells of the sea. This too thin girl who, at age fifteen, is actually dying. The poem holds her life but lacks so many words of her. And she is so silenced she can only give her life to these little words, to hold.
I leave her for a moment. Lift my eyes, over to where they can cast themselves upon another word. I choose bicycle. Enter it – again seeking that very same girl. See that day in late May, when a soft wind touched the thin of her arms, her spindly legs – so that her limbs began to move with a certain ambition. Up, out of bed, walking about in the attic bedroom past the window where this wind blew through. She had been awfully cold until this warm-scented air made her think of wanting to ride, wanting to dress like everyone else, be out in the light of the lemon sun, its many rays. So that instead of layering clothes – thermal wear, thick sweaters, socks and woolen slacks – she dressed in a long-sleeve cotton shirt that fell loosely over a lighter pair of pants. And it was just like her to let the shirt hang like it was oversized, instead of tucking it in. For, in truth, she was hiding the pins that held up her pants. She hid a lot that year. It was strange, in fact, how many times she escaped eating or disguised she was pinning her clothes. I stare into her, as if going back to someone I want to avoid but also need to recover. I know her mind but do not get too far into her thoughts. I cannot see through just as she cannot think clearly. Just as she is thinning while still carrying an intense need to lose weight. Despite these visible signs – her clothes falling off, and the pins, the belt she keeps poking to make new holes, the lack of food – there is also the secret she has kept with death, to remove her life.
I was too thin
On her face a look of sureness appears she has not worn in months. And I enter that certainty – into the next scene where she exits the door to the back of the house, to the shed for the bike she led to the street. And straddles the seat and ignores how it hurts. I watch that girl knowing she is my child-self. That I was once her when she was all bones: her bottom, her back, the shoulder blades that jut out like that of a caught bird’s, whose wings have been stripped of feathers, the entire body plucked and bound. The papery flesh down to one translucent layer.
How far I have gone inside the word bicycle to rediscover her. My eyes deeply searching, as if peering into one of Hemingway’s icebergs where her story is frozen, locked in its clearness, caught. As if that part of her life will stay always under water. But also to note in the scene what spring has thawed, the breeze which came, and how everything in this story in late May had grown increasingly warm, so that she is in the street tilting the bike, leaning forward, gripping the handle bars. Her feet ready to push off as if the wheels would soon turn her life alive.
No. I did not put all these details of her on top of the paper, nor place them in any poem, nor have I ever mentioned this very moment out loud. Instead, I just allow the small poem I have written to wear its essence. I allow the reader to sense the fact that she did set off to peddle despite the odds, thinking she could do it, not questioning her health, nor fully realizing how frail, just wanting to go around the block. To let myself go, she thought, and have the bike take her away. To become separate from the cold and suddenly in sun. Except, it never happened. The bike toppled. She couldn’t hold on. And I had to go after her, plunge through the poem, frantically down through its lines – to where she had fallen in the street and lay flat and still. Like tracking an iceberg, I reach a depth where no rescue diver can stay long nor want to try. And she is there, ashamed in the street wearing embarrassment. I want to hold her, hold onto her. For I am that girl but also am no longer herself. I am there, to lift her up into actual life, float her to the surface and expose her whole story to you.
Of the Iceberg Theory, he also said not to fudge. Hemingway, he said if you do not know something about your subject, don’t think you can simply omit that part. Likewise, do not try to speak of something you do not know. Because readers pick up on that too, he felt. They would know the writer was insincere on some level and it would show up as a hole in the story. Like a hole in the tip of a berg – a reader would see through the opening, an obvious sky.
And I looked once more at my poem and noticed I never used the word Anorexia. Thinking of holes in stories – other, various kinds – it would have destroyed the life my poem tried to capture had I taken a clinical approach. Even the sound of it strange, for the poem moves through the lyrical workings of the heart and not by way of a label. That word, Anorexia, it would have been my hole. And because I cannot allow myself to be used as a medical term, readers would sense the writer’s awkwardness. If used, they would intuit the language was forced on some level and the poem would start working against itself, forfeit its own truth that something was eating at her instead of her not eating. That too thin girl, she would be diagnosed. The reader would then focus upon her body much like the attention paid to a superficial wound. Or say, if the poem talked medically throughout, it would be riddled with holes by way of defining her as a condition. Expand her suffering into something narrowly construed – and I would have spent long hours trying to fit her into those words.
Just like all the fishing jargon that wasn’t necessary for The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway said it himself that his novelette could actually have been a full-blown novel if he had included all he knew of fishing, and then had the old man doing all those things. I believe he was attentive enough to his character to omit the very terminology that would have put holes in the boat, sunk the old man.
And outside the world of my poem or a Hemingway story, the same applies. To the girls, or any other body who has been stared at, mocked, and then called Anorexic, they should think beyond those hurtful influences. Those who have been joked about, who bear the words that weaken them more – they should turn their attention from this talk, and know the problem they have is more than their physical self. It is even true of icebergs that name-calling occurs by way of their visible tips: the rounded dome, the pinnacle, the wedge or dry-dock, the blocky – are shapes that shape our attention so that we seem always to know of a thing by the way it looks, the surface when, really, there is so much underneath that holds the real appearance.
No. Strange as it may seem Anorexia is not what I had. What I had was the loss of a father. That is it. My father, who had undergone heart surgery with the outcome – a damaged brain. Who returned home with behaviors so shocking, so strange, foreign to me that my own reasoning was soon gone and my body housed only his dementia, became so full of the father I could not ingest anything else. I could not eat because of the loss and not from a lack of food. Like an iceberg lurking beneath the water, overtaking an important area of sea, not once letting up or melting down; like a disguised danger capable of felling an unsinkable ship – was my father, his dementia immense, consuming me. To where I refused to eat and the end was sure. Yes. This is what I had.
i repeated sounds
in my name
Concerning magic words, I think their magical properties arise in direct proportion to an opposite event. Just as some say we learn of light from knowing the dark. A statement Hemingway would agree with because at the core of his characters was this awareness, was nada, nothingness, as he said, which pushes life to the surface. He seemed to create scenes which held to this belief: the precarious position of the bullfighter standing before the bull for example, or characters on safari who wind up capturing their own fear of death. He invented people who were present to whatever challenges or feats he gave to them, characters who knew their own mortality, which propelled them to live fully in books. At the root of his theory it was death that determined the quality of their existence. And too, in many ways, Hemingway was like a poet. Like the poet, he sensed how to transfer the mystery of the extremes, say, of death aiding life, by using a style that was spare; crafting so that out of the simplistic came something profound. In this way he gained mastery over the complexities of the human condition, creating through fiction timeless accounts.
Looking back, to my young self again, that too thin girl – she was deep in her shadow, in a state of mind from which she could not rise. She was too thin to worry. A conflict Hemingway would not have used, but understood. A frail girl falling off her bike onto the asphalt and there death was, just waiting. Sly, like dark film finely spread over the street. Like warm tar that she would stick to when her face touched. And that was the main death really. Her very life was denied, the ride suddenly over with the same verve that whisked her outdoors in the first place. That May morning of sun and a breeze tempting her out to try something she used to easily do. It would have returned the dignity she lost had she been able to do this one thing and now this, not even possible. No. It was better to lie still, pull over her the feelings of cold. And not care if a car came or if her mother came softly asking her back to the house. She would just say no. If her mother found her there and began to coax her back in the best way she could, helping her up, please into the house to eat, to please sit with her food, into the kitchen please where her father was. If she did, she would have to remain with him in the kitchen, facing his strangeness. Again that distorted look of his far-away eyes. And that room was death, too. Of the two deaths at hand, there was only one girl to decide which one to take.
It could have been the meek heart that started it, or the hidden soul, or the invisible mind – but a feeling welled from within and one of the three gave voice to it. One of the three spoke a word in the hollow of her body and it moved through a sad labyrinth where sounds barely escape, yet did it travel up to the cold opening of her mouth – that small cave no sun could enter. One word, and it rose in a voice both remote and familiar. And the moment was life giving in this way, in the way a single word could persist. Enough to empower. Enough that it gave of its strength and was felt, that she might consider lifting the bike slowly off. When it spoke, the word became her. It became herself saying her given name – sound of the self that was her very own. As if its tone could speak her back into the world knowing there was a word for her; she was the definition. Word that meant something as it lifted out of her mouth, out of her silence and into the air. Like a mantra whose sound continues long after its utterance, whose vibration ripples outward and circles back to transform. One’s name and nothing more would be needed. Enough to free herself from the weight of the tires, push the front wheel off and watch it spin alive – like a planet that had cycled off course and was now in reentry, yes, revolving once more to encircle the lemon sun. And then it all began to move, the spokes turned as one moving wheel:
as one moving wheel
And the girl began peeling the bike off while saying her name out loud. With all the sureness she could muster, her body lifting, rising. By the curb saying the sound of herself. Aloud to the air that transferred it back into her. Air that she breathed in and listened to, until she was upright looking around. As if everything she saw was a magic word…. Until this language of life came at her. It started to return.
Marlena Maduro Baraf came to the United States from her native Panama and studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Parsons School of Design in New York. She is principal at a small interior design firm in New York. She also worked as Editor with the McGraw-Hill Book Company and has been an active member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute community. Her work has been published in the Westchester Review. La Misa is an excerpt from her memoir, working title, Mami. You can contact Marlena at https://twitter.com@MarlenaBaraf
One by one, every girl in the queue to the chapel reaches into the basket by the open double doors and plucks a head covering, a round doily the size of a yarmulke pinched with a single bobby pin that does not discredit the sweetness of the tulle and the lace. I attach mine, and I walk in.
We adjust our eyes to the softened light. Opposite the altar, at the foot of the room, is a stone bowl half-filled with holy water. Girls that remember dip their middle fingers into the liquid and touch their foreheads to begin the sign of the cross. En el nombre del padre, at the forehead, del hijo, high on the chest, del espíritu santo, left shoulder, then right. Nuns are singing Gregorian chants in the balcony. Voices of angels rain down on our heads. The procession continues down the center aisle. There is a single row of pews on the right and the same on the left. The younger grades settle closest to the metal grille near the altar, the older, high school girls at the back. We genuflect. We slide into each pew from the center axis towards the wall until every pew is filled. Before the priest begins, we kneel onto the wood ledge that is attached to the seat in front, clutching the petite, shiny white misales with white-ribbon tails peering out from gold-edged pages. After the right number of minutes we sit, and the mass begins.
Because the prayers are in Latin, the bells serve to alert us that it is time for communion. Voicing rhythmic incantations, the priest lifts the round wafer above his forehead, consecrating it, pronouncing it the body of Christ. The altar boys agitate the bells. Girls who have confessed earlier squeeze past the rest of us in the pew toward the center aisle. They line up quietly in dutiful intention. They approach the priest at the grille and kneel before him.
Panama, ninety-five percent Catholic, had been a crossroads for trade for hundreds of years, and panameños were accustomed to people of many sorts. But if someone asked, “¿eres judía?” you pulled in a short breath and gulped it down. The word for Jew in Spanish is harsh, the letter “j” sounding like an “h” in English, thrown from the throat across the upper palate. Hebrea was a better, softer word, “h” in Spanish having no sound. Los hebreos were the people of the book, children of Abraham and Moses, receivers of the Commandments
“¡Tú mataste a Jesús!” I was sitting in the back of the bus with no way to escape. I still remember the burning words. Eight-year-old Camila had twisted her head to face me. “You killed Jesus! (Small flames circled my spongy heart.) The school bus fell silent. We knew the damning fact. We had learned it in la clase de Religión: Judas the traitor turned in the son of God. Judas the betrayer, un judío.
On any one year there were only three or four of us at Las Esclavas –always cousins. We were a tiny group of Jews in Panama and those of us niñas who attended Las Esclavas had to go to mass before classes like the other girls. The Catholic orders had the only good schools in Panama then. Some of my tíos chose to send their children to public school in the Canal Zone where they would study in English, but had no religious instruction. Papi wanted us to be “panameñas primero.”
Our adviser at school was madre Concepción, a massive woman covered completely except for the exposed shield of her face–and her hands. She and the other nuns at school wore thick black robes in ample folds held at the waist by a band, reaching down to the tips of their shoes. I noticed the shoes. The squeaky, black-leather, laced shoes were radical. Our mamis wore pretty three-inch heels. The nuns sailed down the halls surrounding the courtyard, their dark headdress with a white band across the forehead making their skin very pink. They were a different sort of creature. And they were kind.
We, the Spanish Jews, were an established community in Panama, older than the country. Almost rabiblancos, the “white-tailed” elite of Panama. Nevertheless I studied Catecismo and Religión and learned about Purgatory, where souls with venial sins could take up temporary residence.
“Madre, can Jews go to Purgatory?” I asked.
“Not unless they convert.”
“But if you are good and you die before you convert, what happens? ¿Vas al infierno?”
“Sí,” replied my teacher. “The rule is that if you have heard of Jesus and don’t convert, you cannot be saved.”
“What about Limbo? Can Jews go to Limbo?”
“If there was a baby not Catholic who died before he had ever heard the name of Jesus, he can go to Limbo.”
Where did I belong? How could these madres who knew my family believe that we would skid down in a giant chute to burn forever with the Devil?
I became a pest at Catechism. Still, the story of Jesus and the tactile wisdom of the tradition were irresistible. There was a glossy rosary bead for each prayer. Our fingers touched the prayer when we recited each sonorous call and riposte. My sister Patricia and I succumbed. We snuck pink rosary beads into the house and said prayers at night under our bed sheets. When Patricia worried about a boy, she prayed to the Virgin Mary.
“I want to convert,” I confessed to Madre Concepción. “I want to be a nun like you.” The madres held me back for a while then arranged a meeting with a priest in the front room where they welcomed parents. I poured out my anguish, “Padre, me quiero convertir. Me quiero convertir.”
“Niña,” he said, “espere un poco. Wait until you are older. You have a fine tradition in your Judaísmo.¿Sábes?”
A girl sticks out her fleshy tongue to receive the gift, a small piece of the unyeasted wafer; then she stands up with lowered eyes. She brings her fingers together and drops her chin to contain the presence that is now inside of her and returns to us, walking slowly along a new tributary to the outer end of our pew. The girl steps in, and the rest of us, subdued and empty, slide toward the center to give her space.
I listen for the angel voices. The priest concludes the mass. “Ite. Missa est,” he declares, “the mass is ended,” and we file out to begin our day.
I long for communion.
Because I didn’t grow up in her time, I never understood my grandmother’s disquiet. At the end of a school day when I might come to visit, my doting abuelita would look up at me with her troubled-blue questioning eyes, “¿con quién andas?” Who are your friends?
She never spelled it out, but I knew that I was meant to unearth an ‘Arias,’ a ‘Vallarino,’ or another prominent name in Catholic society. I resisted revealing the names of my friends, friends that did match what my Amamá longed for. My friends were my friends, Anita, Marce, Ceci, mis amigas católicas who lived not too far from mi casa de piedra on Calle Uruguay.
Were Amamá’s worries miedos de un pasado antiguo? Were they lingering fears resulting from the Jews’ banishment from Spain centuries ago, fears that coursed in the family blood? Why was mi abuelita so bothered?
At the close of Yom Kippur we gather at tía Connie and tío Stanley’s house to break the fast. As if we need reminding that we are a clan, all the tíos and primos come together. Even the Motta brothers who married Catholic women and raised their children Catholic come to break the fast. At my aunt’s white draped table we reach for the tall silver carafe–hot to the touch–steaming with coffee boiled in cinnamon water. A pretty, distended bowl holds a glossy mound of egg yolks and sugar that have been whipped to a frenzy. We dip a large silver spoon into the white, and we wait while the thick cream drops into our coffee cups with a slow-moving plop. There are not many rules. Ham but not pork. We eat shellfish now. My country is the land of the shrimp. Distant from other Jewish groups, we are on our own.
Our sinagoga is a long rectangle with stucco walls and a turret in the middle. On Avenida Cuba con Calle treinta y seis. Tíos, it’s almost all tíos. There is a minyan every Friday night. The same ten or twelve alternate the roles of presidente, vicepresidente o tesorero. One De Castro, one Fidanque, one Motta, Cardoze, Maduro, Lindo or Toledano–reading at the podium in their guayaberas. In earlier decades it would have been different men with the same last names, a game of musical chairs. It would have been one or the next and then the same one again sitting on the red leather chairs facing the family in the pews, next to the Ark holding the Torá and the Panama flag on its slender pedestal.
An elder reads a prayer for the “Reader” and the group responds with their lines marked “Congregation” or “Chorus” from the blue books stored in slots behind the pew in front. They drone their rumble in English, skipping the prayers in Hebrew except for the Shema and the Kaddish (naturally using the Spanish inflections, Cheh-má and Kahdeesh).
I hear the soft thunder of the congregation in the double height above my head. The bells and tiny concave metal discs dance to their own music on the silver staff holding the scrolls of the Torá.
At the leftover end of the synagogue las tías organize a school on Saturday mornings, a one-room schoolhouse for primos. It is a long and slender void dotted with square folding tables with tubular legs that keep pieces of your flesh when you click them in place. In this shiftable room the adults also meet after Friday night service for a glass of Manishevitz and little chunks of pound cake. We sing from the red hymnal and act stories from the Bible. I win an award for learning Hebrew words that I do not understand.
During World War I a chaplain assigned to the Jewish enlisted men in the Canal Zone introduced the small Panama clan to the Union Prayerbook used by the Reform congregations in the United States. The group completed a synagogue in l935 and hired their first rabbi, a young graduate from the Hebrew Union College, still clinging to Spanish and Portuguese chants. The rabbi served for five years. There were others, but the community was not able to hold on to a rabbi for long.
I imagine that my tíos looked upon the new rabbi’s talit with long tendrils of fringe at the ends and felt connected to an ancient and venerable wisdom. He made them think and called them to moral action. I experienced an occasional visiting rabbi, and that’s how I saw it. I didn’t have many details.
We were a tiny minority living in a small nation with a capital city set next to the Pacific Ocean, warm and open, an expansive country. We had little reason to complain, and we were careful not to offend.
Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, Searching for the Heart Radical, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.
I met Zhang Jie at a noodle shop in Markam, Sichuan province, China. When she walked in wearing a dark blue sun hat, a yellow windbreaker, jeans, Reeboks, and a giant black camera bag across her shoulder, I could tell that she too was not from around here. To my surprise, she sat down next to me and introduced herself. Soon I learned that she was from the coastal city of Guangzhou, where she’d just finished studying at the university. Since Zhang Jie could speak a little English, we switched back and forth between languages. I told her I was from America and had just graduated from college myself. My mother was Chinese, and my father, American, I explained, so I grew up speaking some Chinese. Now, I was looking for a job in Chengdu, but had wanted to get away from the crowds for a few days. I’d also hoped to find the parents of a Tibetan friend I’d met in the States, but when I’d called the number I had, it hadn’t gone through.
As we introduced ourselves, a Tibetan monk came in the restaurant, begging, and I dug in my bag for small change. The Tibetan shopkeeper and Zhang Jie shot him scornful looks.
“Don’t give him money,” she whispered to me in English.
“Why not?” I asked.
“They don’t do anything. All they do is beg.”
I withdrew my hand from my purse and slurped my noodle soup.
“Are you going to Seda?” Zhang Jie asked.
“Seda,” she repeated, and told me of a monastery that was a day’s journey from Markam. Seda. I hadn’t planned on seeking out any remote Tibetan monasteries this weekend, but I was interested. In fact, part of the reason why Chengdu appealed to me as a place to teach and live was because of its proximity to these Tibetan regions. Ever since I’d traveled through these remote areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai province on my first trip to China, three years ago in 1996, I’d longed to return.
“I tried to go to Seda today,” Zhang Jie continued, “but there were no buses. There’s a bus tomorrow morning at six. I just sat in my room and watched TV all day– there’s nothing to see here. Why else would you come all this way?”
She seemed to be suggesting I come with her. I wasn’t sure we were the best match in traveling partners, but why not? I’d feel disappointed if I just turned around and headed back to Chengdu after a full day’s journey to get here.
“Okay,” I decided. “I’ll go.”
Early the next morning I boarded the mini-bus and took a window seat near the front behind Zhang Jie, where I knew I’d be less squished by those who would sit on stools or bags in the aisles. Soon the bus was full, and the passengers were mostly Khampas, Tibetans from the Kham, the southeastern region of Tibet, who are known for their fierce brazenness and horse-riding skills. I recognized them from the bright strands of red cloth they braided into their hair and then twisted atop their heads, men and women alike. They stared at me fearlessly with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
I smiled when I caught their eyes, but with Zhang Jie near me I felt less outgoing than I might have been on my own. Instead, I stared out the window as our bus rattled over rocky dirt roads, winding higher across the plateau, passing empty grasslands devoid of human signs except for a lone white tent here and there, a tuft of smoke rising from within. Herds of yaks grazed and romped about, their thick bushy tails swishing from behind. The Tibetans in the back gave out a little cry each time we hurtled over a particularly large hole, which sent them bouncing up in their seats. All the Tibetans sat in the back of the bus… somehow this could not be a coincidence. I wanted the Tibetans to know that I was not like the Chinese, that I did not see them as barbaric or inferior as was so often the case, but I was not so eager to attempt to explain my views to Zhang Jie in my basic, broken Chinese.
The bus chortled on for hours, stopping only once at a little no-name shack in the middle of nowhere for lunch. Here, I sat at a table with a few Tibetan men, offering them some of my loose green tea as we each filled our thermoses with hot water. When Zhang Jie walked over, she looked at them uncomfortably and suggested we sit at an empty table. I obliged. After lunch, when I gave our remaining food to a Tibetan beggar, Zhang Jie looked at me strangely.
As the afternoon wore on, the bus grew silent and some passengers slept, while I stared out the dusty window at the miles of endless grasslands, framed by mountains on all sides. Finally, as the sun sank low into the sky, I saw my first sign of the monastery: a lone monk walked at the edge of the road in a long burgundy robe, glancing up to meet my eyes as we rattled past. Up ahead, I spotted a row of white chotens or stupas that marked the edge of a path that wound out of sight into a valley. Seda. Other passengers began to stir; we were here. The bus stopped and a few people got off, the driver helping them to retrieve their bags from the rooftop. Zhang Jie turned to me. “We’ll stay in the town tonight and go to the monastery in the morning.”
At the guesthouse, I let Zhang Jie do the talking. She gave the Chinese woman proprietor her shenfenzhen, the identity card all Chinese must show before registering.
“What about her shenfenzhen?” the stodgy woman gestured to me suspiciously.
“One shenfenzhen is enough, isn’t it? You don’t need both of ours,” Zhang Jie insisted.
The woman shook her head, “I need both of your shenfenzhens.”
Zhang Jie sighed as if this were an unusual request. “She’s a huaren,” she
explained. “She doesn’t have a shenfenzhen.” Huaren. Overseas Chinese. Zhang Jie hadn’t said meiguoren, American. This way there was a blood affinity established. She’s one of us.
The woman shook her head. “Must have shenfenzhen. Foreigners can’t stay here.”
Zhang Jie sighed again. “Come on,” she pleaded, “it’s only for a few nights. Anyway, her mother is Chinese.”
Suddenly grateful to be traveling with Zhang Jie, I admired her feisty, uneasily daunted character, and tried my best to appear pleasant and non-threatening.
Hao le, hao le. “Fine, fine, write down your name,” the woman thrust out a form, then took our money, grabbed a ring of keys from a nail near the door, and led us to our room.
Inside, an old rusty stove sat between two hard twin beds on a bare wooden floor. I wandered off to go find the toilets, and returned to find Zhang Jie talking with a tall, young Chinese man in wire-rimmed glasses and a sporty red and black jumpsuit. “This is Xiao Mao,” she said. He rose to shake my hand limply, meeting my eyes for a moment before quickly looking away. Zhang Jie explained that he was from Tianjin, a big city near Beijing. I sat down on my bed and listened as they talked, picking up bits and pieces of his story. Xiao Mao had first come to Seda two years ago and stayed for a whole year, building a little wooden cabin and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Last year, he’d gone home to save up more money, and now he was back for a short visit. He spoke quietly, his motions and expressions restrained. I’d never met a Chinese before who was studying Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to ask Xiao Mao what had led him to Buddhism and to Seda, but I wasn’t even sure how to say Buddhism in Chinese. Zhang Jie seemed animated and engaged, speaking faster and with far more complicated words than she used with me.
After Xiao Mao left, Zhang Jie made a fire in our little wood stove, and we talked while huddling under our filthy bed quilts and layers of clothing. This was the first time that I’d shared a room with a Chinese traveler, since usually we were not allowed to stay with them in the dorm rooms at hotels. Zhang Jie was a business major, whereas I’d studied writing, art, and dance. I tried to explain how at my college we were also allowed to create independent contracts and travel or study subjects of our own choosing. “Did you do this?” she asked. “No,” I lied. How could I tell her about the peace march I went on for Tibet? I feared that without the vocabulary to get into my views in depth, telling her this would only prove to Zhang Jie that Americans are always chastising the Chinese. For now, it was easier just to let Zhang Jie believe that she had invited me to a place with which I had no prior connection.
The next morning we rose early and boarded a black jeep with Xiao Mao, a Tibetan monk, and the driver. The sky was clear and blue, the hills blanketed with fresh green. We rode back to the chotens we’d passed the day before, then turned to head up the bumpy dirt road to the monastery, thick plumes of dust rising behind us. Suddenly, as we turned a corner, the hillside was covered with small wooden structures: quarters of the monks and nuns. Long draping cloths with Tibetan symbols hung in place of doors in the cabins. Xiao Mao said there were one thousand monks and nuns studying here, an impressive number for a faith only cautiously tolerated in this country. I knew that there had been a resurgence of religious activity in the last ten or fifteen years, and the government was more relaxed in these Tibetan areas of China as opposed to in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” or what most people think of as the official Tibet, but still these numbers surprised me.
As we stepped out of the dusty jeep, a few monks stared at us curiously. Xiao Mao led us around a complex of temples, cabins, and shack-like wooden stores that sold pictures of the monastery’s lama, books of scriptures, bowls of instant noodles, snacks, and bottles of Pepsi. Many of the temples were newly built or being repaired by monks who busily hammered, sawed, and painted Tibetan symbols on wooden beams in bright red, yellow, green, blue, fuchsia, and white. At the top of a hill, a small group of pilgrims circled an unfinished temple, its roof partially covered with a shining plate of gold.
After touring the area, Xiao Mao led us into a dark, shack-like restaurant to eat some steamed meat dumplings, known as momos in Tibetan. We sat down on little stools before a low wooden table, and Zhang Jie began asking Xiao Mao more questions about the monastery. I couldn’t be sure I was understanding correctly, but I thought he said that the monastery had been bombed during the Cultural Revolution, which didn’t surprise me since most monasteries in Tibet had been destroyed in one way or another. Apparently the government was now allowing Seda’s recent growth to unfold with only a watchful eye.
“How many Han Chinese did you say are studying here?” I asked Xiao Mao.
“Over three-hundred maybe.”
“And it’s okay for them to come here?”
“Yes. There is a special temple for the Han students where the instructions are given in Mandarin.”
“So, the government allows this? They don’t care?”
“Yes, they know. Sometimes they come around and make them tear down some of the cabins. They say it’s for health reasons. But then they go away.”
“Yes. The stream that comes from the mountains is becoming polluted.”
I nodded, thinking of the piles of plastic bags, bottles, and waste I’d seen.
Xiao Mao looked at me closely. “Why are you so interested? Are you Buddhist?”
“No,” I shook my head, my cheeks growing hot. “I’m just curious.” I still didn’t call myself a Buddhist, even though I identified strongly with Buddhist teachings.
“I can take you to visit the lama here if you’d like,” Xiao Mao said to us.
Zhang Jie quickly shook her head. I felt a tug of longing to meet the teacher and holy man that presided over Seda, but I too shook my head, not wanting to be an opportunistic Westerner of dubious faith, coveting an interesting encounter with a “real Tibetan lama.” But mostly, it was too hard to imagine trying to explain to Xiao Mao and Zhang Jie all my layers of belief and disbelief.
After we’d eaten our fill of hard stale dumplings, Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao about sky burials. He nodded. Yes. He had visited them before.
“Do you know what a sky burial is?” Zhang Jie turned to me.
Tian zhang? I wasn’t sure what this word was.
“You know, when Tibetans die and leave the bodies for the birds?”
“Oh, yes,” I nodded.
“Can you take us to one?” Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao.
He hesitated before nodding, “They have them every day. We can go later this afternoon if you’d like.”
Zhang Jie turned to me, “Do you want to go?”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I glanced at Xiao Mao.
“It’s fine,” he said, staring down at his hands. “They don’t mind if people watch.”
When we stepped out of the restaurant, a morning prayer session was coming to an end. Monks and nuns spilled out of a nearby temple’s doorway. Zhang Jie and I walked over to take a peek inside. All around an open courtyard, the railings of the wooden balcony above were wound with strands of pink, red, and yellow fake flowers. Chanting music played from a loudspeaker affixed to the banister above; a few older pilgrims grasping prayer wheels stood with their leathery faces upturned, listening. The courtyard buzzed with small clusters of monks with shorn heads—no, I soon realized, they were nuns.
Zhang Jie and I drifted apart taking photos, while the nuns chattered noisily and watched us as we approached. They nodded and gathered close together when I motioned to my camera and asked permission in Chinese. Zhao xiang? Some smiled shyly, others posed stiffly, and one nun stared brazenly, almost smirking, obviously entertained by our visit. I could tell that we were not the first tourists that had ever come through, and yet there probably hadn’t been many.
A small nun, maybe seven or eight years old, grabbed my hand and tugged. With one hand, I took a photo of her face staring up at me, her hand holding my hand, and my arm outstretched. Her dark brown eyes gazed unblinking into my camera. I glanced at Zhang Jie busy snapping away on the other side of the courtyard, then took out a photo of the Dalai Lama from my pocket and slipped it to the little nun. Snatching it, she ran off to show it to others. I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed she didn’t know who it was. No one mobbed me afterwards, begging for more. Could they have never seen the Dalai Lama’s image? I knew it was forbidden in the temples, although I thought most Tibetans would still have seen it before. But maybe not, especially in this part of Sichuan, in these Tibetan areas of China that had been long assimilated, more removed from the politicization of Lhasa. I walked around slowly, taking more photos and passing out a few pictures to a similar muted appreciation, and then it was time to go.
Xiao Mao led us away from the monastery to a path that traveled around a hillside to another valley on the other side. As we approached the sky burial site from afar, I could see a small gathering of Tibetans and a horse grazing at their side. A waft of smoke drifted in the air from somewhere near a small white choten with prayer flags draped around it. As we drew closer, I was hit by a thick, pungent slightly sweet smell—bodies and decay. Juniper. A few heads turned our way, but no one paid us much attention. I tried to take slow, careful steps, not wanting my presence to be more obtrusive than it was. Then I saw the vultures.
They were so huge I mistook them at first for goats. They waited on the hillside above. Zhang Jie, Xiao Mao and I sat near the base of the hill, keeping our distance from the family members and the sky burial site, yet still close enough that I could see clearly the two corpses that lay in a small crumpled heap on the ground. Their tufts of matted black hair, their ribs exposed: a young man and an old woman, their sex and age still roughly discernable. Tattered remnants of old clothes lay scattered nearby, their colors faded.
A Tibetan man in a monk’s robes moved back and forth casually between the bodies, carrying a leg here, an arm there, placing them on a flat rock and then hacking them into smaller pieces. The man moved slowly, nonchalantly, as if he were going about the actions of an ordinary day. Which he was. This was his job.
I stared. With the exception of seeing my uncle in a funeral casket when I was little, made-up and pasty in full-suit attire, this was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body. Zhang Jie and Xiao Mao moved in closer to stand near a small group of people up front, but I stayed back on the hillside, near the others, family members I assumed, who sat clustered in two small groups. I didn’t sense in them the same solemn nature that one would expect from a funeral service, but rather, their reclining relaxed postures made it feel like they could’ve been out on a picnic. Knees pulled up in front of me, I noticed the grass beneath me was dotted with delicate yellow and white flowers. When I looked closer, I saw it was also scattered with feathers and small shards of bone.
I covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve and watched as the burial man shuffled back and forth. My eyes insistently returned to rest on the corpses, as if trying to convince myself I was really staring at what had just a week ago been two live human beings. I didn’t know much about sky burials, only that it was a ritual as normal as cremation is to us in the West. Did the Tibetans see this ritual as an offering, I wondered, a continuation of the food chain, a relationship between the cycles of life and death? Did they believe the birds would carry the spirits of the dead to the heavens? Or had the spirits already departed in the days before? But Buddhism doesn’t even believe in a fixed, unchanging spirit or soul. The Buddha taught that what we refer to as our “selves” is a combination of physical and mental aggregates, something like energies that are constantly changing from one moment to the next. If there was never one fixed, unchanging self or soul to begin with, then there could be no fixed person or self to be reborn. Instead, life and death is a continuous unbroken series of change.
Buddhism, of course, had changed since it spread to Tibet from India around the year 800, morphing with the gods and rituals of Tibet’s native Bon religion. I had no idea what the Tibetans at Seda actually believed in or what they trusted would happen to their loved ones when they died. I also didn’t know then that sky burials were a ritual that had grown out of practical necessity: there is a high death rate in Tibet, little firewood for cremation, and scarce land suitable for burial in the ground. Sky burials were thus a logical solution, believed to have emerged sometime after Buddhism was introduced to Tibet.
At some point, the vultures began to stir. I hadn’t noticed the burial man give a definitive signal, but somehow, the birds knew he was ready. Before I knew what was happening, they began to rush down the hillside—half flying, half running and hopping—leaping with an ancient, pre-historic gait.
“My god!” I cried as I jumped to my feet, hurrying out of their way. Squawking and vying for position and space, they swooped in to pick and tear at scraps of flesh. Zhang Jie began taking pictures and I took out my camera as well. Some birds waited at the edge of the flock. Others dove right into the center, the greediest or hungriest of them all.
The burial man turned towards us and waved angrily. “No pictures,” Xiao Mao said quietly. Of course. I knew better and guiltily put my camera away.
After about five minutes of watching the bird’s frenzied feeding from the side, the burial man wandered back into their midst. They scattered, allowing him to retrieve some pieces of bone and smash them even more. Was the last thing he produced the head? He cracked something with his mallet that sounded like a skull, then threw it towards the birds who dove in with increased fervor. Zhang Jie took out her camera to sneak in a few more photos. I motioned to her, annoyed. Who cares, she shrugged. He’s not looking.
The whole ritual lasted about thirty minutes. Afterward, the birds began to fly into the sky, circling in wide arcs above the valley. Hundreds of them, circling. As the vultures flew off, the family members rose and began to disperse. A young couple approached us, leading a horse behind them. They nodded and gave us each a piece of hard candy. Another part of the ritual? Candy for the attendees. I took off the wrapper and sucked on the sweetness, the smell of death lingering all around.
As the three of us left, Zhang Jie lagged behind Xiao Mao and me, taking more pictures of the sky burial site and the valley. I felt a weight in my chest for my own photos, and Zhang Jie’s flippant shrug had rubbed in my shame all the more. What did she see in this ritual? Some savage act of uncivilized beasts? Something she could show her friends back home so they would be impressed by her bravery to have watched such a disgusting act of primitivism? But was I really that different? I knew I could not blame Zhang Jie for my desire to take my own photos. I resented her influence on me, and yet in many ways, we were the same—swooping in to ingest this world with our hungry eyes and questions, wanting to take a piece of it home so we could try to remember what we saw here and felt. A moment of reckoning: this is what will happen to us—whether we choose to face it or not.
I let myself drift away from Zhang Jie, not wanting to wait for her as she continued to take photos. Xiao Mao walked silently ahead. I wondered if he regretted taking us here, and our need to document and preserve, remaining one layer removed from direct experience.
“Look!” Zhang Jie called out as she ran to catch up with us, pointing up into the sky. I looked. The clouds had parted to shape the perfect arc of a bird with its wings outstretched. I couldn’t resist. One last shot.
But I should have known better. When I developed the pictures months later, the sky and the clouds hovered overhead, but the bird was nowhere to be found.