Childhood Swan Song

At fourteen, in a compulsory annual meeting with my guidance counselor, I felt a frustration that worked its way into my mind and habits.

He fell into a practiced speech, listing the requirements for graduation, noting my successful completion of my classes and giving me my schedule. I nodded to him, I stared out into the circular courtyard beyond his office, and up at the sky. I watched his pupils dilate as he spoke from the light coming in from the window.

I knew I was supposed to feel that enclave-feeling of protection. For once, I was supposed to have an ear in which to pour the accumulating thoughts and insecurities. But I hesitated. I was not certain how this put-together man in his forties would understand that I was dating another fourteen year old girl in my class. What could he tell me about her expectations of me? Would he redden or feel attraction, or hate? I would wonder similar things as I sat through three more of these meetings.

Once, after a student in my class died in a car accident, I sent him a frustrated email and his response was “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know a child has died?” He followed his response with a more polite apology, describing the stress of meetings with the child’s parents and friends.

I knew Mike was dead. He was in my second-grade art class, and his mother made him wear turtlenecks then. That was before he got into motocross and switched out of Honors classes. I cried remembering him how he used to pick his nose.

I always felt raw. I wanted breaks from classes and meetings where my somnambulation was all that was required.

When I got my counselor’s first email, my face flushed. But my body felt relief; I knew something genuine, and I knew I was wrong.

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Dad’s thoughts

He lets them pool around rocks. But like moss or grass, the thoughts grow roots and don’t flow. When I call, he circles back in on himself, in reverberating circles.

“…she complains I don’t call or take care of her. But I’m there every weekend, I put in the air conditioners…”

“…these lawyers are just the worst. Now they’re asking about her green card. It’s like, she has a green card, that’s not even the lawsuit…”

“Yeah, I’m heading down now. Sure, I’m stopping at grandma’s. Boy, she loves you…to put in the air conditioners…”

Tidal, seasonal – the familiar march to heart and back again. He is sorry he is unrecognized. He is sorry he is subject. He is sorry he is superior.

It is through love that sometimes I am sorry I called. Like I stepped on charybdis when I aimed for carpet or for the warm hard wood my father favors, and that covers the floors at home.

Especially when thinks of my mother, when he tells my childhood as a tragedy. For a summer – I lost a summer- to pinning up his ideas, translating partial child-memories into arrows or lines in the missives he told, which I began believing.

When I gave up and quit writing for law I broke the images and ideals he gave me. He did not know I left New York after attempting suicide.

I crave understanding. I imagine giving him the news, how he might brush the hair from my temples to say, “oh…my writer, my thin blanket daughter…” How a pause might come…

Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.

Work all night

In third grade at midnight my Mother and I wrote a book report and assembled a puppet. I sewed the eyes on and pinned on a yellow silk shirt. I got a C for sloppy construction.

For the tenth grade science fair, I built a tower that would withstand a certain amount of weight. It sagged and swayed but held up under pressure, beyond all expectation. I was just relieved that the glue had dried.

At some point, the shoddy construction stopped. But so did the late nights of grinding through.

The expectation was that editors at my college newspaper would stay all night in the office, editing prior to deadline. But in two and a half years, I never once stayed. I was in bed by eleven.

Social anxiety was part of it. To show them all that I struggled might have embarrassed me. I allowed myself to be fallible only at the distance set by a computer monitor.

Now, in law school, I ask myself if I should stay up all night. I realize that somehow I lost the habit of driving work through to completion in one sitting, and I ask where it went. Lost to anxiety, lost to a desire for quality control, it lingers as an option.

I could expend myself. I could challenge the limits of waking hours, push through exhaustion to achieve an empty to-do list. Maybe I will build the stamina to face the danger of shoddy construction.

Whose decision?

But I do have psychological gravity. I converge on a center.

Pre-dream I envisioned myself as a plant branching towards the sun of my soul. I saw myself contort as I grew, the limbs folded in and over, towards light. Towards exposure of essence.

Resting, today I watched the world. Out of deep internal silence, dry mouth, or fear. I watched as the world expected. Telling myself I did not need to perform incessantly, reminding myself that death would deny me that kind of eternity, common to waves and light rays.

I tried to strike the flint at my heart, to generate the energy, the draw. The showman meets expectations. But in my closet mind, I relived my practice of silence, begun in childhood. Extracting the sound from footfalls, the sighs from breath, to be the walls. To be structural and so inviolate.

‘So calculated, so calculating’ – that is the critique that goes with acting internally. But the world inserts itself, impeding known movements. And the soul moves.

I act quietly to avoid preemption – the louder footfalls. I act quietly to act at all.

Emotional Clean-up Crew

Wake to the pain. It is fresh as light, new in the moments its causes remain forgotten.

You reach down to touch the sensation. You guess at its location. You find feet and hands instead – realizing the whole instrument.

When it hits you, it will sound the alarm. Your body will sing into sweat and grief and rage at abandonment.

First, reach deeper to feel the wound. Sit up in bed. What will answer it? Will you need an army? Will you need a new lover? Will art open you?

Go to the places he went with you. Smell the roses out of your memory. Place them on the ground.

Go to his hometown which you will not recognize. His perspective to dissipates to air, to gray city.  He is unknown.

The morning generates a morning and a new day. Tender, the pain is wrapped and held. Tender, it dissipates. Memory loosens. Find yourself in air.

Today

I woke, I ate, I thought, I ran through the park. I stared down the self-assured eyes of statues. I sat on a bench and meditated. I felt the bench through sweat-wick gym clothes, and let life flash through me. The day is still fresh and damp hair from my shower runs down my back. Today is my day off, and energy has been traded for quietness.

I treat myself with slow care, as if I am a child. I alternate tasks to keep my mind engaged. I take naps. I call to myself to disrupt wandering or painful thoughts. I remember the clapping rhythms used by primary school teachers to bring focus, discipline. Early instructions to my mind, they echo up. It hurts.

When I am alone with myself I ruminate. I wrestle past events into a coherent line that then breaks down on analysis. Jags of pain stem from attempts to solve the behavior of others. Faces come up and, tied to them, all of the love and weight of relationships that broke into confusion.

I wash my face. I sit down in a cafe. I focus for an hour or so, and take notes. But no immunity comes and the thoughts keep running, the tide of the past rushes over; it gives weight without grounding.

I know that I am here, in this chair. I know my name, how to spell, and how to shape the letters. I know addresses of childhood homes and the phone numbers of old friends. Through mastery of these practical skills, my mind has gained time to consider the life of my barista, the businessman with his wide stressed eyes, the mother in a sun hat, the seven year old scootering by.

Today, on my day off, I realize my incidental situation, in the backdrop, with partial information.