July 5, 2015

Crosswired


I am seven years old. I come to a friend’s house after school to play and she introduces me to her big brother. “This is my friend Chris,” she says. “Is that right?” he responds. “’Cause she sure is ugly.” I don’t say anything, just smile coyly because that is all I know. I float above myself, above him, above the three of us. The distance I feel from myself, from him, from everything tells me that he is only twelve and we are only seven. That what he has just said is not true, yet I cannot fathom the possible origins of his meanness.

 

I am nine, celebrating my birthday with friends from school. My mother brings out sandwiches that I watched her prepare hours in advance. Some kind of salami, pickles, mayonnaise on tiny slices of bread. All the kids start whining, “I don’t like mayo!” “I hate salami!” “Yuck, pickles!” My mother says “OK” and brings out a plate for the kids to pick off the things they don’t like. I say nothing. I stare at them readily picking apart my mother’s work as the plate fills, expressing disgust, gobbling up the little that was left after they finished. I understand that they are just children and that not everyone likes everything, but a part of me hates them all. It wants to yell at them and chase them the hell out of my house, because they are terrible and ungrateful and I want them all gone.

 

I am eleven. MIGs are bombarding the TV tower a mile north from my school, and the ginger boy who sits behind me, whom I kind of like and am friends with, asks me “Can you read Cyrillic?” “Yes,” I respond, knowing that it is a loaded question and that he had an answer ready before he even spoke, yet I wouldn't lie. He comes back with an ethnic slur that doesn’t even apply to my heritage. I turn back to face the blackboard and say nothing, realizing I might have just lost a friend. He would inquire about the sincerity of my Catholicism just weeks later. I float above myself, above him, above his deskmate and mine, as nobody says anything. My eleven-year-old self feels like there should be an adult here, to tell him adult things in an adult voice and set him straight. There is a war going on beyond our classroom, and you and I are just children. There are kids disappearing from our class daily, because their parents no longer feel safe. I know you don’t even realize what you said right now. You heard your family say some thing or other as they watched the evening news, and you repeated it because you didn’t know any better. You will say hello to me in a coastal town ten years from this moment and make small talk about how far we've come, and even though you won’t say anything about the war, I will understand that you came to apologize.

 

I have always floated above myself, one part of my consciousness dissociated from the rest of me. I have always had a double understanding of things. How they are, and how they strike me at any stupid, vulnerable, helpless moment of unripe response. I have observed myself facing an infinite choice of reactions, and watched myself take the one that I was safest with, as my then self was not prepared, brave, or woman enough to brace up.

 

I have done things backwards. I felt out of touch and stupid before I realized I am me. I was quiet before I was loud. I was strict before I was soft. I was old before I was young.

 

Stitches popped one by one. Valves exploded without a sound. Now that the gates are open, it’s a question of how loud, how soft, how young. Parts of me are missing, some of which I wish I could have back. It is hard to keep quiet about anything anymore. It itches insanely to stand still and wait my turn for anything because the universe is too fucking slow. Next to impossible not to say “Yes” to chaos that keeps knocking on my door.
 
 
 
 

June 23, 2015

Ticks go in the fire [Reconnecting with ancestors, part 3]


“It’s funny. We’re going to the farmhouse, and you’re going to America,” my mother says as she and my father drop me off at the airport.

 

It took me the longest time to understand that I come from a family of migrants. I never had aunts and uncles to send gadgets and treats from Canada or Australia, no distant cousins to be pen pals with. I was led to believe that I was breaking new ground in the bloodline, no pressure, no expectations, just an open road for my wanderings. I saw my parents as sedentary creatures, their move from farming lives to the big city not far or wide enough for me to recognize.

 

They moved for education, for work, for less hardship, from the cycle of seasons, toward what they felt they were supposed to do. They sent money back, returned to help with the land, learned to live with the guilt of leaving it. I have moved for higher education, for beauty, for love. I am standing on the shoulders of farmers, laborers, visionaries, nurturers.

 

It is taking me the longest time to reclaim the family homestead. My parents and my sister did so long ago. They atoned for the guilt, spent countless nights curled up in its corners, mourning the life that was gone, yet never abandoning it. They made it their own again, fixing up, clearing out the clutter as they wiped away tears, counting new kittens born in the crawlspace above the old stable, feeling sorry for the swallows who would be robbed of their nests now that the stable had to be locked shut.

 

It took ten years before I could finally spend a night in that house again, after my grandparents died. And I have only spent three nights there since. I was the only one who didn’t cry at the funerals, but I have been skirting, fleeing, evading, unable to make peace, unable to offer myself.

 

I see everything in double exposure. The way it is now, and the way it once was.

 

You live and die with your animals at the farm. You feed, raise, cull, and consume. You manufacture makeshift slings for broken wings that will end up in your soup. You cry when your prized bull is sold. You fawn over your newborn suckling pigs, then tear them from their mother and roast them for a family celebration. You de-worm, de-flea, collect the best bones and the best milk for the furry ones, but shoot them in the head if they turn rabid. Foxes are not wildlife, they are vermin killed with shovels. It is a cruel little world that you own, giving and taking life with the seasons, picking out the runts from the survivors, your hands shaking as you act God in this small universe.

 

All steads are the same. There is a barn, a stable, a corn dryer, and a house with thick walls, warm in winter and cool in summer. Sometimes a mill, sometimes a tractor, and trailers. There is land, and irrigation canals. There is a farmdog, blunt beast that has never seen a leash or a muzzle or had his shots, who knows his place underneath the table at lunch, and inside the tractor cabin come harvest time. There are between five and ten cats per household, but you always have that one favorite that is allowed into the bedrooms, and that leaves half-dead mice at the doorstep as tokens of pride and gratitude. You never see them die. They just disappear, run over by cars, burned out by the mating season, or too proud to bring their sickness home. They just make themselves scarce.
 
 

As a child, you are not your regular latchkey kid in the big city. You know how many eggs a hen lays a day, what real milk tastes like, and what blood pudding is made of. You are not squeamish. You pick the fleas off of cats and press them open between your fingernails until their white insides come out. Ticks go in the fire – you need to hear them pop inside the kitchen furnace, otherwise they live for seven years off of the blood they sucked. Pig slop is made out of corn starch, turnips, bad potatoes, greens, and boiling water. You stir it with your bare hands, and each box has its own bucket. Manure is collected in the back, behind the stable, to be used come sowing time. As a child, you are given boiled chicken legs and a spoonful of mashed potatoes with homemade cream as a treat. In the morning, you are woken up by the mooing of hungry cows, or the screeching of pigs led to the slaughter.

 

It is a brutal, beautiful life of absolute accountability. Hay can only be baled at a certain time. Winter firewood is only collected over a few weeks. Neighbors help one another to pick the ripe grapes before the starlings get to them. They nurse storks with broken wings who cannot make the yearly move to South Africa. Nature is unforgiving, and human farmers can only afford to be so much less so.

 

I walk the corridors and hear voices. I see animals running around the yard. I remember Christmases and laughter, and how little and wide-eyed I once was. I imagine them all roaming these rooms, my ancestors, parents and children, toilers, slaughterers, firemen, political prisoners, cheated-on wives, klutzes and loudmouths, those that I knew and those I never met. Their ghosts sometimes scare me, and sometimes give me comfort. I wonder if they see me. I wonder what they would think of me.

 

My sister and I light candles at the village cemetery. Four graves belong to my family, yet the wind won’t let us pay our respects and the wicks keep dying out. I watch a surreal scene across the street from this quiet resting place: a stork chasing a kitten down the asphalt road and into the high swamp grass, and look at my grandmother’s picture on the tombstone. She picked it out decades before her death, and us children grew up knowing we would once see it on her grave. She would be mourned in an open casket, in her own house, having died an unnatural hospital death, away from her animals, away from her husband, and I would not cry. The picture on her tombstone is black and white. She is young. Her hair is combed back, her shoulders clad in a dark high-collar buttoned-up dress. Well I’ll be damned. She looks like a flamenco dancer.

 

It has been twenty years now. I watched it all die in three months. Machinery sold, animals culled, crops and fields rented out. All that life, redistributed so quickly. There is new siding on the house and the stable now, and the old pine trees have been cut down. Neighbors are keeping their corn and hay in our yard, and their dogs and cats come to beg for food when we visit. I write this from thirty thousand feet up in the air, counting icebergs off Newfoundland, counting the minutes until I am in my other home, on the black water, among farmers and firemen, hunters and old souls. It lives. It lives.

 

My sister and I light another candle at the grave of our closest neighbor, barely a few years passed. Dogs bark and donkeys bray to the left and right of the cemetery – in the country, you live and die with your animals. In the evening, we curl up on old couches – beds that my grandparents used to sleep in, that we would sometimes sneak in to cuddle – wrap ourselves up in blankets older than ourselves. I shake off a tick that somehow made it into the house on my shoe. My sister picks it up, drops it into a beer bottle cap on the table, and puts out her cigarette on it.









***
My old "Reconnecting with ancestors" posts can be found here:

Part 1
Part 2




March 20, 2015

Thoughts of a solar eclipse


 
 
I can’t remember the last time I was that close to happiness. Well, happiness might be too big of a word and a little out of reach for another year or so, but still. I choose it. With all my heart. I was sitting on the sofa, our sofa, the sofa bought for my first arrival, sipping my morning dark roast, listening to the silence in the house, our house, the house that greeted me, the luckiest house in the world to nest such a love. I was content. I was at peace.

 

To have a first Christmas together, two and a half years since we began. To scrub a bathroom, make pan-seared tuna, pick out ornaments, listen to the ice cracking all around the outside. To have his hand reach for mine across the center console as his left makes a turn for Staples, “Look at us, running errands like normal people.” To stay up all night, to toast the new year by the water, the smallest yard and the smallest house overlooking all the fireworks from Edgemere to the Inner Harbor.

 

I arrived, and I swear the air was familiar. It had chill and drive. It tasted of me five years ago, of being stupid and alive and high on it. It tasted of being a bad drunk, of being loud and obscene, of leaving regrets for later, what happens there, stays there. It tasted of everything that brought me to this bed right here, to these houndstooth sheets and his baritone sliding over my skin.

 

It’s a lot to ask her not to sting
And give her less than everything

 

Winter will always taste of America.

 

And spring will always taste lonely. Of course, with me, it’s impossible to know which came first: was I always isolated and just learned to live with it, to make my own universe, looking in on the world from the outside, or did I always want to be left alone, and just got tired of it? Spring will always be big decisions and leaps into chaos, the aftermath of the high and carrying the chill inside amidst the blossoming life all around.

 

I lost something very important in these past few years, and it broke my heart. I lost the ability to be happy for others. To partake of their joy, to be moved by their goodness, and just love them for who they are and what they bring into my life. I went through the motions, vaguely remembering what that kind of happiness was, unable to open up to it, scared to say it out loud for fear it should become an eternal state. That is a terrible thing to lose. But it is not eternal. It is going away. And it’s a relief to withdraw my judgment from the world and toss that sour ink to the waves.

 

I just submitted my last translation for publication. I have a hundred and twenty pages of dissertation that I am proud of, and a comps exam under my belt. The blogger in me smiled secretly when the head of the committee said that I could turn an excellent phrase. Basically, I was told that I was a good writer, and I was glad that I made my sailors, ships, whales and oceans speak louder than ivory tower jargony. Shit’s getting done.

 

Two nights ago, I held my bird in my hands until he died. My beautiful feisty boy, such a perfect instance of nature’s engineering, was taken over by his illness. Seven years ago, I was in a bad place of solitude and loneliness, feeling guilty for asking for more, yet knowing that I had to, not yet knowing how deeply it would get me in trouble. I got two birds to keep me company and be loud and fly around. Both have left me now. I held him, and I talked to him until he died. His eyes were closed, and his wings kept fluttering, as if he were dreaming of flying. I cried for all his seven years with me, for his lost companion, for the excess of nurturing that is left over now. An empty cage, a bag of seeds, medication in the fridge and ointment in the medicine cabinet. Not needed anymore.

 

I know what T-61 is in veterinary medicine. And what Code 42 stands for in bridge safety. My loved ones deal with hanging on and letting go, with those who have one but wish for the other. And my God, it’s heart-rending, but isn’t it good to let go? Isn’t it a fucking miracle of the universe that things end, that we get to leave, that we have to take no more?

 

No more.

 

For a few hours today, my world got dimmed, and gauzy, and colder with the eclipse. I was, I am, grateful for the magic. For staying up all night and all the sunrises and morning birds that I got to greet in these past few years. For music. For the pair of black wings working up a storm with the universe on my behalf. For leaving, for arriving, for the chaos in between. My chaos, our chaos, this chaos.

 

I am dancing tomorrow. My troupe is having its spring production. The seguiriya is a dark, severe, difficult beast. I will wear my ruffled skirt, my lace, and my oxblood shoes. My hands will be gentle birds, and the nails on my soles will stamp heavy with love. All of the ‘no more’ will be in my steps, and the lonely will be turned into something beautiful. I will give my sadness to my loved ones, and they will watch, and partake, and be happy for the beauty.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

March 9, 2015

Deepest shade


 
 
I can’t remember the last time music hit me this good.

 

And it hit me like a delayed-response drug. A day later. Amping up to a week later, reverberating, echoing. Calling for more, and hurting like shit when more is played. It took awhile for music to soak through the layers of sensory overload.

 

I was almost a no-show because the locale involved brushing against some old stomping grounds that I was reluctant to revisit. I could feel everything but myself. The respectful bubbling of the crowd, the sticky floor under my boots, the 548 number from the coatroom in my pocket, the flickering projection screen in the back of the stage, the uneasy dance because it ought to have been a sit-down event really. The red Austro-Hungarian cavalry barracks bricks housing a few hours of collective beauty, allowing amplifiers and cigarette smoke to infuse them from within, a fate that was never meant for them.

 

I listened. I took it in. I put it away for later. I was feeling everything but myself.

 

There is something about these fifty-year-olds with whiskey in their voice and Bible in their lyrics. The high-contrast greyscale of the world they paint, of the ghosts they turn into, of the purposefully turned-off spotlight above their heads. Those who do not look like themselves if anything less than an emaciated, hunched-over, haggard version of how they were brought into this world.

 

He was tired. Melancholy. The kind of quiet that comes after too much of something else. I invoked a dead man’s name that triggered degrees of separation in motion. My now life, in two places, if not more. My man, the artist, and the dead man, connected somewhere in the past. My three lifetimes ago, promises sworn and broken and a little girl who was loved and sung that song to. The Pacific Northwest that I will return to someday, just like the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni sculpture garden will see me again, and like I have to see Firth of Forth once more.

 

Just like the music, my own healing was delayed. No amount of my penance could offset the fact that my grief would be denied, until it could separate itself from its consequences. I feel like I have been holding my breath for seven long years. Like I have been feeling everything but myself, owing everything to everyone because that made me feel a worse kind of better. Or perhaps it is like that childhood drawing game where you trace an invisible groove on paper, then lay a crayon sideways and add a coat of color on top of the grooves, and watch the pattern underneath appear. Perhaps there is no way to trace our being other than to cross the lines, over and over. Perhaps there is only music, and the Bible, and greyscale.
 
 
 
 

January 7, 2015

L'hiver est là


 
 
 
You know what winter is?

 

Forget that death and rebirth tinsel.

 

Winter is being able to count all the nests in a tree when the leaves are gone. That which was hidden, protected and private now bare and exposed.

 

Winter is waking up to find a maze of foot trails in the snow. You just had your meter read by BGE and you didn’t even know it. Elliptical, two-beat imprint between the house and the tree: a running squirrel. Tinier steps, rhomboid pattern: the fox from two weeks ago crossing neighboring properties at night. You walk to the pier, only to find someone was already there before you.

 

Your house is surrounded by creatures and ghosts. They live and walk around you, watch and ignore you, your oblivious self none the wiser until the snowy palimpsest presents itself.

 

Winter is acorn husks in the back yard all dug up, hollow and empty. Will you panic as you try to remember your last-resort hiding spots? How long can you live without? Are you going to be enough until spring?

 

People cross the icy water in waders at sunrise. No duck or goose is safe from the shotgun blasts.

 

On the other side of the hunt, you sleep naked among claptrapping screen doors and trash bins tumbleweeding down the street. You wake up in the middle of the night, hearing the wind howl through the thin wall that stands between your goose skin and the blizzard, snowy footsteps and ghosts.

 

You know how to walk this house in the dark. Your naked flesh is a silent glimpse in between the rooms, a twister of energy bouncing off the walls as you traverse its space. With no lights turned on, the reflection in the mirror is your own ghost self, hunkering down, building a love in pockets of stolen happiness, one barefoot snow step at a time.