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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Singularity

I am a blue dot. Or a red dot, depending on the day.

I can be seen moving down a sidewalk that is grey; against a backdrop that is of brick or steel or glass rectangles or squares.

No matter the effort I expend when choosing the blue dress, the red shirt, the brown pants, I am one dot among many dots lining the city streets.

When I came here, I did not feel the horror, the ‘inhumanity’ of being passed by unknown faces, traveling their own conveyor belts. I did not become a stranger by boarding a plane, or by arriving, or by settling where I settled – just off the green line, a few blocks south from the top of the park.

No matter how well we think we are known, we are determined anonymously.  Our choices did not accumulate, instead falling like rain on a surface. We carry out no destiny from pure decision; we did not choose the arrangements of our faces.

When I look into the grey eyes of the doctors, the bankers, the lawyers, I imagine some genetic sculptor planning shoulders that will fill a suit, or a pair of scrubs nicely. At some social manufactory, my sculptor obeys the dimensions of patterns for secretaries and presidents. And he takes naps he cherishes his own singularity.

Join me in hell

Houses here are gated and low to the ground. The gate draws together your portion of sand so it’s finite. A dot, a pearl of property held in the palm of the mountains that loom beyond the dirt city.

I’m outside my friend’s gate with a quiche staring at two layers of wrought iron. Through the grate I see sandstone walls and my tired friend leaving the house in T-shirt to meet me for coffee despite the fact that I’m early. She lets me in and I follow her to the kitchen, where we chat and she pours two mugs of coffee. We set the quiche in the oven and she shows me the mechanics of her house – the doors that stick when you close them, the locations of light switches. She explains that her cats will run out in the yard even though they aren’t supposed to.

I’m cat-sitting. It’s a position of privilege. For a whole week I will extend my domain to the couch in my friend’s living room, to the lounge chairs on her back porch.

When the quiche is ready we move to a table in the front yard and talk. We look at each other despite the sun and we share the most recent events, from dull changes in routine to insecurities. She is peaceful, I am not. She wonders why she overcommits herself, I tell her I’m scared of my next steps and I don’t know if I’ll be a good lawyer.

Before I leave I tell her what I’ll get her for a Christmas present and she gives me a book she told me about reading a month ago “in like three hours – it’s so good.”

In my car I start my car and as I drive home I think about how I have just let someone in. I have just let someone expect a Christmas present. Somehow she smiled about it.

When the feeling began, I was young. I sensed that I would die. I saw the rot in the world and I felt myself in it. Reconsidering my attachments, I grew internal. My thoughts became longer chains. And under the chains, the assumption remained: I am contagious, I am designed to die. As potential relationships emerged before me I dismissed them with the thought of their brevity, not even moments in my minute of life.

Illness – I think it was illness that prevented me from seeing the joy that could erupt in a joke told to the right person. While depressed, I didn’t see reactions. My emotion was consuming fog: effective isolation.

The novelty of death wears off. Growing older, it becomes commonplace, even in the drugged and developed world. I see a dead bird on the highway. I see dust grind fences down.

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…

Searching

My surface is flat and smooth as a table today. Inside, I’m thumbing through the archives.

As if I work some clerical job, I do this repeatedly.  And the records are spilled on the floor of my mind…

Last Sunday I saw a boy I knew at a café but, flattened by an earlier rejection (academic),  I did not waive and when he left I felt I lost another, more dynamic potential. If I spread my body out onto another flat surface, open to the life and response of another…

I am an ocean floor –  all things live and flatten me. I feel and see them fall in from the surface.

I think too of holding babies because of how they rest against you, as if you are some more-organic lean-to, a tree and a sheet.

I want to find purpose in giving heat, as if it is always warmth. I haven’t seen smiles so radiant that they cross this line, except on the faces of students of religion. Faith confronting mystery can smile, while I am so impassive.

Training hard for compassion maybe I can find warmth; warmth that deepens to purpose…

Zenith

“I married a woman who would not make me tired.”

“I married a woman who would not want to talk about politics at night.”

“Your mother, she could never be a political wife.”

 

-Themes in my father’s confessionals in the car.

 

We drove from my hometown, where he lived his final days of married life, to silence and Maine, to close-knit pine boughs and silent snow.

The journey is scenic, or it is highway – alternately. In fall, my hometown erupts in yellows and hysterical orange. The many ponds freeze slightly over. Jags of white and blue mirror amplify the reds, the browns of multifoliate forest.

From the school bus, we would see mist rise as the ice began to melt, and it would obscure familiar houses, leaving the colonial scenes incomplete and subject to rifts in memory.

Recitals of shortcomings persuade over time.

My mother silent after my political rants about President Bush. My mother’s deferral to other opinions. My mother and the other mothers in the pick-up line, and apart from their manicured mass. My mother picking me up at tennis lessons, her flyaway hair, her Boston accent, her wild laugh.

In childhood when the walls of self are down and disengaged, what you cannot do becomes what I cannot do.

I wanted to swing car keys like my mother. To wipe off lipstick in the rearview mirror. But I wanted to affect a power I saw in other people, to initiate the silence my father did. To tame my hair and clothes and schedule into country club order.

Associating with you, I build the weaknesses I can handle, the weaknesses that do not erode love or respect, the desire to be near and the desire to be known.

I did not sense my own limitations. I would play and assume my wants would settle into my reality as I became adult-looking. But one day, after caking my shoes with mud, I slipped and held the wood of our swing-set structure, getting wood splinters in my tiny palms.

My father held my hands outstretched and he paused before lowering the tweezers to my skin. “No calluses,” he said. “You will always be a lady.”

And then I began to perceive the work of self-creation.

There were so many ladies. I decided the best type were the ones that made cookies for you before you got home, like my friend Elizabeth’s mom.

But as I grew I found myself at odds with the packaging. When I would fold my floral clothes, I felt the absence of some essential element. I realized that hours of my day might be vacant if I stayed at home to bake. I realized men were difficult and loud, that mothers were political and unkind.

Instead of inspired, I felt capped by the problematic zenith of who I might be as a lady. As a wife – if I were a wife – I would be a political wife. As a mother – if I were a mother – I would be tender. I would wipe off lipstick in my rearview mirror. But what would I do with the reach of my mind in all those exposed hours?

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.