Suzanne Cope is a writer and professor in New York City. Her book Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Food (Rowman & Littlefield) was published in 2014 and recent and upcoming articles and essays include contributions to The New York Times, Time.com, XOJane, Italian American Review, Edible Boston, Blue Lyra Review, Render, among others. She teaches at Manhattan College and University of Arkansas, Monticello MFA Program. Additional information can be found at www.suzannecope.com, www.locavoreinthecity.com, and @locavoreincity on twitter.
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.
Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read. Madeleine Barnes | In Harmonium Guillaume Apollinaire | Sadness of a Star | **Rebekah Curry Lowell Levant | A Poet Drives a Truck: Poems by and about Lowell A. Levant | review by Thomas Dukes **Indicates Translators
Poetry: (Guest Edited by Jason Koo)
Emily Blair | The Deadly Years
J. Scott Brownlee | Ascension
Falconhead | I Have Set My Face Like Flint or The Misanthrope Goes Into Town
Peter Cole Friedman | The Perfect Phospholipids
Julie Hart | Resting Bitch Face
Tim Kahl | Tasking the Guardian
Christine Kitano | Lesson: Chicken Soup
Debora Kuan| Teen Ghost
Justin Maki | Watch
Derek Mong | An Ordinary Evening in San Francisco
Laura Plaster | Candids
Erin Redfern | Photograph of a Drugged Giraffe
Chris Roberts | What ever happened to the compass?
Sokunthary Svay | At Least Prostitutes Bring Home Money
Ed Toney | The Baptist Growl
Nonfiction: (Guest Edited by Suzanne Cope)
Javier Etchevarren | Lungs | **Don Bogen
Agustín Lucas | General Flores without Flowers | **Jesse Lee
Kercheval Dimitra Kotoula | Case Study V (on Ethics) | **Maria Nazos
Michele Battiste | Uprising | review by Kayla Haas
Madeleine Barnes | In Harmonium
Guillaume Apollinaire | Sadness of a Star | **Rebekah Curry
Lowell Levant | A Poet Drives a Truck: Poems by and about Lowell A. Levant | review by Thomas Dukes
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.
Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read. Eugene H. Davis | Howl No More Charles Baudelaire | The Clock | **Lola Haskins **Indicates Translators
(Guest Edited by Judy Juanita)
Arika Elizenberry | Red Summer, 1919
Bridget Gage-Dixon | Hew Paints Crickets
Gail Goepfert | Revivify *runner up in our 2014 short-ish poetry contest*
Karen Greenbaum-Maya | My Uncle the Perfectionist
Kamden Hilliard | Hong Kong, Summer
Lowell Jaeger | A Salesman’s Song
David Kann | The Language of the Farm *runner up in our 2014 long-ish poetry contest*
Issa M. Lewis | The Catacomb Saints
Joel Lewis | Looking For Soup
Noorulain Noor | Chronology of Evil Eye
Jennifer Raha | Perennial | Resupination
Maryann Russo | Joe Redota Trail
Eva Schlesinger | With You in Hildesheim
Benjamin Schmitt | We were radicals
Bonnie Wai-Lee Kwong | Mother | A Day in British Hong Kong
Cyrille Fleischman | Monsieur Lekouved’s Revolt | **Lynn Palermo
Imanova Günel | Untitled | **Arturo Desimone
Marcel Lecomte | The Schoolmaster | Number | **K. A. Wisniewski
Eugene H. Davis | Howl No More
Charles Baudelaire | The Clock | **Lola Haskins
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.
Theme Issue: Far From The Maddening Crowd
Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read. Paul David Adkins | Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan Experience a Night Thunderstorm while Stranded on Nikumaroro Island Rivka Basman Ben-Haim | Doves Speak Yiddish | **Zelda Kahan Newman Helène Aylon | Whatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist | review by Lenore Weiss **Indicates Translators
Aaron Bauer | Unnamed Woman—State Hospital, Michigan
Francesca Bell | Burdens
Susan Cohen | We Bones That Are Here | Reading Fernando Pessoa in Portugal
Donelle Dreese | Sophrosyne | The Surrender Tree
Anthony Frame | When Rain isn’t Rain
Karen George | Alaskan Cruise Haibun
Kathryn Gessner | Cargo
Tom Holmes | At L’Estaque
Lori Lamothe | Intersection with Edward Hopper | Greylock
Sandra Marchetti | Swing | The Language of Ice
Jean Nordhaus | A Jew Returns to Cairo
Michael Spring | Ghazel for Music | Bear Totem
Maranda Stewart | For Birds
Yves Bonnefoy | He Is Leaving | **Susanna Lang
Hafez | Ghazal 6 | **Roger Sedarat
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi | Untitled | **Roger Sedarat
Avrom Sutzkever | From Diary Poems | **Zackary Sholem Berger
Carmen Vascones | How lonely love remains | **Alexis Levitin
Tarfia Faizullah | Seam | Paul David Adkins
Sue William Silverman | The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as A White Anglo-Saxon Jew | review by Kelly O’Toole
Paul David Adkins | Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan Experience a Night Thunderstorm while Stranded on Nikumaroro Island
Rivka Basman Ben-Haim | Doves Speak Yiddish | **Zelda Kahan Newman
Helène Aylon | Whatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist | review by Lenore Weiss
Linda Saslow is a 2013 graduate of the USC Master of Professional Writing Program where she focused on Creative Nonfiction. Linda works as an art teacher and freelance writer in Fullerton, California. Her essays have been published in The Cleveland Jewish News, Lost Coast Review, The Fullertonian, Shaker Life Magazine, and The Fullerton Observer. She is currently working on a screenplay on the fast-paced sport of Women’s Skeleton at the 2002 Winter Olympics titled “Speedsuits.”
The Shiksa Sisterhood
“So he’s bringing home his girlfriend tomorrow. Another shiksa,” Joan said, my raven-haired, born and bred Jewish friend who came into my life sometime in college, so long ago. “It’s always the blondes with him.”
“I have to object to the slur,” I said. “I’m a shiksa too.”
She stared blankly at her wine glass, unable to take back the insult. When I took the plunge into the ritual bath of a mikveh at age twenty-five and started calling myself a Jew, I innocently dreamed the religious and secular world would accept me unconditionally as a Jewish woman, wife, and especially as a mother. Now nearly two decades later, I’m reassessing what that all really means.
The definition of shiksa is: “A Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew word “sheketz,” meaning the flesh of an animal deemed taboo by the Torah. Since a Jewish man marrying a non-Jewish woman is taboo, this word applies to her too.” (Urban Dictionary)
As Joan offered me a second glass of wine, she said, “People can’t actually ask you if you’ve converted. It’s forbidden to ask. How do they know?”
“You must live in a world where no one is rude. I don’t live in that world.”
It is easy to guess I’ve not been born and bred in a Jewish household. Among other tells, each and every year I forget tradition and light the Hanukkah menorah from left to right instead of right to left, mimicking the way the Hebrew language is read. And, I look positively Irish, red hair and freckles, sigh.
On a warm California spring day in 1995, I, nude as the day I was born, took a prayerful plunge into the Los Angeles University of Judaism’s mikvah, an indoor ritual bath with cobalt-blue tiled steps that descended into warm chest-high spring water. Emerging back into the Earth’s atmosphere, I’d become Jewish. Like Charlotte in “Sex in the City,” I dunked in the mikvah to spiritually cleanse myself before marrying the man I love. The reality that my conversion only mattered to a small group of Jews in the Western world beyond the ritual bath’s walls was an insignificant detail to me at the instant I clicked the spiritual reset button.
My high dive off the religious plank of American Christianity was not only for love. I wanted to swim far away from the hypocritical Protestant family that raised me. My people espouse Christ’s forgiveness while finding themselves unable to turn the other cheek in their day-to-day lives. Also, they are betting on the rapture to see the divine, and I’m not so patient.
A few weeks before the mikvah, I had to face a beit din – or, rather, an evening quiz show of three jovial rabbis assembled in one of their living rooms drinking diet pop. I had to prove I had learned something in the University of Judaism’s semester-long class.
I answered the obvious question right: I would raise my children as Jews. As for the rest, I wavered. Regarding the kosher law against mixing meat and dairy, I defended turkey and Swiss, contending that poultry doesn’t lactate. They asked about my feelings about Israel, and I started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the stars and stripes. Still, I was good to go.
What I did was not unique. Many Americans have entered into marriages and cultures not of their birth in recent years. According to the landmark October 2013 Survey of Jewish Americans, interfaith marriages make up fully 50 percent of unions among Reform Jews. As for millennial Jewish offspring, 48 percent of their parents are engaged in mixed marriages.
In the twentieth century, the snag that sent many shiksa fiancées, like me, off to a semester of conversion class followed by a dip in the spring water mikvah was the fact that a rabbi required a bride’s conversion to officiate on her wedding day. Back then, rabbis wanted to avoid an interfaith ceremony.
This mandate appears to be relaxing as the ethos of the new century emerges. Chelsea Clinton’s still a Methodist and the rumble from the Reform pulpit was overwhelmingly positive when she married Marc Mezvinsky under a chuppah canopy. Neither lightning bolts nor thunder ensued. I remember the day well; my youngest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was also on July 31, 2010. Chelsea’s ketubah, a written Jewish wedding contract, was celebrated, not cursed.
Likewise, Ashley Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, married Jewish surgeon Howard Krein in a Roman Catholic Church on June 2, 2012, but the ceremony incorporated Jewish traditions. A rabbi officiated along with a priest. Marking the end of a wedding ceremony by the groom breaking a glass with his foot might just become more and more common, even under a crucifix, as Jewish intermarriage surges this century.
Every temple I have joined in the past two decades has what is called a “Sisterhood,” a women’s group that comes together for socializing, entertainment, and nominal community service projects. In those same temples and Jewish parent groups across North America there’s another, unofficial “Shiksa Sisterhood” hovering below the radar. We shiksas understand each other’s sincerity, in spite of our faux pas. Each of us wants to raise our children with a Jewish identity. We wholeheartedly want our kids to be included in the Jewish club that their fathers hold dear, no questions asked. Having the kids learn a bit of Hebrew to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a good idea. A teen’s free trip to Israel can be the prize at the end of the carpools. (Spoiler: Your daughter might come home with an Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt.)
Whether in my native Southern California or back in Ohio, no matter what reform temple my family joins, in my experience, the shiksas manage to find each other. At my neighborhood shul in north Orange County, we shiksas could literally fill the temple’s social hall with a sorority as diverse as the chirping doll choir in Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” musical boat ride. Today, I’m friendly with many women and men who have opted not to take the plunge, but still drop their kids off every week to learn a bit of Torah.
Shiksas today are not just the cookie-cutter blonde, buxom Scandinavian starlets paraded on stage of pop culture and in the Jewish mother’s mind as a romantic threat to her hunky sons. (Think “Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom” in “The Producers.”) The big news in the new millennium is that a growing number of shiksas are not Caucasian, let alone blonde and buxom. At my most recent congregation, the shiksas are Asian, Native American, Latino, and there is one solitary African-American lesbian. For me, this diversity is very good news.
A temple potluck that includes Malaysian eggplant, potato curry, and Argentinian flan appeals far more to me than the perennial kugel cook-off in Middle America’s synagogues. No one feels compelled to ask these ladies of color if they were born Jewish, so all those supposedly forbidden questions are out the window. I bet life is easier without the charade. Recently, I had to bolt the social hall when faced with an ear-piercing Texan chanteuse singing a gospel spoof satirically titled “Amazing Schmaltz.” Please. Really? “Amazing Grace” is a powerful and cherished spiritual hymn. I sang that song in Protestant Sunday school as a child, and it was no joke.
Yet a shiksa aims to please. I cook my matzo balls to the exact specifications that my mother-in-law learned from her mother-in-law. My Latina shiksa friend Ann Marie performs this culinary magic too, even though she’s never converted. Far be it from her to stop making her own family’s pork tamales for Christmas Eve. Why would she? They are some of the most delicious creations I have ever tasted.
I worship the Passover main dish recipe from the Cleveland Heights kosher butcher, aptly named Mr. Brisket. My vegetarian tsimmes is divine. And, I’ve learned to make gefilte fish loaf so perfectly that it rivals a four-star French restaurant’s fish terrine. Never mind that my in-laws sit around lamenting that they like the jarred fish balls in jellied broth from the Kosher section of the supermarket equally well. I have no fond memories of hockey pucks in fishy slime served cold with beet-red horseradish, so I prefer something that tastes fresh and that my kids will consent to eat.
What brings us shiksas together? What bonds us? Simply, at a basic level, we love a Jewish man or woman and most of us have married that person. Some, like myself, have converted. Others haven’t bothered to study up and are still dropping the kids off every Saturday. Even if our understanding is very rudimentary, we love the faith and the powerful family structure that Judaism promotes. The American Jewish world provides a great sense of pride and a warm nest of support for our children.
I don’t doubt that many brides’ conversions are of a spiritual nature rather than simply a way to check a box to assure the in-laws that Christmas trees and Santa Claus are off the December agenda. I’m a person who embraces the spiritual unknown, so my own conversion was not a simple dunk in the water to let me join a club.
I wanted my personal spirituality to be relevant. Judaism gave my husband’s family a foundation for living in the here and now. The Saslows aren’t waiting for salvation from a poorly lived life.
The deity I envision is amorphous and genderless. The Earth mother or Gaia, perhaps, but with powers reaching far beyond our own planet’s atmosphere, defying the physics of space and time. My new religious path offered me the liberty to shake the patriarchal Protestant shackle learned in Lutheran and Presbyterian Sunday school classes. Sure, Orthodox Judaism is still a male-dominated game, but Reform Judaism in North America, for the most part, is not chauvinistic these days. Female Rabbis and Cantors are everywhere you look in the Reform Jewish world. The Fullerton temple uses a gender-neutral prayer book and I wholeheartedly embrace this modern invention.
There are Jewish traditions that I find spiritually meaningful. I like to fast on Yom Kippur and do believe this small personal sacrifice helps me at least be mindful that I have erred in the past year. On Rosh Hashanah, I like to mark the Jewish New Year by performing tashlikh, a ritual where a prayer of repentance is recited while one casts one’s sins, symbolized by breadcrumbs, into a living body of water. I do a considerable amount of hands-on volunteer work as well as driving my children to get their own hands dirty for the benefit of others. I consider my unpaid toil to be my family’s own personal tikkun olam, or obligation to repair what is unjust the world. I may be new to the game, but I’m not half-assed about it. The majority of shiksas I know share a similar devotion.
This is not a resignation; it is simply a rumination that a shiksa’s cultural DNA is not as easy to drop as her drawers before a ritual bath. While what my friend Joan had said stung, her sentiment reflected a deep insecurity on her own part, and her words didn’t matter when I gazed back at my own big picture. I had gladly crossed my name off the wait list for the rapture, but Judaism hasn’t swallowed me whole in return. The comfort of the spiritually off-center “Shiksa Sisterhood” will always draw me back. The shiksas get it when the other sisters don’t. We’re in on the joke together.
Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read. Isaac Black | Hiroshima **Indicates translators
Charlie Bondhus | Jeffrey Dahmer Talks to His Father
Bill Brown | Ladders
Ruth Foley | Benthos | Consolation
Risa Denenberg | Tisha B’av
Anthony Frame | Everything I Know I Learned from Kermit the Frog
Denise Low | Garden of William Burroughs | Crop Duster Plane
Cindy Hunter Morgan | Columbia, 1859
Elisabeth Murawski | The Birthday Party
Jean Nordhaus | On the Road to Qumran
Lee Slonimsky | Pythagoras’s Bees | Mid-Autumn Languages of Trees
Cheryl Snell | Reinventing the Wheel
Spotlight on an Artist:
Isaac Black | Hiroshima
Sigrid Erro lives in a cohousing community in Santa Cruz, CA. She has worked as a massage therapist, security officer, avocado ranch owner, graphic designer, and lay chaplain. She is writing a memoir set in a psychiatric hospital.
My friends want to be cremated when they die. Not me. I want my bones to survive.
I’m home for Thanksgiving, visiting Vista cemetery, where the bones of my ancestors live. My paternal grandmother, Astrid, and my grandfather, Hans, lie here. Their flesh has disintegrated, but not their skeletons. Bones can live for hundreds, thousands, of years. When I feel my clavicle, press on my rib cage, I know these parts will endure, and it comforts me.
Some people want their ashes spread over the ocean. The notion chills me—to have no idea where my body will land, particles traveling this way and that. I know exactly where I’m going to end up: in this cemetery, buried six feet under the ground, in our family plot, the space furthest from my father.
I find the place where we buried my father’s ashes. The headstone is small and unadorned, as he wanted. First and last name, middle initial, 1931 to 2003.
For forty years, I prayed he would die. As a child, I imagined his headstone with longing; I stand on it now. Anger and relief course through me. It feels good to be on top of him, for a change. People nearby place flowers at the graves of their loved ones and weep. I’m afraid I appear irreverent, but I don’t move. Having been cremated, his skeleton does not remain; this pleases me.
When I was younger, I came to the cemetery with Honey, my maternal grandmother, and we visited the graves of her husband and daughter. I stared with dread at the empty spot next to my grandfather, knowing Honey would be there someday, her kind face decaying. Then I reflected that the bones in the hand I held would always be here, just under the ground.
I see my own grave site and move to the space where I will be buried.
As Honey’s headstone now sits on her grave, mine will eventually rest here. I wonder, though of course it would be impossible, what I might think about in my coffin. What would I regret? What, like Marley’s ghost, would I wish I had done, but be forever unable to?
So I ask my dead self. I talk to the ground. What is it that I need to do? What is most important? And I imagine myself underneath, forever unable to see, or move. My message to my living self is clear: Give up your rage and bitterness.
Immediately, I feel a release—a vast, cool river, washing away my fury, grief, and shame. And in that instant, it feels possible. Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I know my life can change, and I’m eager to begin.
I turn to leave and eye my father’s headstone. I want to stand on it again, grind my heel in, feel the power I now have over him. The brilliance I just felt is gone. My reverie disappears as my wrath takes hold.
So I stand there. Angry at my father. Angry at myself, for giving in to the rage. Angry at my dead self, for not granting me the power to cling to its message.
I don’t stand on his grave again. Instead, I take a deep breath, grateful for lungs that still breathe, legs that still carry me.
I return to my car. With one stride, I yearn for freedom from bitterness, I pray for grace; with the next, I picture his headstone with vengeance. Whether I stand on him or not, his bones are nothing but dust.
J.W. Young’s essays have been anthologized by Random House, Dzanc Books, and Pinchback Press. Her work has appeared in both print and online journals including The Apple Valley Review, Memoir, and Front Porch. Her recently completed memoir, Blood and Circumstance, recounts the effects of living as the daughter of one of California’s most notorious serial rapists. You can contact her and read more of her work at www.joyousinhell.blogspot.com.
Big Dumb Baby
I was raised by my maternal grandmother who—among teaching me the finer points of smoking non-filter cigarettes and ironing a perfect crease into polyester slacks—made sure I grew up understanding the one true pillar of friendship: “Most friends,” she’d say, the words oozing from her mouth like some fine poison, “wouldn’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” So many times was this phrase repeated that it should have been etched into our family crest and set above the front door.
I knew Grandma to have only two friends. The first, a woman named Linda who was several years Grandma’s junior, seemed to come around only when the two of them were going on cruises to Mexico. Linda owned a pizzeria and as a kid I spent afternoons inside the small restaurant feeding quarters into the pinball machines in the back while the two of them sat at one of the small tables and smoked and laughed over pictures of their latest trip. The last time Grandma saw Linda, I was nearly an adult. We were both invited to her wedding—she was on her fifth or sixth husband by then—and while we were welcome at the ceremony I remember feeling as if we’d crashed the reception. Grandma didn’t know anyone at our table and spent much of the afternoon trying to make her way over to the one with Linda’s adult children. When she finally made it, she sat down next to a tanned young man who looked just like his mother. He seemed to not know who she was, though Grandma spoke loudly, saying, “I used to feed Mark strained peas. They were his favorite.”
Taking her place in the receiving line, ready for a warm response from Linda, all Grandma got was a short hug, a brief introduction to the groom, and a complicit smile. I don’t think the two women ever spoke again. Grandma stopped mentioning her cruises, sitting at captains’ tables, and the fact that a little boy named Mark used to hang on her every word.
The only other friend Grandma had was a German immigrant named Gretta who called our house three or four times a day. Each time Grandma picked up the phone, perhaps hoping to hear from Linda, she’d cheerfully say, “Hello,” and then roll her eyes. “Hi Gretta.” For the next hour she’d be roped into listening to the thick accent, the woman recounting her most recent complaint about her adult daughter or her newest physical ailment. When Grandma hung up she’d say, “God I hate that damned woman.” But she still picked up the phone every day. Eventually, one of Gretta’s many ailments proved fatal and the day after her funeral—where Grandma was the only friend in attendance—the phone rang and Grandma joked, “That’s probably Gretta calling me from beyond the grave.” She picked up the receiver only to find dead air. This happened more than a dozen times over the next month, and I came to believe that when a friendship died, its haunting spirit somehow remained.
Perhaps it goes without saying that for most of my childhood I was lonely. Sure, I had schoolmates and neighbors, but I was only allowed to socialize with one girl, Michelle, whose parents were both teachers. For some reason, Grandma trusted them and so I was allowed on occasion to have a little contact with Michelle outside of school. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I was allowed to accept invitations to her house. Miraculously, the summer before I was fourteen, I spent two weeks with her family in Hawaii. They treated me like a second daughter, allowing Michelle and I entire hours of time on our own that we spent on the beach, exploring sea side walking paths, and swimming in the resort pool. When I returned home, I regaled Grandma with tales of our adventures.
After that trip Grandma went out of her way to keep Michelle from being a part of my life. She moved me to another town. She wouldn’t allow me to talk to Michelle on the phone; I wasn’t permitted to accept any more invitations to her house, even for her birthday. Since both of us were too young to drive, I saw my childhood friend again only one other time. She appeared on my doorstep a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday with a card and a copy of Stephen King’s newest book. I stepped out onto the front porch and sat with her on the cold cement step while her mother waited in the car.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” she said.
“It’s just, I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to be my friend? It’s okay that you live here now. We can still keep in touch.”
I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t realize at the time Grandma had purposely moved me away from my only friend. But I knew that move had made us destitute—house-rich and everything-else-poor. When Michelle showed up at my door that day I couldn’t invite her inside in part because I had nothing to offer her; our refrigerator housed a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes, a head of lettuce, and a jar of mayonnaise. I feared—because Grandma said it—that Michelle would somehow know we were suffering and judge me for it, terminate the friendship. Sitting on the front step, not looking into the face of the girl who’d been my friend since kindergarten, I suddenly felt like a baby whose only response was to cry—my face burned with tears. Michelle looked at her shoes, green Converse sneakers I envied. “I gotta go,” she finally said.
These years preceded email and social media, so we only exchanged a handful of letters over the next few months, letters I received only because I was the one to check the mail each day. One of the last Michelle sent was an essay she’d written in her English class about her best friend, me. She’d made a cover for the essay, a collage of photos of the two of us over the years, and in the essay she lamented the fact that we drifted apart.
As I grew into an adult, I constantly thought of Grandma’s words, “They won’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” But once I’d left home I was able to gain some perspective on our life together that suggested to me I’d forever be hard-pressed to find a healthy friendship. I’d been damaged by fate: Grandma—like so many other single-parents—had developed an emotional dependency on me. She’d been divorced several times, had a hard time maintaining relationships with her own children and siblings, and because she didn’t work was isolated at home for most of the day, her only hobbies were chain smoking and obsessively dusting her antique furniture. I was her sole companion, and if I’d had a relationship with someone else she would have felt threatened. Today this condition is known as Parental Co-Dependency, but when I was young it was simply the way my world worked.
Or maybe Grandma was incapable of maintaining more than one close relationship, as a large majority of adult Americans are wont to do. Based on her track record with Linda and Gretta that seems to fit the bill. Or she could’ve been like the millions of people on the planet who simply use a spouse—in her case a pseudo-spouse, me—as their best friend. Some psychologists argue that it’s only natural for a spouse to become the best friend, while another camp argues such behavior results in an unhealthy marriage of co-dependency. We surely fell into the latter category. Whatever the reason, I wish Grandma would’ve told me what she was feeling so I could’ve tried to understand it, if not somehow grow from it, maybe even learn to be a better judge of character.
As I entered my thirties—the age experts agree signals the plateau of true friend-making—I took a short assessment of my friendships: I knew six people who would pee on me if I suddenly burst into flames. To those close friends, I’d become fiercely loyal. One in particular, Gibb, had earned my respect over the ten years I’d known him. And while I admired him, the longer I knew him, the more I pitied him: he lived alone, hardly left his apartment, his bookcases were filled with Disney DVDs and Playstation games. He spent the wee hours of his mornings in chat rooms. In an attempt to show the world what a good guy Gibb was, I named him Managing Editor of a writing journal when I stepped down.
The following year, my husband Adam and I moved to another state. But we got together with Gibb whenever we could. During one visit we sat around in his living room—movie posters on the walls and scented candles lit on every surface—drinking beer and catching up on each others’ lives. Before we left, he told me, “That’s what I like best about you guys. I don’t have to talk to you every day to be close friends. We just kinda pick up where we left off.” Though I didn’t say it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for years he’d been meticulously measuring our friendship against others he had, weighing me against some criteria for keeping and discarding people.
A few years later, when a position opened at my workplace, I wrote Gibb a letter of recommendation. I put in a good word for him with my boss, telling her how much the two of them had in common, and that I thought he’d really fit in. It didn’t take long for him to get the job. It took even less time for him and my boss to become lovers. At first, I was supportive of their relationship. I helped them keep it a secret from the higher-ups so neither one of them would be fired, and even deceived my fellow coworkers so they wouldn’t be found out. Gibb was my friend. And friends put out fires for one another.
Then I found out about Big Dumb Baby, a sex game they played where Gibb was made to act like an infant called Big Dumb Baby and my boss acted like Mommy, spanking him and telling him what she wanted him to do to her. I’m all for kinky sex, but never have I felt turned on by the idea of intercourse with a baby. Gibb liked Big Dumb Baby enough to marry her. Every time I saw him in the halls, in the copy room, at parties, all I could think about was him trussed up in adult diapers wearing a baby bonnet and sucking his wife’s toes. I imagined him bent over and allowing her to spank him.
A few months after taking their vows, Gibb told me over the telephone, “I unfriended you on Facebook.” Because I hadn’t seen Gibb around the office or at any social gatherings since his marriage, deleting me from his Facebook list was the emotional equivalent of what I’d done to Michelle over a decade earlier.
“You what?” I asked.
“It’s not personal or anything. It’s just, sometimes you post comments about your boss.”
“And? So do a lot of people.”
“Your boss is my wife.”
“She’s not my only boss.” I’d been irate about some policy changes and had posted a few comments about how unjust they were. And while Mommy had started to go out of her way to make my work life miserable, none of my posts were directed at her. “I haven’t posted anything about her,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
My face suddenly got very hot and before I could stop them, my eyes filled with tears. “So instead of talking to me about it you just unfriend me?”
“I’m sorry, but your posts make for awkward conversations around my house. Conversations I don’t want to have.”
Just before their marriage, Gibb told me he and Mommy had never fought, had never had a full-blown, heated argument about anything. Which made me wonder if they even really cared about each other. I suddenly blamed myself for Gibb’s passionless, dishonest marriage where his wife treated him like an infant. But instead of revealing what I knew about him, trying to help him through his embarrassment, I got angry, Grandma’s warning ringing in my head. I’d befriended someone who was simply pissing on me. “This is bullshit,” I said.
“It’s not bullshit. I’m married. My wife and I are one,” he said. As if after his wedding he’d gotten a lobotomy or been plugged into the Borg. And with that, our friendship was officially over. Like me and Michelle, like Grandma and Gretta.
Gibb systematically cut all of his pre-marriage friends out of his life. It’s a common enough phenomenon. Some couples end decade-long friendships prior to getting hitched. But usually, the ties are cut with single friends not married ones. Still, I’m not naïve enough to believe people don’t change during marriage. Compromise is part of a working relationship. But never have I thought during the course of my own marriage that I needed to end a friendship because Adam doesn’t approve. We maintain common friends—most of them other married couples—and our own friendships that came with us before we took our vows.
“I feel so used,” I told another one of Gibb’s toss-aways.
“It’s funny that she still has all of her friends, but he’s had to get rid of his. The people he’s friends with now are people she brought with her to the marriage,” she said.
“I don’t get it. How could he just use me? Just jump ship?”
“It’s the type of person he is,” she said, shrugging. And something in her tone reminded me so much of Grandma’s warning that I shuddered. “But if you really want to know the truth,” she said, “I think he had a crush on you before he got married and was stupid enough to actually tell her about it.”
I didn’t want to believe it. But I immediately recalled an evening at Mommy’s house when I made a joke about how I’d landed my husband. “If Adam hadn’t wanted me,” I’d laughed, “I was going to move in on to Gibb next.” Big Dumb Baby blushed, and Mommy’s smile became a tight-lipped mask. After Adam and I got home I asked him, “Do you think Gibb thought I was serious about wanting to date him?”
“Obviously,” he said. “You saw her face, too.”
“So she hates me now,” I said. “She’ll probably try to get me fired.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Adam said.
Shortly after Gibb unfriended me, I began to imagine him as a prisoner in Mommy’s house. He was trussed up in his Big Dumb Baby garb, drooling and crying for a diaper change. She circled him while slapping a riding crop across his bare legs. No matter how he cried, she was determined to keep him right where he was. I never dropped by their place for fear of realizing their game had gone too far. For fear that I’d failed to help my friend out of a humiliating relationship, failed to put out the flame. I, too, had become the very sort of friend I’d worried myself over.
The end of my relationship with Gibb made me question the validity of every close friendship I still had. Three of my five remaining friends lived hundreds of miles away and most of our weekly interactions took place through social media. I sent cards at holidays, but my ability to remember birthdays and anniversaries was sadly lacking. I loved these friends very much, more so even than family members. But I’m unsure if they really knew how valuable they were in my life, how crushed I’d be if they suddenly cut me out. I contacted each of them, letting them know I’d pee on them in a second, should the need ever arise. And they all assured me they would happily do the same. Without Gibb I would’ve never recognized how miserably I was failing as a friend. For that, I’m thankful.
And I wish I could’ve saved him from Mommy and Big Dumb Baby, though I know that ultimately he made those choices on his own. Still, the more I think about his end to our friendship and those that—despite my shortcomings—are still thriving, the more I relive the moment with Michelle on the front step, her green sneakers, and my desperate, silent plea for my best friend to recognize I was being forced to give her up. If I’d just swallowed my pride, or had the courage to stand up to Grandma, to tell her our relationship isolated me, perhaps my life would’ve been a little less lonely. Perhaps I could’ve grown into a woman who saw strangers as potential friends rather than people who, at the sight of me aflame, would turn tail and run.
Click on a title to read an author’s work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra. Also, consider leaving a comment for everyone to read.
Lucille Lang Day | Rituals | I Am Afraid Fiction: Book Reviews: Translations: Spotlight on an Artist: **Indicates translators
Julie R. Enszer | Imperfect
Natalie Fisher | Watering the Roses
Kayla Haas | Another Tamarind Night
Cheryl Anne Latuner | What Rests in the Earth
Hart L’Ecuyer | Carnival in Neosho, Missouri | A Subway in New York with Hart Crane
Zvi A. Sesling | Excerpt from the Inquisition
Adrienne Su | Procrastination
Wally Swist | Dinner with Camus
Donna Vorreyer | Finding A Way | Instructions for Stones
Lucille Lang Day | Rituals | I Am Afraid
Spotlight on an Artist:
Ellen Brooks is a teacher and writer living in Westchester County, New York. She currently teaches at Hunter College (New York City) and Manhattanville College (Purchase, NY) and has worked as a special education teacher, literacy consultant, and writing workshop leader. Ellen has published two professional texts on the teaching of reading and writing (Learning to Read and Write, Garland Press and Just-Right Books for Beginning Readers, Scholastic); her writing has appeared in other publications for parents and teachers. Ellen completed a doctoral degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania (Ed.D., 1981) and recently completed an MFA in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College (December, 2012).
At ten minutes before six on a cool October evening, I follow my teenage daughter Lizzie along the narrow stone path that leads through the garden to the yoga studio. We are early, but the classroom, where we will practice vinyasa yoga, is almost filled to capacity, and we will need to put our mats close together, leaving only an inch or two of floor exposed between. In the front of the room, propped up against the wall, is a small white board with a quote by Ganga White, founder of the White Lotus Foundation and a well-known figure in the yoga world: “Being present is balanced and tempered by keeping a long view, a lifetime perspective.”
The lights are low, and the glow of the evening sun filters through the side window, casting a faint shadow across the floor. Stillness permeates the space. Lizzie whispers, “Please stay next to me.” She lines her mat up on the floor, taking care to make the edges straight, to secure a bit of space between her mat and others nearby, and to roll the front edge under to keep it from curling up. She pulls her sweatshirt over her head, folds it neatly next to her, and takes a cross-legged seat on the mat. She takes off her earrings, necklace and bracelets, carefully placing each on the floor next to her. She glances at me. Smiling. All sweetness. I picture her room, which we have just left behind— socks, shirts, and sweaters scattered on top of her dresser and on the floor. I picture the gum wrappers on the night table and piles of jewelry strewn everywhere. And I can see her angry look; she is scowling at me and reciting a familiar mantra, one that seems to give her momentary pleasure as she distinctly utters each word: “You don’t know anything, Mom. You are such a loser.” I am happy to be here and not there.
When we go home, the notes for the research paper for her ninth-grade history class will wait in disarray—spread across the kitchen table and floor where she left them. Maybe she’ll be in a better frame of mind to face the challenge. Maybe she’ll try to read her own handwriting on the note cards and just maybe she will feel sturdy enough to grapple with the task of organizing and synthesizing the notes into a unified whole—to follow her outline step-by-step—to put in the time and effort it will take to write the paper. She wants desperately to do it herself; I want desperately to offer my support. After all, this is what I do everyday. As a teacher, I am practiced at helping kids just like Lizzie— students with language-based learning difficulties who work hard to meet the demands of reading, writing, and listening in school. As a mom, though, it is difficult to watch her struggle. When she encounters a problem or makes a mistake, she blames herself. I can’t, she says. I’m not any good at this. I remember a scene in the car—she is seven, and we are on our way to dance class. Mommy, am I smart? This, from a small, voice in the back seat. Even then, the lilt in her voice warned that there would be little I could do to give her assurance. In school her teachers offer praise for her hard work and persistence, but she believes that the world values performance. She doubts herself, and I want to boost her up, to give her the confidence that her efforts will make a difference. To help her develop the mindset that she can learn and grow even when the challenges are great.
Meanwhile, in the yoga class, our teacher, Shannah, will start class with a personal story or maybe she will say that this is a moment of bliss. Although I like to think of myself as positive and optimistic, and although I love words, bliss is a word that is a bit too optimistic, too cheery and over the top for me. But maybe Shannah is onto something that I can’t quite see. I imagine collecting all this bliss, bottling it up, and taking it home. Saving it for when we need it most.
I feel Lizzie shifting on her mat, adjusting her spine, relaxing her shoulders, and sitting tall like a dancer, graceful and poised. I wonder if this is the young woman who will walk through that door later when we leave all this serenity and return home. Or will it be the beautiful girl who glares at me, standing tall, hands on hips, summoning up the same words she hurled at me when she was three: “You’re not the boss of me.” She’s right. I am not the boss. I’m the ally that she cannot see.
I don’t dare let my gaze fall directly on her. It is enough to feel her presence next to me as we settle into the practice by standing tall in mountain pose; Shannah directs us to rest our hands at our sides, to close our eyes, and focus on deep rhythmic breathing. I resist the temptation to turn my head in Lizzie’s direction. I know that she doesn’t want to stand out, to feel that all eyes are upon her, and especially not mine. I also know how much she loves attention. Mommy, look what I can do! I see the proud, confident little girl who can do it all by herself: taking her first steps, swimming across the pool, riding her first two-wheeler, running across the school playground as she clutches her latest artistic creation—a still-life pastel of poppies in a vase.
Shannah guides us through the flow from one pose to the next. I notice all that breathing in the room. It is a rhythmic whooshing like the sound of the undulating waves of the ocean, reminding me to breathe and push the outside world from view, but I still see the image of the crumpled papers tossed on the floor. I hear the harsh words intended to push me away. I breathe in. I breathe out. I recoil in silence.
There was a moment earlier in the day. I am hurrying to get dressed, she wants to borrow my make-up and blow-dry her hair, and your bathroom is so much nicer she says, and then she makes herself at home, turns up the volume on her iPod, and suddenly I am no longer feeling annoyed by this intrusion. We have landed in a familiar place—a routine we both loved when she was a toddler: we are dancing in the bathroom to “Brown Eyed-Girl.” This is how I want her to think of us.
Inhale. Exhale. I picture a moment with my own father: I am the stubborn teenager who knows it all. We are upstairs in the hallway, just outside the bathroom, and while I can’t remember how or why we arrived at this moment, the hostile and unforgiving words in my head fill me with shame, but the rage takes hold, and I hear myself say the unthinkable. Die. This? Aimed at my father whom I adore? My tall, dark-haired, handsome father? I turn away, avoiding his face. I can’t disappoint him. My anger is real, but the words untrue. “Dai….enyu,” I say, grasping for a way out. With just one syllable of Hebrew, everything changes. As a child, “Dayenu” was a favorite Passover tradition, a single word conveying “it would be enough” as we sang of God’s help in our journey from bondage to freedom. As an adult, I am beginning to understand the beauty in these words. Dayenu is a reminder to be grateful to God for his many gifts. With each gift—from taking the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to the gift of Shabbat and Torah—the words echo a feeling of gratitude and convey the sentiment that this gift alone would have been enough. No more is needed. My father’s glare softens, and the tension is broken with the sound of a syllable—enyu; we are in a place where we would both rather be. I imagine my father’s initial outrage, anger and disappointment. This, from the daughter that he loves? And then he simply lets it all go with a smile. Even now, he likes to tell the story. We laugh. But I still feel ashamed.
At the end of the class, when Shannah slowly brings us back to our awareness of this time and place, of the world we’re about to re-enter, she asks us to close our eyes and imagine where we would like to be if we could be anywhere. Imagine a place that brings comfort, joy and peace. Keep your eyes closed, your gaze inward. What do you see? Where are you? Picture the scene. She tells us to remember this place and this feeling. Know that you can always come back here again. She talks about carrying this moment off the mat into our lives. I take a sip of water; my eyes wander. Lizzie’s eyes are closed.
By the time we reach the car, I am half in calm serenity and half-thinking about the fact that it is already 7:30, we will need to get dinner on the table, maybe my husband, Marshall, remembered to make a salad and maybe he didn’t; it’s turned so cold outside, and my sweatshirt is not enough protection for this night when a blustery wind comes howling across the island. On the short ride home, a drive I love, I settle back in the seat, taking in this clear October night sky, a deep navy blue sea of stars. We seem to be the only car out on the road. I think about how I would love to paint this night sky. I wonder if Lizzie will settle into her work. Will she get the job done or will she ask for just five more minutes to change back into her jeans, and then five minutes will become ten, and ten will slip away into twenty, and she will be up in her room listening to her music, checking her Facebook, and calling down to me, “I’m almost ready,” while I pace the kitchen floor, resisting the temptation to organize the books and pick up the papers. Resisting— until I cannot stand it any more.
Lizzie breaks the silence.
“Where was your place?” she asks.
Her question startles me; at first I don’t even remember that we have just come from this peaceful space where we can hear our own breath and focus on the stillness. I breathe in and then out, a long deep exhalation. “Good question,” I say, remembering our teacher’s words, remembering how I drifted in that moment.
“So where were you?” I ask, shifting the focus away from me.
She’s quick to answer, eager to share. “It was a Sunday morning at Grandma’s. I had a sleepover, and Grandpa made Mickey Mouse pancakes with chocolate chip eyes and a chocolate chip smile. Grandma said they were made with love and kisses.” Her voice is sweet, gentle—this is the graceful girl who sits tall on her mat.
My father’s famous pancakes. My mother’s familiar words—made with love and kisses. Words handed down from generation to generation. Those pancakes have received considerable attention over the years and have made their way into Lizzie’s writing with a notable degree of regularity: a first-grader’s illustrated sentence about a favorite food, a third-grader’s guide for making the best pancakes in the world, a seventh-grader’s reflections on lessons learned while making pancakes on a Sunday morning with her grandfather: Grandpa taught me that it’s often the small moments in life that mean the most.
“I love your story,” I say.
“Thanks. And thanks for taking me with you.” Her voice is soft and kind and gentle. It’s not her usual fourteen-year-old voice at all. It’s a voice of quiet strength, self-assurance and satisfaction.
“Anytime,” I say. “Okay, sweetest…I’ll tell you my place.”
No response. I try again, louder this time. “Lizzie…Lizzie?”
Nothing. I turn and see that she is wearing her headphones—listening to her music. Her head and shoulders sway in rhythmic motion as if she has transported herself from the passenger seat to the dance floor.
One day I will tell her that the place I imagine is one in which she is the central figure. It is a cold October evening, just like this one. The rain is pounding, and the trees whip against the house, but inside, our home is filled with a feeling of calm, quiet, and serenity. The light glows from Lizzie as I watch her sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by papers and her laptop. She works on the final revisions for an essay for history class; she is in a deep state of concentration. The usual activity continues—the dogs chomp on their dinner, the dishes clink in the sink, the phone rings—and, yet, she seems to block it all out. She has worked at this makeshift desk for more than an hour. I watch as her eyes move from her notes to the laptop screen. I want to move closer, to see what she’s writing—but I resist the impulse. I imagine that she is searching for just the right word or remembering a detail that she wants to add. Maybe she is taking time out—time to take stock and enjoy the feeling of control. Eventually she gets up and says: Want to hear what I wrote? Can I read it to you? She stands tall, her shoulders relaxed. I am aware that my own breath is slow and steady as I exhale. Her presence in this moment is a reminder that patience is an essential part of a long view of your child’s development. Lizzie begins to read. She probably doesn’t even realize that the corners of her mouth are turned gently upward.
We are home again, and in the kitchen, the bright lights shine on the table, now set for three, with Lizzie’s books and papers neatly stacked at the other end. Marshall has picked up the crumpled papers from the floor. I wonder how my father let go with such ease. Each year at the seder table, I can’t help but remember that long ago fight. Dayenu calls for us to notice each single act of goodness. It calls our attention to the extraordinary and to the gifts that reside in the small everyday moments; dayenu reminds us that each step is significant in the process of moving us closer to the life we seek. Perhaps, it is easier to be a teacher than a mother, easier to be accepting of the students in my classroom, honoring and rewarding their successive approximations of the desired strategies, behaviors, and routines that I aim to teach. It occurs to me that the moment Shannah asked us to imagine was already within my view—the image of a teenager on her yoga mat, moving through the poses with intention, making the choice to commit this time to the yoga practice and to herself. Dayenu.
Balvinder Banga works as a lawyer in London. Several of his short stories have been published and he has completed a novel, Land Without Sorrow, that traces the journey of two untouchable boys from India to England.
Bare Footed Dreams of my Father
It didn’t matter if a hockey stick smashed your bare shins, or the fat man, some tailor from Ludhiana, used your feet as a trampoline, launching off them to strike at your face. If you played hockey you played without shoes, with your bare feet pounding the makeshift pitch, your heels throwing dust in the face of your foes, and your heart pounding out, “I am alive.” This was my father’s truth. Shoes were rich men’s toys, for city boys from Delhi, or tailors from Ludhiana, a district in the Indian state of Punjab.
Back in the village, when the family’s cow needed feeding he would walk it to the water’s edge, his feet gripping the earth so that his chappals stayed dry, saving their tread for days that never came, keeping their pristine purity beneath a charpoi his father had made. It didn’t matter that one time his feet met a snake, and he danced into the sky until it slinked away, oblivious to my father’s sweaty panic. To bare your feet was to bare your soul, to show the village you walked like a man.
But four decades come and go in the blink of an eye, in the same time that it takes for a tear to fall. When he came to the West he was felled by a stroke more powerful than any tailor could give. And for a year his life swayed between a Victorian hospital and home, and his ankles swelled in proportion to the shrinkage of his hopes. As days passed, he would tell my mother to slip shoes on his feet and dress him in the cheap suit that she had bought from a market in readiness. In readiness for what? He would sit and wait for the white nurse who visited daily, not wanting her to think that Indians were slovenly or dirty or undignified, not knowing that he was not an ambassador. He was a peasant and the earth was his, but he had retired with the force of his bare feet now shriveled like dead roots in cheap shoes. If only God had told him. Ask him now what it means to walk, to walk as a man with nothing but the entire earth gripped and held still by your feet. See if he doesn’t throw his shoes in your face.
Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
August 1963. The Leskiw family is going to party. Our parents had just moved into a new home in the Bay Area’s Santa Clara Valley. The subdivision was carved out of cherry, plum, and apricot orchards that stretched to the horizon. Although my three siblings and I understand that the orchards belong to someone, their vast acreage—ripe for exploration on foot or by bike—retain an air of unkempt mystery, of wildness.
Even a nine-year-old like myself senses the transformation—renters buying a dream home. Long into the night, my mom and dad discuss plans for home improvement projects: a sidewalk to connect the front yard with a soon-to-be enlarged back patio, landscaping that will include fruit trees, a series of stone planter boxes slated to zig-zag across the entire width of the back yard. These new surroundings—from front and backyard crannies to bike treks further afield—all seem to symbolize a new beginning for our family. Settling into our home gives us a sense of security, palpable and positive.
So, we head to a pizza parlor to celebrate. My dad orders two pizzas and the first of several pitchers of beer. I don’t remember how many pitchers my father drinks, but Leskiw-lore holds that it was several and that my mom abstained from drinking.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
We finish our dinner and leave the pizza parlor, all four kids in the back of the Pontiac Catalina.
We begin a right-hand turn onto Homestead Road, but my dad is slow to react and the driver-side tires carom off the curb of the pedestrian island. We four siblings come to attention.
“Give me the keys, Walt,” says my mom. “I’m driving.” In a slurred voice, my dad replies that he doesn’t want to give them up. There’s more verbal thrust and parry between my parents, until, finally, my mom commands, “Just get out. I’m driving the kids home.” The door opens and, into the darkness, with cars whizzing by, my dad gets out. Mom slides over behind the wheel, puts the car into gear, and drives off. We are stunned. Long moments pass before anyone says anything.
Ellen, the eldest, speaks first. “Mom, it’s a long way home. How will Dad get there?”
Silence. Then my mother says: “I don’t know. He’ll probably take a cab.”
I dared to speak up. “Should we go back and pick him up?”
“No. Even if he has to walk… he’ll get home.”
Given the distance—over two miles—it occurs to me that, should Dad have to walk all the way home, he is going to be pissed. However, tension fills the air, and one look at the expression on my mom’s face, makes it clear that this is an opinion best kept to myself. Once at home, we siblings are too amped up to even consider sleeping, but my mom insists. “Off to bed you go.”
I awake to my mom standing over me, shaking my arm. Downstairs, pounding at the front door, my dad is shouting. “Eileen! Ei-leen!!” Mom, her voice quavering, speaks to us. “Tom, Larry, get in the bathroom.” We do as we’re told, encountering Ellen and Beth who are already there. My mom joins us, locking the door behind her.
I really don’t know why I’m telling you this.
I hear sounds of the front entry hall door being opened and an unsteady clomp of feet up the stairs. Dad continues his bellowing, “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!” Huddled together in our jammies, we look to our Mom for an answer.
Bam. My father tries to kick in the bathroom door. Bam, Bam, BAM! The hollow-core door reverberates like a kettledrum, the percussion pounding at my inner ear until I think I’ll pass out.
“If your dad gets in, he’ll kill us all,” cries my mom. We know the lock could be picked with a hairpin. That, combined with the splintered shards of the hollow-core door giving way beneath my dad’s kicking, petrifies us. Mom slides open the tiny bathroom window. Climbing out requires a drop of several feet onto a sloping roof. “Beth and Ellen, out,” she commands.
Bam, Bam, BAM! “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!”
Larry and I join our sisters on the roof. I wish I could say that our shivering is due solely to the cold night air. Stars must be blazing in the inky darkness, but we have no time for that.
The events of that night grow hazy at this point, but I think my dad passes out. Neighbors must have called the cops. They arrived to escort him away.
At our new house, my siblings and I build a fort in the back yard. A month or so later, our dreams of adding a second story to our Children Only—No Adults Allowed refuge are put into action. My parents had replaced the shattered bathroom door, so we claimed it for our fort. The door served—not only as the floor for the entire top story, but also as a reminder of that chaotic night.
Several years later, my parents divorced again—the second of three from each other—I moved in with my dad. By this time, he was consuming a half-gallon of bourbon every three days, and my mom had remarried. The judge in the custody suit was aware of the toxic relationship that had formed between my stepfather, my mother, and me, and decreed that I’d be better off with my dad.
Although I was intensely curious about my dad’s side of the story, I avoided bringing up the topic of “What the hell happened that night?” for several years. Finally, one weekend afternoon, when I was about sixteen, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Maybe it was a question I should never have asked, because I wasn’t prepared for his response.
“Tom, don’t ask me why, but I just felt that night like your mother might harm you kids.”
“You were trying to protect us… from Mom?”
“Yeah, I thought she might try something.”
Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if there could have been a way for my mom to get my dad to relinquish the car keys without forcing him to walk home. However, since then, I’ve encountered enough drunks to realize that the answer is most likely no.
Maybe now I know why I’m telling you this.
I’m the only one of four siblings who chose not to parent. Even after I told my mom about the vasectomy I got in 1986, she continued to confront me about the need to “Grow up and raise a family.” Over the years, I’ve cited the standard litany of reasons that people give for not raising a family. “The organization Zero Population Growth had a big impact on me. The planet—with its finite resources—isn’t able to feed an ever-expanding population. ” Or, “Who would want to bring a child into this messed-up world?” Or, “Being a parent has its drawbacks, such as loss of freedom and a financial sacrifice I don’t want to make.”
I knew that no matter how valid these points might be, they weren’t the real reason. Even when I was four, in the Chicago courtroom where my parents’ first divorce took place, I could see how they used us kids as weapons against each other. I remember the pressure I felt when the judge asked me which parent I wanted to live with…while both parents waited for my response. Like my three siblings, I elected to live with my mother. I’m confident the judge felt that taking my preference into consideration was the right thing to do. And maybe it was. But the judge lacked the backstory. He was unaware of the lengths my parents had gone to win our favor. They even enlisted both sets of grandparents in their game, catering to us for several weeks—trips to the park, buying copious amounts of baseball cards for my brother and I—to tip the scales in their direction.
Finally, I know why I’m telling you this.
Did I mention that my mom was a nurse? Long before the term codependent was coined, my parents found themselves ensnared in those dynamics. Nurse and patient. Bad-boy drinker and his good-girl savior. Although each of my parents had a good side, the genes I inherited from them terrified me. And the only way I could ever positively, absolutely know that I’d never wield my kids as weapons against a spouse was to never have them in the first place.
Susan Knox enrolled in writing classes after moving to Seattle and got an idea for her first book, which bridged the gap between her old career as a CPA and her new one as a writer. Financial Basics, A Money Management Guide for Students was published by The Ohio State University Press in 2004. Lately she has become interested in retirement and aging and is working a collection of essays on this subject. Her short stories, creative nonfictions, and personal essays have been published in CALYX, Forge, MacGuffin, Melusine, Monkey Puzzle, Pisgah Review, Rusty Nail, Signs of Life, Still Crazy, Sunday Ink: Works of the Uptown Writers, Wild Violet, and Zone 3.
Twenty years ago my mother decided it was time to move into a facility where she would be cared for in her old age. When I was a child, they were called “old people’s homes,” but now they are “retirement homes” or “continuing care facilities” or “active retirement communities” and they have bucolic names like Tall Oaks, Willow Knolls, Primrose Manor; or hopeful names like Horizon House, Golden Age Center, Friendship Village; or corporate names like The Alliance Community, Emeritus at Regency Residence, Five Star Premier Residences of Plantation; and mottos like “Beautiful Vision,” “Whole Life Living,” or “Destination for the Ageless Generation.”
Mom was considering Copeland Oaks Retirement Home in Sebring, Ohio, a premier facility twenty miles from her home. She was seventy-seven, still driving, and in good health except for epilepsy that was usually, but not always, under control. She told me she was slowing down and she was worried if her epilepsy worsened, she wouldn’t be admitted to Copeland. “I need to be healthy enough to walk in the door, and if they accept me, I’ll be taken care of for life,” Mom said. Copeland Oaks is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and like so many retirement homes under church auspices, they guarantee lifetime care even if a resident exhausts her fiscal resources. It was a comforting thought for both of us.
I felt fortunate my mother was taking charge of her future. My aunt Rachel, the matriarch of our extended family, was unwilling to move from her Minerva, Ohio, home of more than sixty years. Her children, Liza and Leo, were beside themselves. They lived in Arizona and wanted their mother safely settled with caregivers. She refused to move and, for a while, hired people to stay with her, but her worsening heart congestion canceled her say in the matter. Aunt Rachel’s ambulance journey to a Kentucky nursing home near her granddaughter might as well have been a dead-of-night exit since her children did not offer Aunt Rachel time for farewells to neighbors and relatives in the town where she had lived for ninety-two years. I don’t know why Liza and Leo didn’t invite family and old friends over before they moved her, but they are the same cousins who, without consulting any of the other twenty cousins, sold the family Bible at public auction.
Copeland Oaks Retirement Community, built in 1967 on 250 acres of land with stands of alder, ash, oak, sycamore, Scotch pine, birch, and hickory, was situated in the Ohio countryside, a location inviting peacefulness and pleasing views but isolated, being five miles from the nearest town. A long lawn as verdant as my dad’s alfalfa field led to the main building constructed with bricks rosy in summer sun. Thick cream columns stretched two stories high and invited us into an atrium lobby reminiscent of a four-star hotel with its apricot and ivory walls, soft easy chairs, and taupe, low-pile carpeting. We viewed various-sized apartments and meeting areas on each floor where residents could gather to play cards, read, and entertain visitors. We surveyed the library, fitness and aquatic center where a water aerobics class was in progress, art studio where two women were working with watercolors, health services center, and chapel. Everything was clean. There was a fresh citrus scent in the air. The dining room, spacious with floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors, opened onto lush lawns and gravel-covered walking paths around a lake featuring two swans. We stopped for lunch and ordered tuna melt and tomato soup, and Mom pronounced the food good. We talked money. Copeland required $30,000 to secure a place and a monthly fee based on the apartment she chose. She’d had to pinch pennies when we kids were small, and it wasn’t until she went to work as a beautician that our family was pulled out of near-poverty. She was proud she could afford to live here.
For the next ten years, Mom lived in a series of apartments at Copeland—she enjoyed change. She played bridge almost every evening, she read, she did water aerobics, she went on day trips arranged by the staff. The only complaints I ever heard were that the swans were territorial, and no one walked near them for fear of being attacked and that all the residents were Republicans. “I just keep my mouth shut about politics,” she said.
Mom was bright, had a great sense of humor, a trim figure, and two boyfriends. Homer was genteel, tall, thin, soft-spoken, a retired county extension agent. Bud was a lively man, short, muscular, loud, a garage mechanic. Bud eventually won the competition and spent every day with her, took her out for dinner on Saturday, and phoned before he went to bed. Mom made it clear, she didn’t want marriage. She had no intention of cooking, cleaning, and caring for a man in her old age. Mom and Bud enjoyed eight years of companionship and love until he died in 2001.
My brother Tom and I visited Mom after Bud’s death and took her out for dinner as a pick-me-up. When I checked in with Bridgett, the head nurse, she told me Mom was missing appointments, showing up on the wrong day, often wearing the same food-spotted clothes. “We didn’t notice she was slipping,” Bridgett admitted. None of us had realized Bud had been keeping Mom on track. I opened her pillbox, which contained eight different medications segregated for each day of the week. Even though it was Friday, near the end of the week, there was an uneven number of pills in the preceding slots. It was clear she was confused and missing important drugs like Dilantin, which prevented epileptic seizures.
Looking back, I realize I missed a lot of signals. My mother couldn’t balance her checkbook anymore; Tom took over her bill-paying; she mentioned how hard it was to follow the story line of a book she was reading; a bridge partner complained that if she couldn’t count cards, she shouldn’t be playing. While I don’t think there is much I could have done to change her decline, if I had been more aware, I would have been less critical and more understanding of her needs.
Bridgett insisted she move to assisted living. I told Mom. “Assisted living? That’s like going to jail.”
“Have you ever visited assisted living?” I asked her.
“No, but I’ve heard stories. Friends drop away and the rooms aren’t nice, just small bedrooms. It’s like a dormitory.”
“Why don’t we take a look?”
We walked to the manager’s office. Bill said, “We have two single room vacancies.”
Mom looked at me with a raised eyebrow as if to say what did I tell you?
“And there’s one unit with a separate bedroom and a spacious living room, but it costs more money.” He named the figure. “Can you afford it?” I told him she could.
Bill led us to the assisted living wing. When we entered the light-filled living room, larger than her current apartment, Mom’s eyes lit up. She loved the space and was delighted to learn her laundry would be done for her, and she would continue to take her meals in the main dining room. She agreed to move.
A year later, in 2002, she began to wander at night, looking for my father who had died twenty-two years earlier. The staff insisted she wasn’t safe in assisted living. “But she’s so happy here,” I said to the floor nurse. “Isn’t there a way to monitor her movements?” I was told no. “Could I hire someone to stay with her at night?” I was told it had never been done. The staff wouldn’t budge so for the last year of her life, Mom lived in Crandall Nursing Home. She did not go happily. Sitting together on her new blue couch, Tom broke the news. “Must I?” she asked. He nodded yes. She looked at him, her lips compressed, and turned away.
After moving to a small room furnished with a hospital bed, recliner, and chest of drawers, Mom quit wearing hearing aids. Hershey chocolate bars, once irresistible, went uneaten. She lost weight. She didn’t answer her phone when I called, and I had to contact the nurses’ station to get her attention. My mother had tremendous will. I think she’d decided it was time to go. She died just short of her eighty-eighth birthday on July 28, 2003.
Through all of this, I never thought about my older-age future. I was in my fifties, healthy, energetic, strong. Retirement home? Not for me. But today, in my seventies, still healthy, I am not as energetic, not as strong. I can no longer scramble on top of a desk to dust high shelves or paint a room or move heavy furniture. My hearing is not as sharp. I’m developing cataracts. Recently I tore cartilage in my shoulder doing a simple move in Pilates—a move I’ve been doing for fifteen years. “A common injury for older women,” said the physical therapist. Twice my optometrist has spotted a ruptured retinal artery and sent me to a specialist. The condition was uneventful, but frightened me and I wondered, is it starting—that downward slide to infirmity?
Then there’s my brain. My mother developed dementia in her eighties. My late father’s siblings, Mildred and Jack, have Alzheimer’s. That’s both sides of my family. Does that double my likelihood? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in eight Americans over sixty-five has Alzheimer’s or similar dementia, and nearly half the people over eighty-five have the disease. My mother lived to eighty-seven. I will probably live longer.
My husband, Weldon, and I were invited to visit our friends John and Beverly in their apartment at the newly opened Mirabella Retirement Community located in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. John had been an engineer at Boeing and is a community activist—vigorous and energetic. Bev is a pianist and one of the best-informed people I know. John and Bev met after having been widowed in their seventies and have been a couple for ten years. They delight in shocking people with their unmarried cohabitation status.
Mirabella Retirement Community, constructed of maize and burgundy brick eight stories high, covers a city block. The building seems uninviting, its design cold, and the location feels remote even though it’s only eight blocks from downtown. Across the street is the Seattle Times buildingwith its charcoal gray exterior. I saw no coffee shops, no retail, just a few fast food restaurants, and a dry cleaner. I would not want to walk in that desolate area.
After drinks in John and Bev’s Mirabella roomy apartment, they took us to the top-floor restaurant for dinner. As we waited for a table, most people arrived carrying a bottle of wine, already opened, so they wouldn’t have to buy the restaurant’s higher-priced wine. All the residents wore name-tags. They greeted one another effusively. Everyone was old. Weldon and I were quiet as we drove home. Returning to our building, we took the elevator with neighbors, Jack and Kathy, and I blurted out we’d had dinner at Mirabella. “Everyone looks the same and they act desperately happy,” I said, “and you have to pay for thirty meals a month in the restaurant. So much togetherness. I don’t think I could be with the same people day after day.” Kathy nodded her head and said, “I’ll never move to a retirement home.”
Shortly after the Mirabella visit, I received an invitation from Skyline at First Hill, “downtown Seattle’s only true life care retirement community,” to join residents for lunch. A colorful trifold brochure had a picture of a smiling woman seated at a table with a grouping of white-haired men and women standing behind her holding wine glasses in a celebratory fashion. I wondered, would I act older and feel older if I lived exclusively with people my age?
Every week I write with a group of women ranging in age from forty-two to sixty-two. I am the oldest. I learn from them about raising children in today’s world, about dating, changing social mores, current vernacular, their work world. This is an important connection I might lose if I were in a retirement home. Fourteen-year-old twins and their parents recently moved into a condo on my floor. I enjoy our brief elevator conversations, getting a glimpse into their young lives. My book editor introduced me to a thirty-something entrepreneur who lives in my building, and we went to the Virginia Inn for drinks and conversation. Would this happen if I were in a retirement home?
I’m entering unknown territory. My mother and I never discussed what it was like growing old. One time she mentioned being scared of dying and I was scared to have the conversation with her. In her last year I questioned Mom’s physician about why she was sleeping so much. He looked at me, a little exasperated, and said, “Old people don’t have much energy. Even the act of eating a meal can exhaust them.” In her essay “Why I Moved Into an Old People’s Home” the British writer Diana Athill, reflecting on an acquaintance who insisted on dying at home with the help of friends, wrote, “I had not realized until now that an old person can be reduced to helplessness—can reach the stage of having to be looked after—almost overnight.” As I write these words, I feel a frisson of apprehension move through my midsection. It’s visceral, my denial, my apprehension. I recall my mother’s words in her later years, “We come here to die. We all say that to one another. We come here to die.”
I watch the elders at Market Place North—a condominium building in downtown Seattle where my husband and I have lived for the past seventeen years. I observe them in elevators, converse with them in the lobby, query our doorman about their health. I’m curious about how older residents are managing while staying in their homes. One couple, Phyllis and Mike, installed an electric chair to trundle them up and down their unit’s stairs. My place has thirteen stair steps, and it’s reassuring to have this option. Mark, in his nineties, a former physician, shops Pike Place Market every day and finishes by walking the steep incline on Virginia Avenue that borders our building. I tease Weldon, who exercises six days a week, that I will be long gone and he will still be running up Seattle hills. Pat relocated her husband Brewster, ill with Parkinson’s disease, from a nursing home back to their unit at Market Place North and hired round-the-clock nurses. We often see him being wheeled around city streets and always say hello even though he can’t return our greeting. I was seated next to neighbor Gordy at a fundraising dinner for the Seattle Chamber Music Festival when he leaned over to whisper he was scheduled for radiation treatment for a brain tumor. Nine months later Gordy died in his bed tended by his wife and a nurse’s aide. Bob and his early-onset Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife shifted to assisted living until she died. He returned to his condo and remarried. Unable to shop the Pike Place Market anymore, Pia, a widow who kept her husband’s ashes in her living room until hers could join his and be buried in their native Italy, had groceries delivered from market vendors she had long frequented. Pia made her own Limoncello digestivo and drank it daily saying, “It’s good for my heart.”
Maybe I will be able to stay in my condo with its view of Elliot Bay and spectacular sunsets. I love living in downtown Seattle where the streets are alive with residents in low-income housing and young Amazon employees in recently built high-rise apartment buildings and empty nesters and retirees who’ve downsized to downtown condominiums. I hear Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, and Italian as I move through the Pike Place Market. And, yes, there are homeless people begging for money and drug dealers darting into alleys to conduct transactions and while I’m thoughtful about where I walk, I don’t feel threatened. The street life invigorates me. I value the diversity.
I’ll continue to walk to Benaroya Hall for symphony concerts and to ACT for plays. I’ll walk to the movies and the Seattle Art Museum and the public library. I’ll go to Caffé D’arte every morning for doppio espresso and chat with the regulars. I’ll shop in the Pike Place Market. I’ll converse with the fishmonger, the green grocer, the cheese purveyor, the grocer, the baker, the wine merchant. When I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll dine in a neighborhood restaurant.
Last summer I prepared a thick notebook for our children entitled “After We’re Gone…” In 2012, nine years after my mother died, we discovered a life insurance policy she’d taken out when she was nineteen. It had been fully paid by 1954. Prudential Insurance Company was ready to turn over the proceeds to the state of Ohio unless we made a claim. Her $500 life insurance yielded $5,000 to her heirs. I didn’t want our children wondering what we’d wished or if they’d missed an important paper. I made lists and copies of documents for them: financial advisors, attorney, insurance agent, real estate agent, Last Will and Testament, social security and Medicare cards, banker, bank accounts, safe deposit box location, key for box, condo deed, supplemental health insurance, doctors, passwords, artwork bequests, jewelry bequests, disposal of possessions, cremation wishes, spreading of ashes, celebratory dinner in lieu of funeral. I included articles on dying that reflect my own wishes for care at the end. Weldon and I have talked with our children about not letting us linger, but I wanted to reinforce our desires.
All that remains is finding a compatible retirement facility. While my intent is to follow the example of older neighbors at Market Place North and spend my remaining years at home, I know there may come a time when I can’t cope on my own. I’ve been declaring for five years that I will visit retirement homes in Seattle to collect information, assess their desirability, persuade Weldon to visit my short list, and inform the children of our preferences in case they have to move one of us quickly, like my Aunt Rachel. But the truth is I haven’t done the research; I’ve only talked about it. I’m resisting this project. I think, it’s too early. My mother was seventy-seven when she went to Copeland Oaks. I’m only seventy-two. I’m a lot like my mother. Will I know, as she did, when it’s time to get assistance, time to quit driving, time to move to a full-care facility? I’m going to trust that I will be as decisive and responsible as she was, that I will know when it’s time.
My mother’s final legacy.
Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
ISBN 10: 1571313354; ISBN 13: 978-1571313355
390 pages, paper
Review by Sue Ellis
Braiding Sweetgrass has the feel of a bible, and the essays that make up the chapters are like sweet psalms that gently admonish and instruct with practical advise to help us save our environment. That a good many of us haven’t made the connection between the earth’s health and our own is at the heart of the problem Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses. And it becomes clear within a few chapters that she’s uniquely qualified for the job, writing from the perspective of botanist and professor of plant ecology, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
She begins with the Native American perspective on creation, how Skywoman fell from the heavens like a maple seed, and finding earth covered with water, stepped onto the back of a turtle. Soon aquatic birds and other water creatures began to dive below the surface, searching out mud for the woman to build upon. Skywoman spread a precious handful of their gift across the back of the turtle, and then began to dance in celebration, causing the earth to grow and grow. It was then that she shared the gifts she had brought with her – plants and seeds to provide food and shelter for all who lived upon Turtle Island. The exchange of gifts was an act of reciprocity, the importance of which is stressed throughout the book: people must learn to give back rather than always taking from the earth.
The essays are too numerous to list, each filled with both Native American folklore and scientific facts that pertain to the natural world. They cover such topics as the making of maple syrup, the preservation and harvest of black ash trees for basket making, and the many uses for cattails.
There is an essay about Lake Onondaga in New York State, the most polluted lake in the United States. It describes the industry whose lack of consideration for the environment led to the lake’s pollution. It also tells the story of a man who planted patches of grass in the shape of letters spelling H E L P upon a section of the lake’s ruined shoreline. And help did begin to arrive in the form of concerned citizens, scientists and ecologists who made headlines by banding together to find a solution for the lake’s distress. Meanwhile, unlauded, Mother Earth works to renew herself.
My favorite essay is about the Pacific Northwest’s Nechesne people. Their management of wild salmon runs in the glory days before wetlands were leveled out and filled to make more pasture for cows is a masterpiece of lyrical prose, and a human history deserving of Kimmerer’s eloquent telling.
Toward the end of the book, Kimmerer describes Windigo, the Native American version of the devil, who seeks to destroy all that he touches. Here’s an excerpt describing her fantasy about curing Windigo of his evil ways by making him drink her handmade, medicine – after she’s rendered him manageable with a kettleful of poisonous buckthorn tea:
He lies spent in the snow, a stinking carcass, but still dangerous when the hunger rises to fill the new emptiness. I run back in the house for the second pot and carry it to his side, where the snow has melted around him. His eyes are glazed over but I hear his stomach rumble so I hold the cup to his lips. He turns his head away as if it were poison. I take a sip, to reassure him and because he is not the only one who needs it. I feel the medicines standing beside me. And then he drinks, just a sip at a time of the golden pink tea, tea of willow to quell the fever of want and strawberries to mend his heart. With the nourishing broth of the Three Sisters and infused with savory wild leeks, the medicines enter his bloodstream: white pine for unity, justice from pecans, the humility of spruce roots. He drinks down the compassion of witch hazel, the respect of cedars, a blessing of silverbells, all sweetened with the maple of gratitude. You can’t know reciprocity until you know the gift. He is helpless before their power.
His head falls back, leaving the cup still full. He closes his eyes. There is just one more part of the medicine. I am no longer afraid. I sit down beside him on the newly greening grass. “Let me tell you a story,” I say as the ice melts away. “She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting from the autumn sky.”
I was impressed enough by this beautifully written book to hope it will become required reading in schools, serving as a guide for environmental awareness and the conservation of natural resources. Braiding Sweetgrass shines a light down a narrowing path, if only we are wise enough to follow.
Sue Ellis is a sock knitter, soap maker, gardener, and retired postmaster who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some writing credits include Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, The Cynic Online Magazine and BluePrint Review.
Eric A. Gordon is the author of the first biography of composer Marc Blitzstein, and co-author of the autobiography of composer Earl Robinson. He earned his undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at Yale University, and a doctorate in history from Tulane University. For fifteen years, he served as Director of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. He is Chair of the Southern California Chapter of the National Writers Union (UAW/AFL-CIO). His most recent book is a translation from Portuguese, Waving to the Train and Other Stories, by Hadasa Cytrynowicz.
Memoir of a Mattress
Rick and I brought our new queen-sized mattress in a van from New York when we moved to Los Angeles in 1990. We set it down, beatnik-style, on the carpeted floor of our oceanfront apartment on Ozone Avenue in Venice.
The persistent cough began in late 1991. By early 1992, Rick had a diagnosis of pneumocystis pneumonia, familiar to our generation as one of the first indices. I slept alone on our mattress the week he spent at Cedars-Sinai getting through that fateful transition from HIV+ to AIDS.
At the same time, the publishers of my first book remaindered it. My agent advised me to buy up every available copy – they’d come in handy. Indeed they did: Rick had trouble getting up from our mattress, so we built a platform of twenty-five identical book cartons, and placed the mattress neatly on top. For a year, Rick ricocheted between the mattress on Ozone and those in the AIDS ward.
In January 1993, Rick and I had sex for the last time. Safe, of course. On that mattress. Even at his weight of a ghastly 135 pounds, he could still give me the kisses I lived for and, surprising us both, he achieved a satisfying orgasm.
We lay in bed together. I asked him, “After you’re gone, will you watch over me?” He said, “You know, I don’t really believe in that.” I answered, “I know, I don’t either.” And we both melted into tears, holding each other as we had never before, the one conversation I consider our truest, most intimate farewell. We stood at the precipice of the Great Unknown, maybe more so for me than for him, for he had a clearer view of the future than I did. Every time I see an opera like La Traviata, or the musical March of the Falsettos, with their drawn-out deathbed scenes, I remember Rick’s suffering as an inextricable part of my autobiography.
Toward the end, Rick entered that final phase of dementia that precluded logical conversation: In early February he asked me, “Are you one of the people who work here?” He hadn’t a clue what month it was. Apropos of nothing but his certainty of imminent passage, he said, “I think I’ll die on the 14th.”
“Oh, Rick,” I said, “please don’t. It’s Valentine’s Day and you’ll spoil it for the rest of my life.” On the 21st he lay in his final coma. The Ativan he had taken a couple of days earlier was wearing off and he began convulsing uncontrollably. Hospice recommended crushed morphine around his gums, which I administered. It calmed him down, and he died an hour later, at the age of thirty-seven. On our nine-inch mattress from New York.
I attended ten weeks of a bereavement group that spring. We talked about papers, notices, estates, clothes, bequests, acknowledgments, feelings. No one mentioned mattresses.
My astrologer friend Debbi advised disposing of the mattress as a necessary act if I wanted to move on and find a new partner. I remembered a Puerto Rican friend who told me how mortified her family had been when an aunt of hers on the isla actually took a neighbor to court, accusing her of casting a fufú – a magic spell – with a bundle of herbs hurled against her door. I thought how ridiculous it would be for me all of a sudden to embrace such mystical gibberish, the very stuff of voodoo and superstition. What was wrong with my comfortable mattress, only three years old, that in any case held many precious memories? Why discard it and spend hundreds of dollars on a new one? My rational, practical sensibility won that argument hands down.
Years passed. I slept soundly on my nice, firm, familiar mattress. I welcomed new lovers into my life, and into my bed, but no one else appeared who would have watched over me forever if he possibly could. When I bought my house in 1999, the mattress came with me. Now I purchased a respectable bed frame and box spring for it. Every time I closed the door behind a lover, Debbi’s advice came back to haunt me. Could the mattress have put a curse on this new relationship before I even got around to mentioning that my former lover had died on that mattress? No, I said to myself, I’m in my fifties now, way beyond the modern gay man’s acceptable age range. And suddenly I was in my sixties, and getting more set in my ways. And living with HIV myself.
I had known the singer-songwriter Blackberri decades ago. I reunited with him in San Francisco in June 2012. I hadn’t known that he’d been to Cuba to train as a santero, a priest of santería. As the afternoon progressed, filled with stories of his practice, I felt the need to share my mattress problem with him. He said, “Give it to Goodwill!”
On July 6, 2012, twenty years since Rick’s last birthday, I went and purchased a new combination coil-foam mattress, fourteen inches high, and the accompanying box spring, new sheets and pillowcases, mattress protector, even an anti-bedbug casing. I spent that last week on our mattress, awaiting delivery of the new one on Saturday.
Blackberri reminded me to smudge the new mattress with sage. I mumbled a few promising words of fufú, to summon the watchful spirits.
Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010.
**Recipient of Best Notable Essay in Best American Essays by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt**
This May morning the harbor below our Friday Harbor house blushes pink. Scoter ducks scribe inky Vs through strands of kelp shaped like question marks. Across the channel, on Brown Island, the sun gilds the Douglas firs. In town – we can see it from our front deck – at the foot of Front Street, a green and white Washington State ferry loads its cars. Were it March, we might be among its passengers, but today, and for the rest of the spring and summer, my wife Susan, our fourteen-year-old son John, and I will commute by boat, our own wooden boat, which lies at our dock, suspended from its mooring whips, ready to skim the meanders and whirls and eddies of the morning tide. The boat is twenty feet long, hull black, topsides white and tan, her teak trim varnished – “bright” as we wooden-boat people call it.
We had the boat built expressly for this purpose: to deliver us safely, at high speed, and with some style from the mainland to our island retreat and back.
“A wooden boat,” the builders of our boat say on their Nexus Marine website, “has an indefinable beauty of line that is difficult or impossible to produce by molding or bending thin sheets of metal.”
After all, the line of trunk and branch is among the most harmonious in nature.
And there’s depth in wood, especially varnished wood – you can see inside it.
Wood perfumes the air with its resins – who hasn’t, on a summer’s day, lingered in the fragrance of a lumber yard?
Wood is naturally buoyant – you feel it in the way a wooden boat lifts on a wave, as if it were alive – and it has been alive, and remains alive in a way that fiberglass or aluminum never can be.
But wood is not for everybody, not for the capricious or the impatient or the hard-riding or the owner with a thin wallet. Varnish wears under the sun; teak abrades; paint fades; dings mar the perfection of brightwork. Wood’s longevity depends on the care you choose to lavish on it. A wooden boat, like a human being, is a brief, ephemeral flare of energy amid the cosmic slide to disorder and darkness, its very perishability part of its attraction (at least for some of us), a declaration of independence against the travails of time.
I began my love affair with wooden boats on a jet-lagged summer leave in 1988. Susan and I were living in Hong Kong – I was managing a computer sales subsidiary – but we had retained a Seattle houseboat as a home-leave retreat. I remember a July-bright afternoon, half-drunk from jet-lag, jogging over to the Wooden Boat Shop (now gone) on the other side of Lake Union’s Portage Bay where I spotted a cold-molded, wood-epoxy pram, its hull white, its interior a herringbone of cedar strips, its lines as neat as a cockle shell. I bought her on the spot and rowed her home. When we relocated back to Seattle, I moved her up to Friday Harbor where I would launch her from our dock and row her around Brown Island, and where, when her plywood bow began to delaminate, I cut out the rotted and splayed wood and, with epoxy and filler, laid in a replacement bow, a project well beyond my woodworking skills, but in which I found relief from the agonies of the “down-sizing” underway at the electronics company where I then worked. I liked the feel of the wood under my hands. I liked it that with epoxy and resin I could “heal” my little boat. I liked bringing the grain of the cedar back to life under coats of varnish followed by sanding followed by more varnish, so that in the end I could look deep into the wood, and so that when I rowed the boat, I felt as if I was floating inside a bowl of maple syrup. My work wasn’t perfect. There were sags in the varnish. Too much filler masked the grain. I could sail it on Lake Union, but it would never take us farther than that. But by my labor, I became invested in my boat.
When it was time for the boat that could take us from Seattle to the San Juans, or points farther, I went to the Nexus Marine boathouse, located on the slough-laced delta of the Snohomish River among pilings that were once log booming grounds and moorings for fishing boats. The building is two-story, yellow-planked, and barn-shaped with a high, exposed-rafter interior and open on one side to the river. There’s a “buzz-and-walk-in” bell. When you slide the door open, you enter a mote-softened, high-raftered space populated with big table-saws and drill presses, and beyond the saws you’ll see another door that is the entrance to the owners – David and Nancy’s – apartment. In the boathouse you may feel as I do: that you’ve stepped into Ratty or Mole’s house in The Wind in the Willows.
David is usually wearing jeans and boots and a carpenter’s smock and is out in one of the several rooms of the boathouse, which David and Nancy call “the shed,” amid plastic curtains and drying lights and boat jigs and racks of lumber that make you feel as if you’re wandering in a maze. David is medium-height and has just reached the age of sixty. A gray beard frames high cheekbones and bright eyes. He’s attentive to everything, answering only after considering what he is about to say, and then speaking in perfectly formed sentences. He laughs in sudden tenor bursts. David reminds me of a department-store Santa Claus despite the fact that he is trim and a long-distance cyclist and a vegetarian and a congregant in good standing at his Everett temple. In the sixties, David dropped out of Cornell Engineering. He joined the Army. On his discharge, he toured Europe on a motorcycle.
Nancy, who likes to call herself a reformed hippie, still has long, straight hair, a certain joy-in-life innocence, and a deep-contralto laugh that disarms you and draws you in. She is short and sturdy and as ready as David is to pick up a tool belt or a varnish brush. Like David she is unusually attentive to what you say – Nancy never fails to respond with a ready quip. She calls all the boats Nexus has built her “babies.” Before meeting David, Nancy was a theatrical director and set builder and a builder of other theatrical props. Later she and David went to Alaska where they fished for salmon in Bristol Bay.
“We fished,” Nancy says, “so we could afford to build boats.”
And, after Alaska, they did build boats – rowboats and dories and outboards and sailboats. Wooden boats. Beautiful boats.
As in any definition of beauty, the essence is illusive. David maintains that nautical beauty is “hind mind,” originating in our reptilian brains, and that people are genetically programmed to recognize it, but he also says that the lines of the most beautiful boats mirror their movement through the water. Sheer, for example, is the line from the bow to the stern at the top edge of the hull: it’s often shaped like the wave left behind by the hull’s passage. On a Nexus boat, the high bow is designed to rise in steep-pitched Puget Sound seas while at the same time keeping the boat dry. The low stern insures tracking in following seas and at slow trolling speeds. Each shape is derived from what the boat is supposed to do. In David’s view, function drives design.
“All boats,” David says, “are workboats.”
But David also says that the nature of wood predicates design. Wood must be bent and when it bends, it bends in fair curves. Marine-grade lumber is fine-grained and straight, like a Douglas fir tree trunk is straight, and the most elegant boat designs draw upon this trait of the lumber.
The best designers design like David, unveiling what is already in their materials. You hear this in the vocabulary of boat building. Dead rise is how flat or V-shaped the bottom of the hull is. Waterlines are imaginary horizontal slices cut bow to stern. Tumblehome is the inclination of a boat’s sides where the sides meet the deck. Dead rise, tumblehome, waterline: in the sound of the words, you almost hear the shapes of the boats.
During the winter of 1995 to 1996, frame by frame, stringer by stringer, our boat took shape. Finally one day Nancy called. “Have you picked a name?” A date was set for our boat’s launching.
The name we chose was Ceilidh, pronounced KAY-lee, a Celtic word for a party where whiskey flows and pipers play, where friends gather and drink and laugh and sing, where everybody tells each other lies, which was not unlike the party we convened the night we launched Ceilidh, at eleven in the evening, when the August tide was sufficiently high to float her off her ways, a night which, as it turned out, was also Susan’s fortieth birthday. The birthday limo, loud with its celebrants, arrived at the Nexus boathouse. Our guests spilled out, bearing their bottles of wine and their plastic cups of margaritas. Susan broke a magnum of champagne over the bow. John and I manned the cockpit. The Nexus crew winched us down until we settled into the Snohomish River light and dry and free floating at last, as if Ceilidh was coming to life, or perhaps returning to life, the wood within her, once afloat, resurrected.
The first few years after Ceilidh’s launching defined an era when our family was young and our friends’ families were young. Back then, summer was theatre and Ceilidh was our stage and we were impresarios organizing kids, tubes, knee boards, fishing rods, skis, tents, stoves, folding chairs, and portable barbecues.
But even back then Ceilidh was more than a vehicle for play.
Ceilidh was where my dad and I shared our last boat ride before he died.
Ceilidh was where my brother Charlie and I sought solace after Dad’s death by fishing on the west side of San Juan Island amid a pod of orcas, Charlie landing a salmon, the orcas diving around us, their flanks mirroring Ceilidh’s black and white hull, the orcas and us and all the world alive in the shadow of Dad’s death.
Ceilidh’s beauty can still catch your breath. Strangers often approach us. Your boat, they say, we’ve admired for years. The staff at the marina where we keep Ceilidh call it “our Nexus,” investing it with extra care as they launch and retrieve her. Once post 9-11, we were chased by the US Coast Guard, for no other reason, as it turned out, than to get a better look at our boat.
This is the boat we asked David and Nancy to build.
By having it built, were we nautically preening?
Or simply proclaiming ourselves to be alive, an announcement of our presence in the world?
On this May morning in Friday Harbor, however, I’m not fretting about preening.
The outboard engine is idling. Susan has wiped the dew from the windscreen. John is casting off the spring lines and the mooring whip lines. I throw the throttle in reverse. John pushes off and steps aboard. I back to the end of our dock. I spin the wheel. I shift the engine into forward gear. We motor out into the channel between Brown Island and San Juan Island.
The conical-hat of Mt. Baker rears up this morning looking like a volcanic strawberry sundae. The windscreen is fogging up. I zip open the canvas window, roll it up, tuck it above my head. I check my jacket zipped, slip on sunglasses, pull on a pair of polypro gloves, and palm the throttle forward. The boat rises on a plane, its bow pointed directly at Mt. Baker, and we are off and swerving over the curlicues and meanders and boils, our speed over thirty knots, the boat skewing back and forth, a feeling so familiar I can almost guess where we are by each rip and whirlpool, just as the Salish Indians paddling their cedar canoes knew where they were by rip and whirlpool, but now we are slaloming around driftwood, flying across a world gilded and silvered and crimsoned by the sun, a world in such perfect balance I am, as always, nearly tearful at its beauty – or is it the wind that causes my eyes to tear?
We have made this passage a hundred times, each time different. This morning, the speed and light and the crisp air are transformative, imbuing us and our boat with the splendor of this day, writing another day into our lives, into the very bones of our boat. And if anything was missing – the sunrise, Mt. Baker, John or Susan or Ceilidh – then this morning would be less than it is. But it’s all here. This morning everything is here.